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Stephen Skripak | Author, From the Boardroom to the Classroom: Quitting Corporate For More Purpose

We had an opportunity to catch up with award-winning retired Virginia Tech professor and author of "From the Boardroom to the Classroom: Quitting corporate for more purpose", Stephen Skripak.


What’s an urgent issue facing education?

Simply put, cost. According to an article I read recently on educationdata.org, the average annual cost of a college education is over $35,000, and it’s growing at a rate of over 7% per year. That’s more than a lot of college graduates will earn, sometimes years after graduating. Universities keep adding more overhead and building more elaborate student housing in order to compete, yet the rising costs have led to some student organizations creating food banks so that their less fortunate classmates can eat.


Textbooks are another problem. In my opinion, they are often a racket. What I mean is that publishers and authors make minor updates and release new editions more often than necessary to keep the used book market at bay. I once met a young woman on the Virginia Tech campus that had to change her major because she could not afford the cost of the materials. She said they were costing her over $1,000 a semester. Even when I tried specifying a used book for one of my classes – it was selling on half.com for less than $20 – copies showed up in our bookstore for $215. That led me to adapt an open-source book – until recently the only book with my name on it – that we provide to the students for free. Many other universities have adopted it as well. Last time I checked, it had been downloaded over 2.6 million times.

Do you have a favorite quote?

I do. It took me a while to do the research to find out to whom it’s attributed. I discovered that the quote is from Theodore Roosevelt:


"People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."


I first heard our student government president use it when I was a professor, and it really stuck with me. There is a different model of professor in the minds of some people – what they call the “sage on the stage”. In other words, don’t dare to disagree with the professor, just write down whatever he or she says and make sure to learn it for the test. But if you want to make a real impact on students, you first have to show them you care – both about their learning and about them as people.


Once when I was teaching a class of over 400 freshmen in a large auditorium, a student raised his hand to say that he disagreed with what I had just said. I made a huge point of making an example of what he did. I told the rest of the class something like, “Folks, this is what college is all about. You’re not here to absorb whatever the professor says and accept it like it’s an absolute truth. You’re here to learn to think for yourselves. So just like this young man did, question everything. Your brain is more than a sponge. Learn to think for yourselves, not just to accept whatever your professors tell you.”


I also made a point of arriving for classes before the previous professors had finished their lectures so that as soon as they were done, I could go in and set up and possibly have as much as ten minutes to go around the room talking to students. I’d ask them how they liked Virginia Tech so far, since I was often teaching first year students. I would ask them about their musical tastes, their other likes and dislikes, the food on campus….anything to stimulate a discussion so that they would feel more comfortable with me. I wanted to be approachable, and that was one way I went about doing it. I really tried to live that quotation.


What is the most meaningful part of your job?

Without a doubt, the chance to impact young lives for the better. One objective I had each semester was to make the business world seem more relatable so students would have a better idea of where they would be headed if they continued to major in business.


In my book, which is called From the Boardroom to the Classroom: Quitting Corporate for More Purpose, I tell the story of many ways in which I sought to utilize my 25 years in corporate life to help students understand business concepts. I also made it my objective to help them find their passions, even if that meant transferring outside the college of business. Many young people arrive on college campuses planning to major in whatever Mom or Dad told them to study. In so many cases, they’re trying to force-fit themselves into a mold that’s not interesting or inspiring to them.


I remember one young woman with whom I met frequently. Her parents wanted her to major in something that would get her the highest starting salary and would have the best probability of her finding a job before graduating. I asked her what she enjoyed, and her eyes lit up. She said she loved doing video production and asked if she could show me some of her work. I ended up inviting her to develop a video for an online version of the textbook I adapted, and she did a great job with it. I believe she ended up finding a compromise with her parents that allowed her to major in something that interested her and was still reasonably marketable. Another time, a young woman asked for my help in convincing her parents to let her drop out of school to pursue a startup. Her dad sent me an email list of questions that would have taken me days to answer. I responded rather simply; “Sir, if she drops out and her startup fails in six months, she can come back to school, and the only impact will be that she’ll have experiences that will make her an even better student because she will have lived the concepts we’re trying to teach. On the other hand, if her startup succeeds, maybe she’s the rare person who doesn’t need college to succeed in business.” Her startup didn’t make her a million, but she found she had an ability to network and to influence people that was light years beyond anything we could have taught her. I don’t think she finished her degree, but she’s still found enormous success in her career.


