Distinguished Careers Institute helps leading professionals transition to next career

Feb. 9, 2015, 10:55 p.m.

While most undergraduates were grumbling about having to start classes sooner than many of their peers, 24 students came to campus for winter quarter eager to learn and interact with peers and faculty again. These students, however, weren’t your typical undergraduates, but mid-career professionals who have chosen to go back to school.

These students make up the inaugural class of Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute (DCI), a new program that guides successful professionals, called fellows, that are ready to transition into careers that generate greater social impact. The fellows, most in their 50s and 60s, include a retired partner of Goldman Sachs, an author of over 70 children’s books, and Apple’s eighth employee.

The fellows of DCI audit undergraduate and graduate classes, participate in think tanks and seminars, and work one-on-one with mentors to plan the next phase of their career. They design “scholarly pathways” geared towards their field of interest — be it Arts and Humanities, or Health and Healthcare — that guide them throughout their time at Stanford. Fellows also participate in a health and wellness program to ensure that they are in their best physical state when they begin their new career.

The year-long program, which extends from January through December, was conceived by Philip Pizzo, a former dean of the medical school and now the founding director of DCI. Pizzo, who had worked in medicine for nearly 40 years, was preparing his own return to school to pursue a history PhD when he realized how many professionals his age were also contemplating a career transition, especially as increasing longevity delayed the age of retirement.

Yet for most of these professionals, the question of “what to do next” was difficult to answer. “I’ve seen many people who [know they aren’t ready to retire], but have a lot of difficulty letting go of their career to transition into something else,” Pizzo said.

DCI, as Pizzo imagined it, would give these students the skills, knowledge, community, and inspiration needed to make the next big step in their careers. Pizzo also hoped that inviting established individuals to become fellows at Stanford would foster greater intergenerational learning between experienced leaders and earnest students.

Pizzo proposed his plan to President Hennessy and Provost Etchemendy in 2013 and was granted a “start-up” package to officially develop and publicize the program, which carries a tuition price tag of $60,000 per fellow. The DCI staff had originally planned to accept only 20 fellows for the 2015 calendar year but admitted 24 after receiving many more applications than the number of available spaces.

Kate Jerome, a former vice president of Harper Collins and the author of over 70 educational children’s books, applied to DCI after reading about it in the Wall Street Journal. She visited the program’s website and was hooked immediately. “Every part of Dr. Pizzo’s mission resonated with me,” she said.

As a lifelong advocate for learning, it was easy for Jerome to accept her admission to Stanford—even if that meant moving 3,000 miles from her home in Charleston, South Carolina, to Palo Alto.

Jerome, who hopes to use technology to increase creative educational opportunities for children and the elderly alike, planned her “scholarly pathway” around Stanford’s Center for Longevity, where she works on projects concerning the country’s rapidly growing population of senior citizens. She audits four graduate and undergraduate classes, including the GSB’s Entrepreneurial Approaches to Education Reform, and regularly interacts with her cohorts in both formal and informal gatherings.

“There isn’t a meeting that goes by where we don’t get into some very serious discussion,” Jerome said. “But we also have a lot of fun, and it’s an incredible group of people. They have a generosity and spirit in sharing expertise that goes unmatched.”

Jerome’s interactions with Stanford undergraduates have grown as well, from instances such as a student mistaking her for a professor on the first day to planned coffee meetings with younger classmates who seek advice on education-related careers.

Pizzo encourages these informal relationships and is working with the University to formalize the fellows’ involvement with other students, which could include theme house visits and dinner talks. He plans to raise financial aid for future fellows, so DCI can welcome more diverse applicants from the public sector; many of the 2015 fellows are Bay Area-based residents working in technology, investment, and finance who can better afford the tuition and have no need to relocate.

Pizzo’s ultimate goal, however, is to expand the idea of DCI nationwide, and inspire other institutions to begin similar programs that foster both career redirection and intergenerational learning. He envisions a future where programs like DCI become the norm for people who are ready to transition careers.

“In their 20s, most people are concerned with personal matters, like starting a career and a family,” said Pizzo. “But in their 50s, more people begin to think, ‘How can I make the world a better place? How do I make a lasting and positive impact, rather than a personal impact?’

“When they do, they shouldn’t have to learn about a program like DCI coincidentally. [DCI] will have become a part of the normal fabric of our education, just like going to college is.”


Contact Crace Chao at gracewc ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Grace Chao is a co-term in English and a staff writer for academics and research at Stanford. A native of Cupertino, California, she has contributed to The Daily since her junior year and enjoys writing creative nonfiction on the side. Find her tackling NYT crossword puzzles, eating bread or trying to win fish and chips at the latest trivia night in town. To contact Grace, email her at gracewc 'at' stanford.edu.

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