When Dan Meyer ’81 became the Chairman of the Yale College Council, he expected to attend law school and follow his father, current Connecticut State Senator Edward Meyer ’57 LAW ’61, into politics.
Instead, he played for a semiprofessional basketball team in Northern Ireland after graduation, became a pastor and now hosts a three-time Emmy Award-winning television show called “Life Focus” on PBS.
Former leaders of the YCC have ended up all over the professional spectrum: Six former presidents and chairmen interviewed now work in industries ranging from academia to environmental policy to the nonprofit sector. All of them say their time at the head of Yale’s student government prepared them for work they would undertake in the future. Although Meyer did not pursue the political career he had expected, he said his experience on the YCC influenced his choices by teaching him lessons about collective enterprise and achievement.
“If there’s one thing that you learn from being on the Yale College Council, it’s how to build a consensus among a group of headstrong, very intelligent individuals,” said Vidhya Prabhakaran ’03, who introduced cubbies and two-ply toilet paper to Yale bathrooms during his time as president, and is now an energy attorney in San Francisco, Calif. “It’s also a good experience to learn some humility.”
DIVERGENT CAREER PATHS
For some former YCC presidents, involvement with the council has directly influenced where they are now. Steven Syverud ’06, a current JD/MBA student at Stanford University, said that his experience working on admissions and financial aid issues for the YCC introduced him to QuestBridge, a nonprofit organization that helps students from low-income families attend private universities, where he worked immediately after graduation.
Michael Sicular ’83, who has worked in public policy and now works in health, said the YCC taught him about politics and how to approach complex problems. When he served as chairman, he said, one of his main projects was to increase understanding of racial problems at the University. He created a Committee on Race Relations to hold public forums and discuss race issues in public.
“You understand issues instead of writing complex paragraphs for a paper and you see for yourself what things are about,” he said of his time on the council.
Other former presidents said the YCC helped hone their interests, even if they did not pursue a career in government or policy. Meyer said working on the YCC helped him understand the importance of teamwork and reinforced his confidence in the power and importance of religious activism.
“I think we’re seeing a resurgence of interest in our society around bonding together for a common cause, and the YCC experience was one of my most important exposures to that kind of purposeful alliance,” he said.
Others said their experience with the YCC taught them how to deal not only with big decisions, but also with the grunt work that makes plans a reality.
Prabahkaran, who served as treasurer of the YCC before being elected president, remembered planning a concert with the band Counting Crows on a stormy day for the 300th anniversary of the University.
“We were putting up a stage on Old Campus, which is basically a giant lightning rod,” he said. “So I have a fond memory of basically scrambling around trying to put up a stage with the rest of the YCC and [Freshman College Council] while we were all kind of worried that the clouds were suddenly going to open up and fry us. If people have any misconceptions that the YCC and FCC are people who aren’t willing to get their hands dirty, I can dissuade them of that.”
Though some made concrete achievements during their tenures — such as Prabahakaran’s much-hailed bathroom initiatives and Sicular’s Committee on Race Relations — former YCC presidents said their experiences on the council were often humbling and taught them how to handle the frustration that comes with being a single voice in a large community.
Meyer described a debate with then-University President Bart Giamatti ’60 in which he argued against the administration’s plan to change the grading scale to include pluses and minuses, not just letter grades.
“He smiled at me and said, ‘Dan, I think you made a wonderful argument, and I would be personally inclined to pursue it,’” Meyer remembered. “‘But here’s the deal: You will be gone next year, and everybody else that is on the student body will also be gone in no more than four years, and I will continue to need to live with this faculty. So in this case, politics says I have to go with their opinion.’”
Rebecca Taber ’08, who is now the Deputy Chief of Staff at the Delaware Department of Education, said she received similar advice from then-Yale College Dean and current Provost Peter Salovey, although she said she and the YCC successfully influenced financial aid reform when administrator and student goals aligned.
The YCC will always be constrained by the conflicting agendas of administrators and students, said Kate Baicker ’93, now a professor of health economics at Harvard and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.
“The central challenge of student government is where students don’t have a lot of direct control but rather need to persuade, educate and negotiate with other people about policies on the table,” she said.
Baicker previously held a post on the Council of Economic Advisers. In her work there, she said, she had to translate academic research into arguments for real-world policy. Her time as a mediator between students and administrators on the YCC prepared her for that task, she said.
Ultimately, most former YCC presidents interviewed said they could not make more than incremental progress during their time occupying the role. But they said it was a valuable lesson to realize how small they were in the grand scheme of Yale’s community, and nevertheless keep working toward their goals.
“It can be tempting to take yourself very seriously, and every University issue becomes this frenzied intense dialogue, but Yale has shown this amazing capacity to continue to go forward,” Meyer said. “You just have to trust that there will exist in the institution a basic quality that will continue even if you don’t win your case.”
Correction: April 13, 2011
An earlier version of this article mistakenly reported that Rebecca Taber was unable to implement financial aid reform due to differences between administrator and student goals.