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New Yorker meets best friend, finds home away from home at Purdue

Kennedy Outlaw (left) and Diane Santos (right) enjoy spending time together, inside and outside the classroom. (Photo by Rebecca McElhoe/Purdue University).

Kennedy Outlaw bonded with intellectual match, fellow woman-in-STEM Diane Santos

Kennedy Outlaw knew what she wanted out of a college experience – the opportunity to do undergraduate research, the chance to find true community among her peers, and a value-packed experience that wouldn’t break the bank. But she didn’t know how soon she would build a friendship that made college feel like home.

“I’m from New York, and I wanted to be far from home and experience something new,” Outlaw says. “I wanted to go to a bigger school where I could be a sports fan while getting an excellent education.”

When Outlaw found out she got accepted to Purdue, she made the 12-hour drive from just outside of New York to Indiana for a campus visit. “It felt like the right fit right away,” she says. “Purdue started to feel like home as soon as I stepped on campus.”

But what solidified Purdue as Outlaw’s home away from home was meeting her new best friend, Diane Santos.

Emerging scholars and emerging friendship

About a month before classes started, Outlaw and her parents drove out to West Lafayette once again. Outlaw had been selected as a member of Emerging Leaders Scholars, a prestigious program offered by the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging to the highest caliber of incoming freshmen. The program offers incoming freshmen the opportunity to come to campus early to take courses, get acclimated and build connections within their cohort.

Outlaw didn’t know anyone when she moved to campus. And then she met Santos.

“When I first met Kennedy, she struck me as confident and intelligent,” Santos says. “When you’re looking for friends, especially in college, you want to find people who motivate you and inspire you to become the best person you can be. I knew Kennedy and I could grow together.”

Santos also was a member of Outlaw’s 80-person cohort of Emerging Leader Scholars, and they started getting to know each other on the first day of the program. The pair has been inseparable ever since.

Outside of the lab, Outlaw and Santos both enjoy attending sporting events and feeling part of the larger Purdue community.

“We started hanging out and studying together right away. While we worked, Kennedy would point out interesting facts from our readings that launched us into super-engaging conversations,” Santos says. “We would go out to lunch together, and I noticed that I never had to try with her. Sometimes when you meet people, you find yourself thinking really hard about what to talk about. But with Kennedy, everything flowed. We were always joking around while also supporting each other. I knew very quickly that we would become great friends.”

Outlaw echoes Santos’ sentiments. “We always say, ‘Imagine if we didn’t come to Purdue. Imagine if we weren’t selected for this program.’ We wouldn’t even know each other,” Outlaw says. “Diane is the best.”

Outlaw, Santos and their friends enjoy attending Purdue football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball games. “When Purdue wins, it’s really exciting,” Outlaw says. “The fan section is crazy. Everyone’s screaming and cheering. You feel like you’re part of such a big community.”

Building community at Purdue

Finding that community was key for Outlaw. As a woman in STEM planning to study physics and chemistry, Outlaw knew that building a community of like-minded peers would be essential to finding success and enjoying her college experience.

“I’ve had a lot of positive experiences because I’m friends with a lot of other women in STEM,” Outlaw says. “It’s really empowering to be a part of that minority, to be around so many people who are supportive and intelligent. We help push each other toward our goals. My friends and I have all faced the same sort of challenges. It’s comforting to have their support.”

Santos, who is studying biochemistry and music theory and history on a pre-medicine track, frequently offers support to Outlaw, and vice versa. Their shared love of science also has brought them closer together.

“I haven’t always had friends who enjoyed school and cared about science,” Santos says. “Having Kennedy in my life is really different. We connect on a whole new level. We talk about complex, abstract concepts, and it’s really fun to be close with someone who is on the same intellectual level as you. And, of course, we also have a ton of fun together.”

Outlaw discovered early: “Classes at Purdue are not easy.”

But by attending office hours and seeking out tutoring and peer support, Outlaw did so well in her early physics classes that she decided to add physics as a second major.

To incoming freshmen, Outlaw says, “Get involved in your classes and make friends. You’ll need help, and you and your friends can support each other.”

Whether tackling a problem set together or decompressing at the end of the day during a movie night, Outlaw enjoys her friends endlessly. “Having a great group of friends makes Purdue feel like home,” she says.

Having a great group of friends makes Purdue feel like home.

Kennedy Outlaw Chemistry and physics, class of 2024

What Purdue offers

In addition to her classes, Outlaw does research with Angeline Lyon, an associate professor of biochemistry, at Lyon Lab. The team of researchers is currently focused on enzymes and proteins that are essential to cardiovascular functioning. Their discoveries may lead to treatments that reduce the prevalence of cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the United States.

Outlaw did research at Lyon Lab during summer 2021 and felt energized by working in the lab environment. “I’ve been all over the map, really,” she says of the kinds of projects on which she has assisted her team.

Although she came to Purdue on a pre-med track, Outlaw enjoyed her research experience so much that she now plans to pursue her doctoral degree. At first, she thought a PhD was only valuable for students aiming for careers as professors. But her classes and research experience exposed her to roles in the industry that require substantial research experience.

“I’m looking forward to applying to grad school after my four years at Purdue,” Outlaw says. “I’m hoping for an MD-PhD track, but I would also consider a PhD.”

Kennedy Outlaw poses in a lab at Purdue University.
Kennedy Outlaw, a sophomore studying physics and chemistry, poses in a lab at Purdue University.

Location, location, location

As a New Yorker, Outlaw wondered how she would adjust to life in a college town. She wanted to explore something different from the hustle and bustle of New York, and she has come to love West Lafayette.

“The pace of Purdue’s environment is perfect for college students,” she says. “You work hard on campus, and then you have fun in town and near campus. You can also spend time off campus, and it’s very chill. There are hayrides and corn mazes during the fall. It’s very relaxing.”

Outlaw’s mother, Michelle Outlaw, attended college in New York. “She always talked about being down the road from Syracuse University and enjoying the experience of rooting for their teams,” Kennedy Outlaw says. “She would always say, ‘I want you to find your Syracuse.’ My mom was very influential in my college decision, and she’s very influential in my life. I aspire to be a strong, successful woman like my mom.”

Outlaw’s mother is proud, “disgustingly proud,” the daughter says, that she has found her home away from home.

“Purdue is a really great place,” Kennedy says. “You just need to lean into the experience and make it your own.”