Back to school: Distinguished Careers Institute brings experienced professionals to campus

Jan. 16, 2024, 12:44 a.m.

As undergraduates survey ExploreCourses each quarter, fulfill requirements and map out careers, a smaller — and just as inquisitive — cohort of students, having already reached the pinnacles of first, second or even third careers, approaches the course catalog with a slightly different focus.

The Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute (DCI) brings roughly 40 distinguished and diverse individuals from a range of career backgrounds and life journeys to Stanford each year. DCI fellows have the opportunity to attend classes alongside other students at any of Stanford’s seven schools.

At DCI, fellows have the time and opportunity to step back from hurried, demanding careers and think of their futures, invigorated by Stanford’s intellectual community.

“I’ve got all this scar tissue, I’ve got all this experience,” said Steven Seleznow, a current DCI fellow. “[I’ve] got a lot of knowledge and a lot of wisdom and made a lot of mistakes and had a lot of successes and I’ve helped a lot of people. What do I do with all that now?”

DCI was formed in 2013 with the recognition that “previously accepted norms of career length and retirement age are undergoing significant change,” according to its program statement. At DCI,  accomplished professionals reflect on their careers and engage with diverse areas of study in preparation for new endeavors.

“The program is very forward-looking,” Seleznow said. He served most recently as president and CEO of the Arizona Community Foundation and worked in education and philanthropy.

“It’s not driven by what you did in the past, or what role you had, or what company or foundation you ran, or whatever it was that we all did — which were obviously significant things,” he said. “This has given me time to do that kind of life reflection I’ve never done, to help me think about what it is I want to do next.”

By bringing fellows to Stanford’s classrooms, DCI hopes to foster a culture of collaboration, exchange and mutual benefit, as well as to set the standard for the “transformation of higher education,” according to its program statement. 

“Intergenerational learning is a great gift in both directions,” said DCI Faculty Director Sara Singer. “Something about the combination between the energy and creativity and optimism and openness with the perspective and experience — putting those two things together, we think, will catalyze very interesting, new, innovative opportunities.”

DCI is about more than academics: Centered on three pillars — renewing purpose, building community and recalibrating wellness — the program also aims to support longevity, the growth of interpersonal relationships and intellectual exchange among its fellows. 

DCI does not require fellows to enter the program with a defined purpose. Instead, the program offers a space for fellows to explore a variety of topics that interest them. Current DCI fellow Joan Jeffri, who works to support living artists and their legacies and founded the Research Center for Arts and Culture, said DCI encourages flexibility. 

“This program offers a kind of intellectual freedom, and that, for me, is delicious,” Jeffri said. “When you’re living a daily professional life, you have lots of deadlines, restrictions, monetary things you have to worry about and you don’t get to roam in your mind.”

DCI fellows follow a range of “purpose pathways,” with sweeping focuses such as arts and humanities or engineering sciences and design, that aid them in deciding upon course selections and areas of interest. From “Global Voyages” to “Introduction to the Medical Humanities,” fellows participate in courses on topics that excite and fascinate them. 

“These are people who get a do-over with respect to being a student again, and they know how lucky they are for that opportunity,” Singer said. “They really invest in being together, being a part of the university and doing it in concert with the people that they are in the cohort with.”

Through curated events, courses and lectures, DCI supports fellows in their exploration: The yearlong “Designing Your Life” course encourages fellows to examine the paths they have taken and the person they are, while weekly Wednesday lectures from various faculty members provide avenues for further discovery. 

Assistant Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences Jeffrey Schwegman, who teaches the courses PHIL 36: “Dangerous Ideas” and BIO 35: “Sustainability and Civilization,” regularly encounters DCI fellows in his classes. He praised their contributions to the classroom and expressed the hope that fellows would find benefit as well. 

“I would hope that our courses help inspire them, when they leave Stanford, to bring a broad range of perspectives to the work they do, and perhaps to seek out new approaches or collaborations that might not have occurred to them before,” Schwegman wrote. 

DCI works to foster community for fellows both within each cohort and with the broader Stanford community. Fellows can join DCI special interest groups (such as “sustainability, climate, and energy,” “DCI writes” or “impact investing”), attend regular cohort-wide seminars and colloquia or simply participate in community-organized activities such as hikes or pickleball games. The program also facilitates mentor-mentee relationships and communication channels between Stanford students and fellows. 

Current DCI fellow Faye Sahai, who has led careers in venture capital, healthcare and finance, and who is also founding managing partner at Telosity Ventures, said she found engaging with students and faculty “so welcoming.”

“It’s wonderful to be able to share and learn mutually,” Sahai said. “Both working with the students in the classes as well as the cohort itself learning from each other. It’s just been so rewarding establishing this community, lifelong friends, and opportunities and learning.”

Felix Chen is an intern in The Daily's winter high school workshops. You can reach them at news 'at'

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