Passion Wins Out
Studying what they love is the path to career success for Arts and Science alumni.
Passion has launched thousands of books, paintings, movies and songs. But a number of College of Arts and Science alumni are proof that passion ignites successful careers as well.
“Passion brings laser focus to things,” says Cindy Funk, director of Vanderbilt’s Career Center. “When you’re at a university like Vanderbilt with a strong College of Arts and Science, it provides the opportunity to explore things you’re passionate about. Those things can very well lead nicely to a career, though most people don’t think of it that way.”
Some people know from day one what they love and how that will parlay into a career. Others find the way by realizing an interest in a topic and thirsting to learn more. Regardless of how they arrived, though, the path to career fulfillment comes by following their passions.
Interests Point The Way
For Vanderbilt Associate Professor Vanessa Beasley, BA’88, the pursuit of what she loved eventually forced her into the right profession, a career she only found through coursework. “I really wanted to be somewhere where there was an excellent liberal arts education. That’s what I was encouraged to do by my mentors in high school. I wanted to read the classics and be exposed to many different ways of thinking,” she says of her choice to enroll in the College of Arts and Science.
So she read the classics and also took an introductory course in communication studies. Influenced by the times—Ronald Reagan was president and there was much discussion about his use of visual imagery to accentuate his speeches—Beasley combined her interest in politics and communication with the school’s interdisciplinary studies major in communication studies. As she neared graduation, she realized she didn’t want to put her passions aside for a job. “I could not imagine getting to that point and never thinking about those things again,” Beasley says. She pursued a master’s degree and then a doctorate, though her career path was not clear.
“When I was writing my dissertation, I wasn’t completely sure I would go into academia. I wrote a sentence and thought, ‘Nobody else knows this,’” she says. “That was when I realized, ‘I do have to be a professor.’”
After teaching in other universities and publishing two books on presidential rhetoric, Beasley returned to her alma mater in 2007 as an associate professor in communication studies. The teacher-scholar reminds students of the serendipity of success that came by studying what she loved. “That’s part of my goal, to encourage them to take this opportunity that they may not have again in their lives, to just think about something for the sake of thinking of it,” she says.
Intense Focus, Broad Background
Unlike Beasley, Buster Olney, BA’88, came to Vanderbilt knowing exactly what he wanted to be: a sports writer. Rather than attending a journalism school, he selected the College of Arts and Science. “I thought the broader education was more valuable. What you might have gotten at J-school, you’ll learn through experience anyway,” he says.
Olney majored in history because of its intense focus on writing as part of the coursework and because he had always loved the topic. What he found after graduation, though, was that his knowledge of history enhanced his sports-writing career. He wrote for a variety of newspapers before joining The New York Times, where he was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize award for writing. He moved to ESPN: The Magazine as senior writer in 2003 and is also an analyst for ESPN’s Baseball Tonight.
“Just think about not being limited to knowledge about sports,” Olney says of his liberal arts education. He says that his understanding of U.S./Cuban relations and the law around defection was invaluable when the Yankees signed Orlando Hernandez—a Cuban defector—in 1998. “The classes I took helped me more broadly than it would have been if I’d been completely focused on sports writing,” he says.
Literature to Politics to Finance
Jennifer Scully-Lerner, BA’92, majored in English in the College of Arts and Science because literature interested her and would provide a good foundation for politics and law school. “I didn’t know if I was going to practice law, but I knew that I was going to go to law school and somehow intertwine that with my passion for politics,” says Scully-Lerner, today a vice president in private wealth management at Goldman Sachs, the global investment banking and securities firm. Law school never happened. Upon graduating from the College of Arts and Science, she worked on the 1992 presidential campaign and then took a job in the Clinton-Gore administration. “One of the first things I did was work with the White House Office of Business Liaison. That was the first touch point with the business world,” she says. That draw to business expanded when she was mentored by people with finance backgrounds, including Robert Rubin, secretary of the Treasury 1995–1999, and Jim Harmon, former president of the Export-Import Bank.
“These mentors really encouraged me to pursue a career in business. They basically said ‘you don’t need to have a business background,’” Scully-Lerner says. “They thought a business degree was more flexible for me than a law degree.”