Maybe the most fulfilling example was an international student I had in my first year. He did not have the language skills to follow the discussion in class, so we met outside of class, multiple times a week. It was the most intensive one-on-one teaching I ever did, but he passed the class and was able to graduate on time. The desire to impact young lives for the better also shows up in my volunteer work. For eleven years now, I have been the principal fundraiser for an elementary school in Haiti that has grown from 100 to 340 students.


What advice would you give to your younger self?

I may be the least likely person to have ever become a college professor. Although I was smart and always did well from a grade standpoint, I was a bit of a rascal. For example, I got in-school suspension in the first grade when I convinced a friend of mine to escape the classroom with me. I thought we’d get caught, but the teacher didn’t notice, and we ran right by the janitor, broke out into the school yard, and ended up going home for an early lunch. I told my mother there had been a bomb scare, which worked until the school called. In high school, my guidance counselor was so unimpressed with me that he crossed the typing course off my request form saying I would never go to college or amount to anything. To this day, I still type with four fingers. The guidance counselor wasn’t being entirely unfair; I remember a research assignment for a civics class, and one of the suggested topics was euthanasia. However, the recommendation was given verbally, and I ended up going to the library trying to find information about teenagers in Korea – “youth in Asia”. Obviously I was not the most focused student. In college, I ended up on the party circuit and missed the opportunity to do more meaningful things through the many student organizations on our campus.


So, if I were to give advice to my younger self, it would be to find a mentor who could have put me on the right path sooner. It wasn’t until I was into my second year on the GE financial management training program that I had a boss who saw more in me than I had ever seen in myself. He invested in my development, and I began to see possibilities I had never imagined. I didn’t get that kind of guidance in my family; my dad didn’t go to college and had to sometimes work multiple jobs just to keep the family afloat, and my older cousins lived too far away, especially during my high school years. A mentor – maybe a teacher or a coach – could have put me on the right path sooner.


What is one thing that a student taught you?

In my first year, I had a student who seemed very bright and yet was not coming to class regularly or turning in most of the assignments. As the semester was winding down, she was in danger of failing, so even though she had not acted on my previous suggestions that she come in for help, I made one last attempt and sent her an email that we should talk. She came to my office visibly nervous. I cautiously asked her if there was anything going on that she wanted me to know. She burst into tears saying she couldn’t talk about it now, and she ran from my office. The next day, I got a notification from the university that her father had passed away the very day we had met. Apparently, she had been dealing with his illness throughout the semester, which explained her erratic attendance and performance. I am so glad that I did not make any assumptions about this young woman. I could easily see a professor being heavy-handed and accusing her of senioritis or laziness when in fact nothing could have been further from the truth. It’s not a lesson she taught me consciously, but it’s one that I took with me throughout the rest of my teaching career.


I would even use the example with students when discussing teamwork – that they should not make assumptions about teammates that seem unmotivated. There is a whole side of life that a professor will never see, and the same applies to teammates. A student could be going through the illness of a family member, a breakup, financial difficulties, anxiety, and a thousand other things. Every person deserves the benefit of the doubt, and I am so glad I did not make the mistake of assuming anything about that student. A different approach could have caused a lifetime of resentment.

 

1000 Spotlights: Why We Give reflects our mission of giving back, to mentor and to inspire those around us.


Through a series of interview questions, we explore academic inclinations and intrinsic motivations behind why we give, and talk with those inclined to make a difference in the lives of students. If you are involved in charitable activities, volunteer and paid academic engagements or in community service, we want to talk to you.

Write to us to nominate yourself or someone else who fits the bill.

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