Sean Goheen (Host) 00:00:01
Greeting scholars and welcome to Following the Gong, a podcast of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State.
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Following the Gong takes you inside conversations with our Scholar Alumni to hear their story so you can gain career and life advice and expand your professional network. You can hear the true breadth of how Scholar Alumni have gone on to shape the world after they rang the gone and graduated with honors and learn from their experiences so you can use their insights in your own journey. This show is proudly sponsored by the Scholar Alumni Society, a constituent group of the Penn State Alumni Association. I'm your host, Sean Goheen, class of 2011, and college staff member. If this is your first time joining us, welcome. If you're a regular listener, welcome back.
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Sean 00:00:55 Christopher Wilson,
Class of 2006 is a senior associate in the Washington DC office of the International Law firm Baker Bots. His practice there focuses on civil antitrust and other complex commercial litigation. He earned his BA in Political Science with honors from Penn State's College of Liberal Arts, and went on to earn his JD from Stanford. In 2012, he played running back and fullback for the nit lines in his first and second years as a scholar. This episode will be helpful to any scholar who is facing obstacles and particularly student athletes. As Chris talks about his experience of nearly dropping out before leveraging relationships to stay and succeed. You can read Chris's full bio and a more detailed breakdown of episode topics in the show notes on your podcast app. With that, let's get into our conversation with Chris following the gong.
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Chris, thank you so much for joining me here on Following The Gong. I'm really excited to talk to you, dive into your story. I think it's a really fascinating one, really excited for our scholars to hear it, and I think a great place to start that is how did you first come to attend Penn State and the Honors College? I know there were other options that were recruiting you that were also great institutions, but why us? What drew you ultimately to Penn State and the Honors College?
Chris Wilson 00:02:16 Well, thanks Sean. Uh, thank you for having me on. I'm happy to be here. So, as far as Penn State, so I was, um, a pretty highly recruited football player coming out of high school. Penn State was one of the schools that was very actively recruiting, uh, recruiting me, but I was also being recruited by, um, you know, a few dozen other schools. And chief among them was, uh, at least from my perspective, chief among them were the schools that could be conce or like, were generally considered the, you know, the top schools, uh, at least that were played that had division one football, but also were, were excellent, uh, academic programs. So Stanford and Duke were among them. Uh, U v A and Michigan were among them. The Ivy Leagues were among them too, but I was, um, concerned about, uh, you can't give athletes full scholarships there.
Chris 00:03:08 So my family couldn't afford school and, uh, were leery about loans. So, um, Ivy Leagues were axed out of convenience, but Stanford was still there. Duke was still there, you know, the public Ivys were still there. And, um, I was, as I was going back and forth, you know, I'd go up to to Penn State, I went up to Penn State more than any other school, and, uh, just fell in love with the campus, fell in love with the atmosphere of the, uh, of the overall university. Um, of course, fell in love with the program. Uh, it's a great, uh, athletic program, uh, at Penn State, of course, um, one of the best historically. So that was a big driver, but I was, you know, candidly, Stanford was in the lead. Stanford, duke fell out because Duke didn't have quite the, the football program. But Stanford was in the lead until the recruiting coaches asked me to come up and then invited me to the Honors College.
Chris 00:03:57 You know, they, they said, they sent me the, the metrics saying, you know, students from the, from the Mid-Atlantic area, from Pennsylvania, who could otherwise go to these top schools in the country, uh, often will come to to Schreyer. Uh, they'll come to Penn State because of Schreyer. So that competition is there, that level of academic excellence is there, and we think you should try it out, or at least give it a shot. So I came up and, um, I spoke with, uh, d the, who was then the dean, uh, Cheryl Achterberg of the Honors College, and had a really fantastic conversation with her, and a fantastic conversation with a few other, um, uh, honors college staff. Um, I think at that point I spoke with a couple of professors as well, and I came away just really satisfied that I wasn't giving up anything by, uh, going to Penn State rather than, you know, picking the, the quote, the Stanfords of the world. And that really, the Honors College is really what put me put it, the school over the top. Um, just the, that comfort that I was going to get, the excellent education, uh, that I could pair with at least, uh, the aspirations of a football career.
