If you walk into a forum and the first thing you hear is “Let It Go” by Idina Menzel blasting through the speakers, you’re most likely in one of Dr. Zachary Pilot’s psychology lectures. His theater background becomes apparent as he mouths the lyrics and moves to the rhythm of the Frozen anthem while students pile in by the dozen. His lectures are informative, personal, intriguing and packed with memes and Parks and Rec references. “My goal is to relate the material to the students in some way,” Pilot explains.
An assistant professor of psychology, Pilot grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania, about an hour outside of Pittsburgh. He completed his undergraduate work at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and a graduate degree from Southern Illinois University. After heading south to Tampa, Florida, for a visiting position at a private university, he made the decision to move back to the Midwest to become a Screaming Eagle.
USI has provided Pilot the opportunity to teach material he is passionate about, help first-generation college students (like him) on a personal and professional level and collaborate with colleagues on research and other projects. “It’s just a lovely atmosphere, whether it be working with students or faculty, in and out of my department,” he says.
Let’s get to know more about the spirited Zachary Pilot.
What drew you to USI?
I heard about USI through a friend, so that’s how it popped into my awareness. I looked at the school, and I looked at the students that the school primarily serves. The students are very similar to myself, I think. There are a lot of first-generation college students here, and that was not something that was the case in my visiting position in Tampa.
I knew I wanted the opportunity to specifically help this student population because I’ve lived some of that stuff. Aside from that, the courses that I could teach were of interest to me. At USI, I can teach a wider variety of classes, and not just at a topic level.
Why did you decide psychology was the professional path you wanted to take?
In general, I was interested in how people think. I was always interested in thinking and how people are different and why people are different. So, to some extent, that, but also, my younger brother was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Understanding why he was different and the ways in which he was different—and not just on a day to-day basis within the family, but thinking about the things that he would have to encounter in life, whether it be at school or in general—were of interest to me.
I have a younger sister and a younger brother. Part of the concern is wondering if someone is picking on your younger siblings. All of that is related to psych—the way people behave in groups, the way people are perceived, the ways in which my brother is different; the institutional barriers he would have to overcome.
What area of psychology do you enjoy teaching the most?
They’re all fun in different ways. I like teaching Intro [to Psychology] because the room is full of so many different people, and I get to cover so many different topics. It’s fun to try and find what’s interesting to each person.
I like those big classes. I can be more dynamic. It’s not quite as intense as some of the other classes. I get to relate it more to general experience because I’m doing a broad survey of all the areas of psych. I love that dense stuff, but from a teaching perspective, it’s just not as exciting. It’s nice to be bouncy and loud, and intro classes allow me to be that way.
Any interesting hobbies or tidbits about yourself?
The interesting thing is my love for theater. I sing a bunch. I did martial arts for 20 years, so I’m pretty good at fighting, which isn’t something people expect. I really like nature, too. I grew up in the woods. Evansville, other than Tampa, is the biggest city I’ve ever lived in.
What’s your favorite theatrical show?
Oh my, my favorite one that I’ve been a part of was probably Rent. One of my favorites that I’ve seen was Next to Normal. It’s related to psych—that might be part of why I like it so much.
If you could only listen to one song the rest of your life, what would it be?
“Dustland Fairytale” by The Killers. I like that song for whatever reason. I’m also really into 90s rap. I’m not sure why, but I really love it. Wu Tang Clan got me through writing a dissertation.
What advice would you give to your college self?
I’m pretty happy with what I did. For other students, I would say to be involved. College isn’t just academics; it’s a community. It shouldn’t just be work, it should be part of exploration. You should be figuring out who you are, what you like and people similar to you. College should be a place where you can work and can also have fun. That’s where I figured out I liked theater. I was in a show every year in college basically. I was in a choir for the first time.
I guess my main advice would be to do different things. I feel like I did that, but I feel like a lot of people don’t. I was super pleased with my college experience.
This Getting to Know You feature was written by Kaylee Johnson, a student worker in University Communications. Johnson took Pilot’s PSY 201 – Introduction to Psychology course in fall 2018.