Charting new intellectual, personal pathways at Stanford
The first cohort of fellows in Stanford's Distinguished Careers Institute described the program as invigorating, exciting and enriching, and "a real gift."
Since arriving at Stanford in January, Raj Bhargava, a fellow in the Distinguished Careers Institute (DCI), has roamed campus far and wide as he considered the next great thing he will do in a life already full of accomplishments.
He has studied sustainability at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, preventive health care at the School of Medicine and social ventures at the Graduate School of Business (GSB).
In a course at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, Design Thinking for Public Policy Innovators, he applied principles of design thinking to address the problems faced by young adults who “age out” of a California health care program for children with catastrophic or chronic illnesses.
He has worked late into the night in the Product Realization Lab to create a specialty kitchen tool – a stainless steel insert for frying pans – designed to cook vegetable pancakes.
In an acting class, performing a scene from Proof, a 2000 drama written by American playwright David Auburn, he played a mathematical genius in his 50s who had long suffered from mental illness.
Bhargava, who bikes around campus, has also taken fitness classes, including Aquatic Fitness, Yoga for Runners and Caribbean Dance Beat.
He is one of two dozen highly accomplished individuals who are finishing up a year at Stanford reflecting on their lives and exploring new intellectual avenues.
The institute brings established leaders in midlife to spend a year at Stanford to engage in personal renewal coupled with community building, networking and a recalibration of health and wellness, to enhance personal transformation and success in their life journey.
The inaugural cohort of 24 fellows – 10 women and 14 men – began the program in January. Seven partners of the fellows also are participating in the program. They’re all “seniors” now. Fall quarter will be their last one in the program.
DCI Fellows join the Stanford community
Over the past nine months, they have been auditing classes, engaging in dialogues with faculty members on a wide range of topics and taking part in daylong colloquia. While some of the fellows are Stanford alumni, most of them had earned degrees elsewhere.
“It has been wonderfully enriching to spend a year surrounded by people eager to learn, discover and experiment,” said Marcello Palazzi, founder of the Progressio Foundation, who moved to Palo Alto from the Netherlands to take part in the program.
Others described it as invigorating, exciting and enriching. Some fellows said they found inspiration in the entrepreneurial spirit of the undergraduate and graduate students they met, as well as their commitment to causes, ideas and their careers.
“Giving oneself permission to look outside the well-worn path that defines our professional experiences, or our prior work experiences, is a real gift,” said Shawn Hardin, a DCI Fellow who is investigating fascinating new areas of science.
Dr. Philip A. Pizzo, founding director of DCI, said he was “deeply pleased” with the program and impressed by the impact it has had on lives of fellows and participating partners.
DCI is an example of how universities can transform higher education by embracing midlife education with the goal of fostering intergenerational learning and teaching, he said.
“I hope that DCI will catalyze universities in the United States and around the world to develop programs that combine renewed purpose, community and wellness as a way of positively impacting the life journey in a way that limits the need for the medical and social services that often accompany aging,” said Pizzo, who returned to teaching in 2012 after serving as dean of Stanford School of Medicine for more than a decade.
Pizzo said DCI plans to announce the 2016 cohort of fellows later this month.
At the start of the program, fellows created a “scholarly pathway” to guide their journeys on the Farm, including a list of courses and seminars they hoped to audit.
Bhargava, who had a long career in enterprise software, has been pursuing two paths: studying the social venture business model and honing his skills in design thinking.
“I would like to contribute to a global cause, but I didn’t really know how to do that before coming to Stanford,” he said. “Now I am looking at how to scale social ventures – not dependent on ongoing philanthropy.”
Some of the DCI Fellows stayed the original course they laid out at the beginning of the program. Others, like Chuck Katz, took detours.
During winter quarter, Katz, a former corporate finance attorney and software company executive, took courses focused on the intersection of aesthetics and science communication. During spring quarter, he took Poetry and Poetics, taught by English Professor Eavan Boland, a renowned poet. Katz, who has a particular love for the American West, also took The American West, an interdisciplinary course taught by a group of professors in disciplines including political science, civil and environmental engineering, history, art history and English.
“I was just smiling every day I was on campus,” Katz said.
So was Kate Jerome, a DCI Fellow from South Carolina.
“Sometimes I was smiling because I was so impressed with a conversation I’d just had with a professor, student or a colleague, and other times it was because I had discovered something that completely altered my own world view,” said Jerome, who has had a long career publishing books and educational materials for children.
“One of the advantages of attending college this time around is that I get to run all of the new data I’m learning through a much larger filter of life experiences, which allows me to make more innovative connections. In a collaborative culture that is dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, age doesn’t matter – only the insights do.”
Fellows create a community on campus
Like other DCI Fellows, Steve Goodall, the retired president and CEO of a market research firm, said the fellows themselves are the highlight of the program.
“We’ve developed a pretty good trust and rapport over the last eight months, and that’s been a real value of the program,” Goodall said. “Two, three or four years from now, I will remember some of the things that professors said in this or that class, but it will be the relationships with other fellows and their partners that will be lasting.”
Jere Brooks King, a DCI Fellow with a long career in high technology, is expanding and updating her knowledge about board governance and social innovation, with the objective of applying that expertise on the boards of nonprofit organizations and small for-profit organizations in her community.
“It’s really exciting to explore the latest thinking on the strategic management of nonprofits, philanthropy, social innovation and new venture creation,” she said.
King said college was familiar, yet different, due to the use of new technologies.
“I still go to lectures and have homework to do, but my laptop has replaced the spiral notebook, and my course schedule and readings are now online,” she said. “Can’t find a certain building on campus? Google Maps is there to assist. Can’t remember the readings or assignment? Just go to the course website. Need to submit your paper? Better upload the document by the time it is due.”
Rich Goldberg, a DCI Fellow with a long career in corporate quality, is using his time at Stanford to explore ways to turn his passion for workplace equality and diversity into a new career. It was an interest he began pursuing before coming to Stanford.
“I’ve continued pursuing that path with Shelley Correll, who is my faculty mentor in DCI,” he said, referring to the professor of sociology and director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research. He took a course on empathy from Jane Shaw, dean for religious life, as well as classes on organizational behavior and on the power of storytelling in business. He also took an art history class on the rivalry between Cézanne and Picasso.
“All that said, I don’t want to look back on this year and say, ‘Gee, that was fun,'” he said. “So I’ve gotten together with some of the other fellows and we’re talking about what we will do when we leave. We’re trying to help each other out by engaging in that dialogue.”
Unique Stanford experiences
Mary Jane “MJ” Elmore, who has had a long career in venture capital, said she employed a philosophy of “accept all offers” during her stay. She met with students and professors, and got involved with various campus centers. She participated in weekly discussion seminars and colloquia, including Transition Toward Sustainability, and attended The Science of Decision Making, presented by Worldview Stanford.
“Since I view this year as a real chance to pivot not just my career but my life, I became very excited about liberal arts courses that I had never had the opportunity to take previously,” Elmore said.
Her favorite spring quarter course focused on abstract expressionism and emphasized the artwork at the Anderson Collection at Stanford University.
“Professor Alexander Nemerov, Stanford’s renowned art historian, brought together information about the art, the artists and their mid-20th-century context, including World War II and the Cold War, Hollywood and popular culture generally, Beat literature, and locations such as New York and San Francisco,” Elmore said. “I was always excited to go to that class. Since the class ended, it felt like I was visiting old friends when I saw the artworks again.”