Small Cool Things Lead to Big Cool Things

When he sat down at my table and introduced himself, I was a little bit starstruck. This man had lived quite the life, with a distinguished career that's led him to positions of power and influence in the non-profit, higher education, and government sectors. Now, he was sitting at my lunch table with me and a small handful of other wide-eyed Stanford students still trying to get a handle on what the whole "grad school" thing was supposed to be about. Here we were, breaking bread together, in the lobby of education school.

The way that the Graduation school of education sets up their orientation is smart: it takes place over a few days, with each major offices and department leading sessions in front of each cohort of students. Every day there is a lunch where one faculty member sits at each table to connect with, welcome, and answer questions from the new, incoming students. I loved it. It made me feel less nervous about the academic rigor (which had been on the front of my mind as I thought about what the experience might be like) because I was able to interact with professors in a social setting and ask questions. 

This was back on September 20th. I remember because I texted my dad after lunch. "You won't believe who I had lunch with. Tom Ehrlich, former President of Indiana University while Bob Knight was coach." 

My dad texted back: "How the heck did you manage that?"

I was wondering the same thing.

Professor Ehrlich's academic career took him from Harvard to Harvard Law to clerking for Judge Learned Hand of the U.S. Court of Appeals. His professional career has included a seven year stint as president of Indiana University (including while Bobby Knight was head coach of the men’s basketball team -- what an adventure that must have been), provost at University of Pennsylvania, and Dean of the Stanford Law School. He was also the first ever president of the Legal Service Corporation, a non-profit started by the federal government to provide legal assistance to low income people. He's worked as a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the first ever head of the International Development Cooperation Agency and reported to President Jimmy Carter, and he's authored 14 books on civics, higher education, and business education, among other things.

What a resume, right?

Getting to share lunch with him was a treat. It was a small cool thing; to be honest, most of the time was spent with students answering his questions, rather than the other way around. I told him about my time working in the Oregon Legislature and what I hoped to do in the education policy world after my time at Stanford. It was a relatively brief but exciting encounter.

That was almost two months ago. Fast forward to today. Professor Ehrlich is teaching a seminar called Democracy is Crisis, limited to 14 students. The class is about preparing Stanford students to be, according to Ehrlich, "actively engaged, for the rest of their lives, in ensuring the sound functioning of our democracy."

Why?

"Right now, I think it is in trouble," he wrote in the course description. 

When I read it I knew I had to try to find a way in and be part of it. I sent Professor Ehrich an e-mail. I know the class is already full, and I know it's not for Graduate School of Education students, but is there any chance there's room for one more? By the way, I'm the one from lunch at the GSE orientation.

Within an hour he had responded. "I do remember our lunch together and will be delighted if you join the seminar.  You will bring a great perspective!" And now I'm student number 15 in a class of 14 at Stanford, taught by a man that I was excited just to eat lunch with a couple months ago.

Small cool things, it turns out, can lead to big cool things if you play your cards right.