College alumni share career advice, experience at ‘Taking the Next Step’

Empathy. Education. Experience. “That’s what allows you to find your pathway through this complex world,” keynote speaker Amy Lehman told more than 800 current College students at the 2015 Taking the Next Step event.

Lehman, AB ’96, MD/MBA ’05, was one of 225 alumni who shared stories about how their liberal arts education influenced their life experiences and their career aspirations and pursuits. The annual event focuses on second- and-third-year students, who have yet to begin job searches, and gives them direct access to alumni through panels and lunch conversations.  

“Events like this are very much anchored in the history of the University,” John W. Boyer, dean of the College, told the assembly. “The life of the mind can transform the world in very powerful ways,” he added.

Lehman’s own story is a case in point. She founded the Lake Tanganyika Floating Health Clinic, which uses boats to deliver medical supplies and transport patients to lakeside health centers in southern Africa.

Only five years old, the organization already has fought malaria, improved women’s reproductive health, and upgraded health, data and communications infrastructure in an area of critical importance to the African continent. Plans are now under way to build a ship that will serve as a floating hospital, traveling to areas of the lake that are otherwise inaccessible.

To illustrate the three Es—empathy, education and experience—in practice, Lehman referred to her relationship with one of her Congolese employees—a former child soldier who speaks 16 languages and holds a degree in international law. “On the surface, he and I have nothing in common,” she said. “For him to believe in this joint exercise, he has to believe that I deeply care for him as a person. Empathy requires a lot of humility and listening.”

It also requires educating oneself. “What allows me to have empathy with my Congolese colleague? I put myself through [the rough equivalent of] a PhD in the Great Lakes of Africa,” Lehman said. “I understand the context of his reality. You can’t do that without the facts.”

In her work—and in carving a career path generally—solving unexpected problems is key. “You try to game out, how am I getting from A to B. Sometimes you don’t know,” Lehman said.

Other alumni echoed that message. “A lot of my job is solving problems I’ve never seen before,” iOS engineer Rachel Hyman, AB ’13, told a tableful of students interested in information technology.”

A geography major, Hyman learned programming after college during her Venture for America fellowship with Detroit Labs, an app development company.

Hyman also said it's important to show potential employers, “that you’re curious, that you can problem-solve, that you stay calm under stress, that you can work with people," especially if students have short work histories.

College pre-med fourth-year Martha Penn is embracing the unknown. “I’m taking a gap year. I want the opportunity to see what else is out there” before committing to medical school, she said.

And Penn is taking another piece of Lehman’s advice. She plans to step on the brass plaque of the University seal in the Reynolds Club without fearing its storied fate. If Lehman—who “walked on the plaque all the time”—could graduate in four years, despite having a baby halfway through college, Penn says she, too, can break with that tradition.