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President Bruce Shepard of Western Washington University

President Bruce Shepard
Western Washington University

Question: As an undergrad, how did you decide to go into Political Science? Did you partake of any internships, have any inspiring mentors or gain personal experiences that helped you decide this field of study? Why were these important?

Answer: As a boy, a family friend who I greatly admired advised me to choose a career where I could be of service to others. I always loved math and science and my original goal was to become a physician. Once I arrived at college, like many students, my eyes were opened to other possibilities. It was the 1960s, politics was in the air, and I was drawn to Political Science. I have had many wonderful mentors and as both a professor and university leader have always tried to serve others. When it comes to internships, I worked throughout my college years out of necessity and valued the experiences. For the 23 years I earned an honest living as a professor, I always very strongly encouraged all my advisees to have an internship. Many reasons but one of the clearest: meaningful learning is greatly advanced through the application of what we know (or think we know).

Question: If you were a recruiter, what would you want Western students to impress you with? (Skills, values, ethics, and work habits that they have cultivated throughout their college career).

Answer: Leaders of major corporations and public service organizations have told me they want graduates who can learn and adapt their thinking to novel and changing conditions. The liberal arts education we offer at Western prepares our students for a wide array of occupations, including careers that have not even been invented, because they have the learning skills to be nimble and adaptive to incredible changes in society and in the business world.

Just recently, a leading and respected consultant for major global companies told me that the leaders of these multi-nationals are looking for one trait in particular. I was surprised by what he mentioned. It was empathy. Not sympathy, but empathy: the ability to put yourself in another's shoes and see the world (or a particular challenge) from the other's perspective. This, the CEO's said, was a critical skill for working effectively with colleagues, in teams, and around the world. Think about what experiences at Western will help cultivate an open mind and empathy: broad liberal arts education, service learning, and engagement in activities outside the classroom, classes that have nothing to do with your chosen major, international and cross-cultural experiences…

Question: Your mission for Western is to provide students with a well-rounded, liberal arts education. In your opinion, how can students best prepare themselves for the transition from college into their profession in the business world?

Answer: Actively search for classes and professors who will most challenge your assumptions and your intellectual abilities. The graduates who best will be able to make that transition will be flexible in their responses to all sorts of different and at times contradictory circumstances. We teach our students to look at problems from a variety of perspectives, and to develop critical and creative thinking skills. In order to respond to a changing world you have to have the skills to challenge yourself, to continually adapt and prosper, to flourish.

Understand that it is not really higher education until put to higher purposes, so be clear on the ethical and moral commitments that motivate you across a lifetime.

And, learn from and be pushed by other students. One of Western's great strengths is that we attract outstanding students. There is a synergistic effect: an academically strong and committed student body propels greater accomplishment by the students because of peer expectations but, importantly, because we learn much from other students.

Question: What advice would you give undergrad students who are still unsure of their major?

Answer: Find then follow your passion, whatever makes you most excited just to get out of bed every morning. If you love your work, it ceases to be work at all.

The first step is "find." I recall talking to an incoming first-year student. I asked the usual "what's your major going to be?" question. Her answer (with her parents standing next to her) was, hesitantly: "Well, business but I am a bit undecided?" I replied, "Undecided is GREAT; there is so much to offer at a university that folks have never seriously experienced. Use your initial years to discover your intellectual passions." She then replied, with authority, "Well, then, I AM undecided!"

Interview By Jenna Hall

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Page Updated 05.14.2013