The Path of Prepared Uncertainty

This is the path of individuals who have excelled in a field that is arguably unrelated to their major.

I grew up in a rural community in western Iowa, deeply involved in the family printing business. My parents are the practical sort, and they both strongly emphasized preparation for employment. My mom “made” me take typing and bookkeeping along with college prep curriculum (she anticipated the internet?); my father’s dream was that I become an Iowa state engineer. And while my high school grades and test scores were excellent, I spent my largest energies in high school playing basketball.

CR_summer_16Final-12I fell in love with Cornell College, as so many of us did, on the first drive down Main Street. I have now traveled to many extraordinary places in the world, but few are as beautiful as the Cornell campus on a perfect fall morning. And the women’s basketball team was coming off a horrendous season, so I was confident I could play.

My first academic year was challenging. I was “pre-med” (nobody can argue with that) and took intro biology and chemistry courses in my first semester. Second semester, I discovered the humanities, learning how to write for Rich Martin while reading Shakespeare for the first time.

And that spring, the magic happened—I experienced “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in King Chapel, the Lacey production, with Dan Wilch ’81 as Bottom. I went to chapels and lectures, and launched into Classical Greek with Dr. Crossett and half a dozen new-to-me Cornellians. We read Aristotle, spending hours discussing a single word. I was being taught how to read carefully, think critically, and write tightly.

In my junior year, I took the three-block series of organic chemistry with Dr. Ault. I thrived on the concepts, the hard work, and the great satisfaction of being able to reason the outcome of a reaction. But the third block, 18 continuous class days in the lab, taught me essential lessons about myself: first, that I do not like messes, and therefore being a physician was out of the question, and second, that the solitary lot of the lab scientist was not for me. I love language and I love to talk! I declared English as my major and threw myself into modern novels and poetry.

And I had an intuition, a sense, that the new “personal computers” just emerging could completely change the way many people did their work, and that the key to that would be in the language understood between computer and human. This thought led me to the study of “information retrieval” which I studied at the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University, earning a master’s degree in library science while studying database structure and “natural language processing.”

This degree led me to a career in technology and operations, where I have used technology in the broadest sense to solve client experience problems in financial services. As chief operations officer for First Data, I constantly anticipate the outcome of complex interactions between technology and regulation and human behavior, a kind of wild melting pot between organic chemistry and Russian novels. I see the world in patterns, seeking to recognize the core issue underlying today’s problem—in order to be able to use a tried solution to what seems to be a new problem.

My years at Cornell College allowed me to cover an enormous amount of academic and personal ground in a remarkably condensed and delightful way. The teachers and my fellow students generously shared their passions, and I learned both what I liked, and more importantly, what was simply NOT ME. My capacity to read closely and learn deeply, to pursue answers to difficult problems, and to work with diverse groups of people serves me every day of my life. In 1980, no one could have anticipated I would earn my living providing web-enabled commerce solutions, and yet my Cornell education was the perfect preparation.