Originally published in The Harvard Crimson
When Artur G. Davis ’90 graduated from Harvard as a government concentrator, he says he never imagined that 13 years later he would be an Alabama congressman.
“I never really expected to be a politician,” Davis says. “When I was [at Harvard], I wanted to be a journalist.”
Yet in his junior year, he realized that, without having worked on any of the campus papers, it was unlikely that he could pursue a career in journalism.
“I finally did what all the other people who are undecided in Harvard elected to do,” Davis says, “and that’s go to law school.”
Of the seven fellows at the Institute of Politics this semester, three graduated from one of the schools at Harvard University: Davis, Farai N. Chideya ’90, and Steven P. Schrage, who graduated from Harvard Business School in 2004.
The at-times unpredictable career trajectories of these individuals—from Harvard students to Harvard IOP fellows—reveal a common theme: being flexible and embracing unexpected opportunities can open many doors.
Davis first became interested in politics in elementary school, when he moved on from comic book super heroes to historical figures.
“When I was first interested in history, I saw historical figures as these kinds of heroic individuals who had done in real life the things people did in Greek mythology and comic books,” he says with a smile. “I was always fascinated by the fact that the people who matter…faced a lot of setbacks and were people who had to evolve and become the personalities and personas that we attach to them now.”
Yet while Davis studied government and history at the College, he was uncertain about his future career path.
“The Harvard tradition is if you don’t quite know what you want to do senior year, you go to law school to keep your options open,” he said.
Davis saw a law degree as very applicable to a range of disciplines. He notes that many of his friends ultimately practiced law even after pursuing medical or business degrees.
Chideya, a professional journalist and author, says that she agrees it is not unusual or problematic to go through several careers in a lifetime.
“It’s not a bad idea to do something then jump into something else,” she said. “I have many friends who have law degrees who don’t practice—some are in tech, some in journalism, some in marketing.”
Chideya says she knew she wanted to be a fiction writer, but she was less certain about journalism.
“I was not entirely sure that I wanted to be a journalist—so it was a really great process of being organically introduced to the business, learning from great people who have often been in the business for 20 to 40 years.”
Chideya concentrated in English at the College, studying Shakespeare and the modern novel, an education that she says shaped the way she looked at politics.
She also wrote for The Harvard Independent but says she was not “a hardcore journalism person.” Her turning point was a summer internship with Newsweek, which evolved into a job during the semester.
At Newsweek, her boss let her take interesting assignments, including reporting at a women’s prison and covering a same-sex custody battle.
“I got to do some really interesting work, and that’s what got me into doing [journalism],” Chideya says.
Citing shifts in interest like Chideya’s, Davis notes that students’ most challenging choice is not deciding what to do decades down the road but rather organizing the first five years of their post-undergraduate life.
“It’s the first time for a lot of Harvard students to not have an obvious next step, because for many students the next step after high school was Harvard,” Davis explains.
FIRST STEPS, FIRST JOBS
When Schrage graduated from Duke University, he knew he wanted to travel the world before moving on with his career goals.
After attending bartending school and managing a restaurant to save money, Schrage embarked on a series of global adventures. He talked with students in the wake of the Tiananmen Square incident, rode camels alongside smugglers on the India-Pakistan border, motorcycled in the Golden Triangle area in Southeast Asia, slept on rooftops in Old Jerusalem, and traveled on third-class trains across Indonesia.
“It really gave me a way to experience the world…and see how people lived, how they dealt with issues, so that really sparked my curiosity in terms of the international dimension,” he says.
After graduating from the University of Michigan Law School, Schrage began work at the State Department Legal Adviser’s Office, which inspired his political career.
“This was at the time when the control of Congress switched for the first time in 40 years,” he says. “I saw it as an opportunity to get involved, make a difference in changing some of the institutions, taking policies into a new direction—young people could make a difference in that.”
CAREERS IN TRANSITION
For Davis, the move towards a career in political office began with a lost election.
“The core question you need to ask is: Do you really want to do the job, and would you do a good job?” he says. “I felt quite frankly that I could be a good congressman.”
Dissatisfied with the incumbent’s abilities, Davis set up a campaign for a position in the House of Representatives as an unknown with no history in politics, no connections, and no donors or campaign workers.
“I put together about as much of a shoe-string campaign as one could conceive,” Davis says. “And I learned that $1.4 million goes way further than $70,000.”
Despite losing the election, Davis decided that politics was a route through which he could make a tangible difference, and he ran for the same position again two years later in 2002.
“I felt that I had done well enough and made enough connections to do it again,” Davis says. “And there was nothing else I wanted to do more, no other path that struck me as a more fulfilling one.”
He won and went on to be a four-term congressman.
Chideya’s career also reached a memorable turning point. After publishing “Don’t Believe the Hype: Fighting Cultural Misinformation About African Americans” in 1995, she received an offer from CNN to be a political analyst. She soon shifted to radio and pioneering in online websites.
She says that having control over her own work was an appealing aspect of writing, which helps explain why she did not choose a more “traditional,” structured job.
“If you write a book, you ultimately are responsible for what’s on the page, and I like that,” she says.
Schrage says he feels the risks and sacrifices involved in transitioning out of previous jobs have ultimately been rewarding.
When he was Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan think tank, he received an offer from Senator Scott Brown to be his chief of staff. “It was a tough decision, because I had a job I loved very much,” Schrage said. “But I felt that Scott Brown had a very unique opportunity in policy during his first year to bridge the gaps in Washington.”
MANY WAYS TO GET INVOLVED
Davis feels that learning about the history behind political decision is crucial for anyone interested in pursuing a career in politics.
“A lot of people who walk into politics have no real sense of history—they don’t have a real sense of the continuity of problems and arguments we are currently having,” he says.
Davis also believes many students underestimate the influence they can have through politics.
“Handing out signs in New Hampshire is not for everyone…working at phone banks is not for everyone,” he says. “If you’re not going to do it well or with enthusiasm, you’re better off not doing it.”
However, he emphasizes that there are many ways to get involved in politics beyond these traditional activities.
“I feel that Harvard students are reluctant to get involved in politics unless it’s electing the next president of the United States, but there’s a lot of [local] opportunities out there,” he said. “If you get involved in campaigns at a local level, it’s a wonderful opportunity to learn more of politics and see how it plays out on a day in and day out basis. Don’t be afraid to help out.”
For the many students who are uncertain about their future paths, Chideya emphasizes the importance of simply making decisions and taking risks.
“If you don’t know what you want to do, experiment,” she says. “Get a job you think you’ll like…make decisions, and realize they won’t always be perfect. It’s a hard thing for Harvard students to hear, but it’s okay to be not perfect.”
—Staff writer David Song can be reached at email@example.com.