Before the Ivory Tower: University presidents' first jobs

NEW YORK (Reuters) - It is graduation season, and you know what that means: Bright-eyed diploma-holders are emerging into the workforce with big dreams and big hopes (and big debt).

Stanford University's campus is seen in an aerial photo in Stanford, California April 6, 2016. Picture taken April 6, 2016. REUTERS/Noah Berger

As the latest installment of Reuters’ “First Jobs” series, we asked a few university presidents about how they got their start. As we discovered, they did not always begin their storied careers in the Ivory Tower of academia.

John Hennessy

President, Stanford University

First job: Stock boy

“I worked the beverage aisle at a grocery store in Huntington, Long Island, my junior year in high school. On weekends like Memorial Day or July 4, it was the busiest place in the store, and suddenly I became a very important person.

“I made somewhere around $1.50 an hour, but the real money was made by unloading groceries into people’s cars, which generated an extraordinary amount of tips. One day I made $20, which seemed like a whole lot of money back then.

“That store was also the place I first met my spouse, who I’m still married to today. She was a cashier, and she knew I really liked her because on my break, I would come over and help her bag groceries. I asked her to the senior prom, and she accepted. That was our very first date.”

Shirley Ann Jackson

President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

First job: Lab assistant

“I was a weigher of rats and feeder of chickens. That was literally true, at a nutrition lab at MIT. We were looking at the effect of different diets on lung development.

“At first the job sounded very cool. But unfortunately their lungs eventually had to be removed for study, so after a certain point, I had to decapitate them. I learned I really didn’t like killing living things. There was a little guillotine, and my professor had to reach over my shoulder to help me do it. I didn’t last long at that job.

“I was always interested in experiments like that, all the way back to high school. I even had a collection of bees that I stored in mason jars and kept in a crawl space under our back porch. I used to sit under that porch and just listen to the bees for hours.”

Santa Ono

President, University of Cincinnati

First job: Janitor

“I must have been 14, and had to walk two miles every morning from our house to a Maryland apartment complex called Elkridge Estates. My official title was janitor, but I did all kinds of things there: I cut grass. I repaired the roof. I unclogged toilets. I painted walls. I skimmed leaves from the pool.

“There were a lot of elderly people in that complex, and often they would ask me to help carry packages for them. One time it was 98 degrees outside, and I helped an old lady carry all her groceries up five flights of stairs. At the top I was totally drenched. She said ‘Thank you very much, young man!’ and gave me a quarter.

“I was so excited when I got my first paycheck, I was over the moon. I spent it taking my folks out to dinner at the local Ponderosa Steakhouse. I also bought my first watch, a Timex that I thought was the most beautiful watch in the world, and an old-fashioned clock radio with numbers that clicked down one at a time. That was how I used to listen to Baltimore Orioles games.”

Renu Khator

President, University of Houston

First job: Visiting lecturer

“I came to this country from India when I was 19, and just as I was getting ready to finish my PhD, my husband accepted a job as a professor at the University of South Florida. In order to accommodate him, they offered me a nine-month position as a visiting lecturer in statistics for $18,000 a year.

“I had never lectured before, and I remember walking in to that first class of about 50 students. It was an enormously scary experience. My husband was waiting outside the classroom, and afterwards he asked me how it went. I said ‘Teaching is not the job for me! I want to do something else.’ I was so distressed.

“But I got over it, and came back for the next class two days later, and the rest is history. I ended up staying in Tampa for 22 years, and eventually became the university’s senior VP and provost. I always thank my stars that my husband didn’t let me quit that first day. It was an arranged marriage, but by God’s grace, my father knew what to look for.”

Want more first-job tales? Check out this link (here).

Editing by Lauren Young and Phil Berlowitz