“I truly had never taken econ or statistics or accounting, nothing, but I was well-read, and I knew how to write, so those skills worked to impress people,” she says. “So I took the GMATs and started business school cold. I didn’t know the vocabulary, I did not know the difference between a stock and a bond, I knew nothing about any of it.” After receiving her MBA from Columbia Business School, she joined Goldman Sachs, where she runs a team that manages over a billion and a half dollars in assets for families and foundations. She also reports to the firm’s management team in her role as co-head of Goldman Sachs’ Women’s Network, which deals with issues and programs for women at the firm.
“It was my undergraduate degree that opened up all these doors for me, and then mentors that said ‘work at this, pursue this,’” Scully-Lerner says. “I always am communicating and writing for people, and doing reports. In my case, knowing how to communicate and express myself was the key to it all.”
Liberal Arts Prepared for Business
Stuart Sikes, BA’86, says he spent nearly 20 years of his career attempting to satisfy a longing to be more creative. After graduating with a degree in economics, Sikes worked with technology companies in designing technical service, software and hardware solutions. Today Sikes heads up the Dallas-based market research firm Parks Associates. “The primary way that I like to create is through writing. By accident, I’ve landed in a position that requires me to write,” the company president says.
In college, love of writing was enhanced by courses in English and history that came naturally, while math and science were a struggle. If he had it to do over again, Sikes says he might pursue a degree in philosophy, believing that also would have prepared him well for a business career.
“The skills learned at Vanderbilt that served me best are critical thinking and communicating,” Sikes says. “I will advise my children to find something they’re passionate about and pursue that with great fervor.”
Creativity and Risk-taking Win Every Time
Marcia Kemp Sterling’s bachelor’s degree in French was the epitome of pursuing what one loves, as she did not intend to parlay it into any form of career. She intended to make her profession that of a wife and mother. When life did not work out as expected, Sterling, BA’65, earned a law degree at Stanford University. Her undergraduate study of a topic she loved, she believes, helped open the doors to a top law school and offered her valuable insight when she became a partner in Silicon Valley’s largest law firm.
“There are many law students that we hired at the firm with good grades from good schools, who, for the first two years as associates, did great jobs and were tremendously dutiful,” she says. “By the time they started to get towards partnership, though, many didn’t have the qualities of creativity or willingness to take risks or the strength to succeed.”
“I will advise my children to find something they’re passionate about and pursue that with great fervor.”
–Stuart Sikes, BA’86
Dan Lovinger, BA’87, certainly took risks, beginning with abandoning his planned major of English for economics. It was during a semester abroad program in London that the pieces of the puzzle began to fit together. “It exposed me to the world of international business,” he says. “To me, there was something there I knew I wanted to pursue.”
He later returned to England to attend the London School of Economics and realized that one of the United States’ biggest exports was entertainment. Lovinger thought he might become an analyst specializing in entertainment, but found a job at Turner Networks in sales. That was the right fit. As the cable industry grew, so did Lovinger’s responsibilities and achievements. He currently is senior vice president of advertising sales for MTV Networks, one of the largest divisions of the multimedia conglomerate.
“When I’m in a situation that seems new, whether it’s through my liberal arts education, or my diverse business background, I feel like I’ve seen it before,” Lovinger says. “When people ask for career advice—and academic advice translates—I say, ‘You may not know specifically why you’re going from point A to point B, why you’re taking psychology with economics and speech and debate. When you start connecting the dots, you form a cool picture. If you try and take it too literally, you’ll miss a lot of opportunity.’”
Finding a Niche Within Diversity
Like Lovinger, Mary Costa, BA’05, found her niche within the diversity of the College of Arts and Science. She thought she’d be premed, but it was a poor fit and her grades reflected it. She declared a major in economics, but enjoyed theater history classes. A summer internship at a boutique arts and culture advertising firm helped her develop an interdisciplinary studies major, combining economics and theater history in preparation for a career in arts administration.
“After developing my interdisciplinary major, I continued to become more involved in what I loved both in and out of the classroom. I saw the practical side of being able to use professionally what I was learning, and my GPA continued to climb,” Costa says. “I also had the wonderful opportunity of holding leadership roles within Vanderbilt’s Great Performances series, which allowed me to immediately apply my studies for tangible results.”
Finding an area of study that she loved—creating her own path by combining the two—led quickly to a climb up the career ladder. She is currently assistant director of marketing at New York’s prestigious Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
“What’s made me successful is I love what I do,” Costa says. “I don’t come to work looking for the next vacation or the next day off. Find something that you love. It will make your life better.”
photo credit: Daniel Dubois, John Russell; John Atashain/ESPN
illustration credit: istockphot.com/choreograph