Your child is off to college, thinking of career paths. You want a major that will lead to a fulfilling, financially stable job, but there’s so much else to explore. Can a future chemist gain insight from a class called “20th Century American History”? Will a film major make use of the lessons found in “Environment and Health”? We asked successful Washingtonians what college experiences helped in their eventual careers. Many pointed to classes and activities far from their fields of study that continue to pay off in unexpected ways.
Patrick O’Connell, 71, Michelin-starred chef/proprietor at The Inn at Little Washington
Attended: Catholic University of America and George Washington University
I’ve written three cookbooks, and I’m working on a memoir due out next year. Cooking and writing have a parallel process of creativity — you visualize something that’s not there and actualize it. I’d say communication classes are essential. Writing particularly allows you to define and lay out your thoughts in an orderly way.
After I left Catholic, my creative-writing teacher at GW invited me to lunch and asked, “What are you doing here?” I said: “My other classes are boring. Yours is stimulating.” He told me: “You have talent. Thoreau and the others are telling you to go explore the world.” He was cutting the strings. I bought a ticket on the SS France and went to Europe for a year. It crystallized my vision of what being a chef could be.
Jo Ann Jenkins, 59,chief executive, AARP
Attended: Spring Hill College
Studied: Political science
Although I majored in political science, and an internship in that field is what initially brought me to D.C., the American history classes I took in college made a real impression on me, and I still draw on them. History reminds us that no matter how bad, or good, or challenging you think something may be, chances are it — or something like it — has played out in the past. Understanding where we’ve been is critical to thinking about where we want to go and how we get there.
Ted Leonsis, 60, founder/chief executive, Monumental Sports & Entertainment and owner of the Capitals, Wizards and Mystics
Attended: Georgetown University
Studied: American studies
“The Problem of God” is probably the most famous class at Georgetown, the class that made you think the most. Its greatest importance was teaching empathy. We’re all seeking a higher calling; we’re all seeking something bigger than us. We come at it in different ways, but our seeking is a basic human trait. This wasn’t a religion class; it wove in history and all the wars fought over time over religion. If you talk to students who’ve taken the class, it’s the one they remember the most during their academic careers — a class that got you critically thinking, empathizing, and relating well to people of all different religions and viewpoints.
Lt. Gen. Nadja West, 56, U.S. Army surgeon general
Attended: U.S. Military Academy at West Point
At 17, I knew West Point was a military academy — I knew I was joining the Army — but I never thought I’d be a leader. PL100, “General Psychology for Leaders,” was required for everyone. It was really more the psychology of yourself and understanding human nature. The behavioral science realm was not one you’d typically think of for engineering, but it was quite useful. Because even if you were an engineer, you might be in the position to lead teams, lead organizations — and, as a physician, lead patients.
You can’t order patients around, right? You can try, but it doesn’t really help. You have to find different principles, techniques to get people to do something that’s necessary but that they may not want to do. An important attribute of a leader is empathy. It’s easy for me as a nonsmoker to tell people: “Smoking is bad for you. Don’t smoke.” How can I reach them without seeming to chastise them? Instead, acknowledge the person: “Hey, I realize this is going to be tough.” Try not to put them on a guilt trip, either. Say, “How can we work together?” Try to become an ally with the person. That course was very useful in every single thing that I’ve had to do.
David Skorton, 67, Smithsonian Institution secretary
Attended: Northwestern University (undergrad and medical school)
Playing sax in my roommate’s rhythm-and-blues band got me out beyond campus to see the city of Chicago. No one called me to go on a world tour, but over two years I learned what it was like to get up in front of people and to work with people who were way better at something than I was. That has helped me to this day, working at a very creative institution.
When you’re playing any kind of instrumental music where there’s improvisation, you learn about this unusual kind of teamwork — harmonic progression — where the person playing the solo is expressing a creative instinct that’s quite individual but yet has to blend in with the rest of the band. That was a real big life experience, because I work with these complicated, decentralized organizations where you want to reward people for having their own ideas and going in their own direction, but it has to be in the context of an overall agreement on which way the ship is headed.
Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), 48, chair, House Republican Conference
Attended: Pensacola Christian College
During college, I enjoyed playing piano in the pit for community musicals. It was amazing watching everything come together from raw rehearsal — nobody knows what they’re doing — to a beautiful, coordinated production. I was always impressed with the talent they bring, very diverse individuals who would never cross paths otherwise coming together around a common purpose and also to give something back to the community.
And I think of the legislative process. At times it’s a little rough, but respecting different backgrounds, different perspectives — if you listen to one another, learn from one another, in the end you come up with a product that really will have a positive impact.
Marin Alsop, 60, musical director, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Attended: Yale University and the Juilliard School
Studied: Violin performance
Every piece of music tells a story, and every story has a psychological component to it. It plays into the narrative behind music. And the beauty of music — even more so than literature — is that its message is different for each person listening.
I had the most wonderful 20th-century literature class my first year at Yale. Passionately analyzing and discussing the Jungian aspects of story all those years ago continues to deeply influence my interpretation of many musical works. “How is this going to be relevant?” (This is the sort of question my son always asks me.) Well, in having some sense of the world beyond us, historical context, universal narrative — the sharing of stories.
Tracy K. Smith, 45, poet laureate of the United States
Attended: Harvard University
Studied: English/American literature and Afro-American studies
One of the core requirements was a philosophy course, so senior year I took “Moral Perfectionism” with Stanley Cavell. The premise was that the self is able to evolve because it finds itself lost — and it accepts that and looks for ways to move forward. He matched Emersonian readings with Hollywood films from the 1940s. I didn’t realize the themes would hit home so directly at age 21 — feeling lost and overwhelmed, thinking about leaving school and going out into the world.
So much of college admissions is demonstrating your ability and mastery of something. But — it’s also important to be willing to do something that involves struggle. Reading Kant was a real reach. Take the risks that mean at some point you’ll probably fail. Nobody in college wants to do that, but this is important. . . . One of the things we did in that class was learn to “read” a film, and I remember thinking, “Oh, there’s a visual language that I’m going to sort of be a baby in for a while and then come up to speed on.” Now I’m able to say to students, “Do something that you’re going to get wrong, and we can find a way of pushing forward from there.”
Horacio Rozanski, 49,chief executive and president, Booz Allen Hamilton
Attended: University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire
Studied: Business administration
When I was thinking of a minor in math, a class in probability theory sounded interesting. It really sparked a lifelong love of statistics. Dr. Gwen Applebaugh had an unconventional way of teaching. For example, we were working on multidimensional probability distributions, and this being Wisconsin, she brought in a huge chunk of cheddar cheese and would carve out the shape of the distribution, and then we would get to eat the cheese. It was memorable, interesting, tasty and factful.
That class let me take a broader range of statistics courses, which helped differentiate me as a student when I applied to grad school. They made me attractive to Booz Allen when I joined. And they were influential in my career in two ways: One, Booz Allen tries to solve problems for clients using different disciplines; for instance, I spent some time using queuing theory to address pricing problems, especially in pricing digital products. Two, people have a hard time measuring probabilities — otherwise they’d never play the lottery — and behavioral economics helps me think of probabilities in a more structured way, which is useful when making complex business decisions. So many good things in my career trace back to that class.