In a few days, Daniel H. Weiss will be formally sworn in as the 14th President of Haverford College. But in 1977, as a sophomore at the George Washington University (GWU) in Washington D.C., he had very different aspirations.
I’m Oscar Wang, a senior here at Haverford. Coincidentally, I am also a transfer student from GWU, having spent my freshman year there before making the move to join the Haverford community as a sophomore. As a matter of fact, President Weiss and I lived in the same dorm our respective freshman years in our nation’s capitol! A few days ago, I had the honor of speaking with our new President about his sophomore college experience. Our conversation, covering a range of topics from major selection to lessons for today’s sophomores, is below.
Oscar Wang: I just have to say, Mr. President, that is a great picture of you. You haven’t changed a single bit!
President Daniel H. Weiss: [laughs] Oh, shucks. Well, you’re very nice to say that. That was exactly [during] my sophomore year! We have our pictures organized chronologically and I can remember when that was taken…so thank you.
OW: So what is the context of the picture? What were you up to?
DW: Well, we were with some friends on a weekend out in the mountains of Virginia, just out doing some hiking and camping. I remember that shirt – I had it as a sophomore! [laughs]
OW: One of the big decisions a sophomore needs to make is choosing a major. Could you describe how that process was for you? Was it difficult?
DW: I had started my college career utterly convinced that I wanted to do political science, which is why I went to school in Washington in the first place. I did not apply to any colleges that were not in Washington. And I was quite sure by October of my freshman year that that was not a good decision. So I quickly learned that I didn’t really understand what political science was, so for the rest of my freshman year and into my sophomore year, I was exploring the possibility of majoring in psychology.
And I had yet to discover, as a sophomore, art history – which would become my career. That happened in my junior year. So as a sophomore, I was majoring in psychology, but it was after starting with political science and finding my way.
OW: You spoke about picking up new things by junior year. Did you ever think about going abroad?
DW: Well, I didn’t because I had the great fortune as a sophomore to get a job at the Kennedy Center in Washington. I was hired to work in the gift shops and the job was actually much better than it sounds. I worked as a sophomore, and throughout the summer of my sophomore year, I stayed and worked full time [there].
I got to be a part of the Kennedy Center scene. So I went to see all kinds of productions. I met all kinds of famous actors. It was a very thrilling experience. And so my junior year I elected, instead of going abroad, to continue to pursue my academic career and have this experience [at the Center]. I went, for instance, to Jimmy Carter’s inaugural ball in 1976 and went to Ronald Reagan’s inaugural ball in 1980. I had lots of opportunities to have a Washington experience.
OW: On that note, lots of sophomores, having been in the Philadelphia area for a year now, are thinking about getting engaged somehow through internships and jobs in the local area. This sounds like something you would definitely recommend given your own experience at the Kennedy Center?
DW: Yes, I think by the sophomore year, it’s really important to try things that may be of interest to you, to see what they’re like, to explore some options, and to test yourself. I had a chance to do this through my experience at the Kennedy Center. In the end, I didn’t go into a career in theater, but I had a great experience working in an organization like that. I encourage students to do the same, to find ways of getting out.
OW: “Sophomore slump” is a term commonly thrown around. Did you experience a slump or know anybody who did?
DW: Yeah, I think a lot of people [I knew] did. I had more of a freshman slump. And after I got through my freshman slump and had a better sense of my way, my sophomore year was much more rewarding and exciting. So I guess I peaked a little soon and then I got on with it.
OW: What advice do you have for anyone going through a slump? How did you get out of it?
DW: Well, it’s important to remember that this kind of work that we do, as students in college, can be very draining. It can be high stress. And no one can go nonstop without finding ways to find a release and take a break. So if you feel like you’re in the midst of a slump, you accept the fact that maybe your body is tired and you need a chance to just get away and reflect a little bit. So even a long weekend can help you do that.
Just acknowledge that it’s okay to not be going at 100% every day, day and night, all the time. And I think the sophomore slump is based on the realization after freshman year that, “it’s a long way forward, boy that was tough, and I’m a little tired!”
OW: Looking back, how do you think your sophomore self would think of you today as a college president?
DW: [laughs] I think if you were to say to me as a sophomore, “You’re going to have an academic career and end up as the president of Haverford College,” I would have said, “You’re out of your mind!” Likely, I would be a movie star or an astronaut, or some other crazy thing. It just would have never occurred to me.
The great lesson I would like to give all the sophomores is: what makes life interesting is the journey. You do not know where life will take you. But if you follow your passion and throw yourself into what you’re doing, you can view it as a journey that matters. For me, it’s been glorious and full of surprises. I’m very, very lucky for that.
OW: So you’re saying that there still is hope for you in the future to win an Academy Award?
DW: [laughs] No! I think I’ve figured out my strengths and my weaknesses, so I feel very lucky that every day I get to get up and go to work at a place that I love, doing work that I value deeply. And my good fortune is something I acknowledge all the time.
OW: If you had a group of Haver-sophomores over at the President’s House for dinner one night, what directives would you give them so that they can have a successful sophomore campaign?
DW: Well, I think the most important thing is to pay close attention to what animates your soul and enlivens your interests. Pay attention to what you like and what you’re finding interesting. That’s one.
Two: try things that may be a little outside your comfort zone. If you’re thinking, “I may be interested in taking a course in English Literature, but I’m a math major” – do it! Try things that may expand your horizons. You’ll never know unless you do. And now is the time to do. And that’s what college is all about – a chance to explore who you are. So use this moment as a time in your life to do that.
OW: Do you have any quirky stories from your sophomore year that you are willing to share?
DW: [laughs] Sure! So the major thing that happened to me during my sophomore year was I met the woman who I was eventually to marry, who was a freshman at college. And though I was quite sure she was the woman for me, she wasn’t quite sure about that for a while!
So I spent a lot of my time sophomore year pining for Sandra. And my friends all got tired of hearing about it. Eventually, we got married. But sophomore year was when I was trying to figure that out and spent a lot time mooning in the library where my girlfriend was studying and [I] was waiting for her to come out and have a cup of coffee with me.
OW: So I guess another part of your message is: Never give up!
DW: [laughs] Nice, Oscar! I like that – very positive. Yes, persistence. I was persistent and eventually I talked her into it, and we’ve been married for 33 years.
OW: And now very happy at Haverford…
DW: And happy at Haverford! Yes, we’re both very happy here. It’s a great privilege to be here.
For more information on the inauguration of Dan Weiss on Saturday, October 26th, 2013, click here.