Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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Career coincidence

Q: In honor of recent graduates: When you finished your schooling, did you know what you wanted to do in life? How long did it take to find a job or profession that "fit" you? Are you still in your original field?

I was going to be a famous lawyer, a female Perry Mason giving brilliant closing arguments, stunning the jury with my clever evidentiary maneuvers.

Or perhaps I would be a judge, rising to become a Supreme Court justice in a time before such an idea was remotely realistic for a woman. Or maybe I was going to take my law degree and run for Congress, then on to the Senate, devoting my career to making the law, not simply arguing about existing law. I would be a champion of civil rights; I would work tirelessly in the public interest.

Becoming a college president never crossed my mind.

When I started college at Trinity in Washington in 1970, the dramatic events of the 1960s had already redefined the scope of a young woman's ambition. A decade earlier, at the same Catholic high school I attended in Philadelphia's suburbs, my sister and her classmates, 10 years older and a generation apart, joined the convent or walked down the aisle at relatively young ages, with ideas about work and professional careers vaguely sketched but rarely realized.

A decade later, my classmates and I shocked the nuns at our school when not one of us expressed any interest in religious life, and in large numbers, we proclaimed our ambitions to be lawyers, doctors, journalists or other professionals.

We went to college not really knowing much about real work or the challenges women still faced in classrooms and corporations and courtrooms and kitchens in balancing children and families and professional commitments. The women who finished high school and college in the 1970s enjoyed the legacy of vast opportunity created by the feminist warriors of previous generations. We were told we could "have it all" and we embraced that ethos enthusiastically, albeit rather blindly.

I knew absolutely nothing about the real world of legal practice, but like most political science majors in 1974 (60 percent of law students back then had poli-sci degrees), I marched into law school and ran smack into the dullest, meanest, most tedious educational experience I had ever encountered. Law school was not fun. Nor was it supposed to be. Reading hoary old cases and trying to fathom the sadistic contracts professor whose public interrogations of weary student victims in no way resembled the elegant rhetoric of the Socrates I read in college seemed to be a puzzling way to learn legal advocacy.

Fortunately, I discovered a law school clinical program (Street Law) in which law students taught law to high school students in the District of Columbia, and, voila, my career in education was born! I loved teaching, and my introduction to the D.C. Public Schools through the Street Law program began my long professional concern for the students in this city.

When I graduated from law school, I snagged a full-time job with the Street Law program. And then, over time, as our public funding declined and we needed to find more private charitable gift support, I learned how to fund raise. Eventually, I became the chief fund raiser for Georgetown Law Center.

During my career at Georgetown, I wondered aloud to a colleague if I was making a mistake by not looking for a more traditional job with a law firm. My friends were somewhat aghast that I had chosen to start my career with the Street Law clinical program rather than become a law firm associate. "You'll ruin your career," one had said, "You'll never make something of yourself."

My colleague offered a different point of view: "A good career is a series of well-managed coincidences," he said. He was right! A coincidence of my work with Street Law was the opportunity to learn how to do television --- I was a guest commentator for two years on a weekly CBS News program for children ("30 Minutes") and later on a local talk show ("Panorama"). Later on, as the chief development officer, I developed invaluable administrative and management skills.

In 1989, my alma mater Trinity was looking for a new president, and the board asked me if I would do it. I had never considered such a remarkable position, and thought that my lack of a Ph.D. would rule me out. But as I learned, many lawyers become college presidents, and the combination of my legal training, experience in legal and public education, and fund raising for a major university all set the stage for what has turned out to be a fairly successful two decades as Trinity's president.

The collegiate presidency is one of the most fulfilling and creative jobs imaginable --- every day is chock full of interesting and challenging issues, from planning a new building to crafting responses to proposed federal regulations to helping a student unravel a problem to working with faculty who want to create new programs, and so much more. The work suits me very well because it is endlessly fascinating and immensely fulfilling -- each day I can see clear results in the satisfaction and achievements of our students and graduates.

I have learned that the best preparation for career success lies in seizing opportunities to learn new things every day. What's most important for success is not what I learned in college or law school, but rather, how I keep learning to meet the challenges I could not have imagined even five years ago.

When I went to college, not only did we not have computers, we didn't even have cell phones! From the depths of such deprivations I have learned to survive and even master the demands of 24/7/365 connectivity and expectations. Especially in a business focused on the intellectual and developmental needs and ambitions of thousands of people -- that's what a university is all about -- the ability to be a lifelong learner, myself, is essential to promoting success for other students.

By Patricia McGuire  |  June 21, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Careers and success Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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