Sean 00:04:59 So you wanted to play football, but I have to take a step back. Where did you play your high school football?
Chris 00:05:03 I played in Catonsville, Maryland. So it was a small public school just outside of the city of Baltimore. Not a highly, not a, uh, a very big, uh, school for, for sports in general and football. But, uh, I stood out, um, in part because I was the biggest and fastest person on the field when you're in high school. And those, and the, with playing against small public schools, you don't really have, uh, people who were, who fit that mold. And there were, there were, I guess some, there was some word of mouth that came out because I was, I guess the, you know, the smart kid who was the respectful football player who was also, uh, better than everyone else on the field. So, um, the word of mouth got out <laugh> and, uh, little by little people started coming to, to visit. But, um, yeah, no, it was, uh, shout out to Ville, Maryland for sending me to Penn State at least.
Sean 00:05:53 So you mentioned that you had football aspirations, but obviously that is a time-limited career for those who even do make it to the N F L. And if you wanna hear more about that, you can go back and listen to our episode with Stephan and Hillary Wi Newsie. Great conversation there. Shameless plug. But Chris, obviously you had to have some kind of, what would I do after football in mind? So what drew you to pick your major when you got to campus? Yeah,
Chris 00:06:15 So, um, that was, you know, the, the balance of academics and athletics was really the sort of main driver for my picking schools in the first place, so that it was understood that, you know, football might or might not work out, but I wanted to be able to, you know, have some good academic foundation for, you know, for whatever happens next. But, um, as far as picking my major, it was more, you know, where I, where my strengths were and where my preferences were as far as credits were concerned. I double majored in poli-sci and English, but I could only pick a, I could only, I didn't wanna write two thesis, so I had to pick, uh, Penns or I had to pick poli sci as my actual, uh, my actual major for, for honors purposes. But I went that route because I really like the, the practice that's available in both of those majors of really exploring intellectual, you know, and substantive ideas.
Chris 00:07:09 So, um, in English, you could sit there and, you know, learn about the, the history of, of, of famous scholars write to the best of your ability, learn to hone those skills, those persuasive writing skills. Poli sci was just a, a real interest to me. I was, uh, the, the inner workings of this, of the United States government and how it interacts with, uh, the states has always piqued my interest. And I could also build those analytical skills, uh, through that, through that major as well. And at Penn State, poli sci for honors purposes is a, is a quantitative major. So, um, my thesis had to be, uh, grounded in statistics, so I was able to get that skill set as well. So
Sean 00:07:47 Speaking of that thesis, can you tell us what that experience was like and what advice you have for students as they work on completing it, whether it's in a quantitative field like political science or really anything?
Chris 00:08:00 My thesis experience was, was an interesting one because, um, you know, there's that, it's essentially a three-year process, um, to, to choose your, to choose your thesis. You gotta go through, pick the, get the required courses in your major, and then select your thesis advisor, select your, I mean, um, you're gonna get an honest advisor, but, you know, identify your thesis advisor and start that process as early as possible of sort of working on the ideas, uh, if it's quantitative, identifying the data set, figuring out the, developing your skillset so that you, uh, could actually work within the data. So as a part of that, I mean, I, what really, really helped me was the fact that I developed a relationship with both my honors advisor and my thesis advisor. So these were, these are Michael Berkman, um, it was my honors advisor and, um, major Coleman who was in the African American Studies Department.
Chris 00:08:47 Um, at the time, I think now he moved up to suny, uh, state University of New York over the, over the years. I actually met both of them, I think before. I, like, as a part of the recruiting experience for football. The coaches at Penn State were very thorough in terms of making sure that I was comfortable with the academic environment at Penn State. And as a part of that, they introduced me to a number of professors. In any event, I, you know, took the time to go to those professors' offices to sit with them. There was a point, um, end of my sophomore year going into my junior year where football started not to, not to work out at all for me. And, um, just because of a, a series of injuries and, uh, my grades starting to fall. And the, and you know, that's got to the point where it was, you know, sort of threatening my, uh, my ability to maintain the G P a, uh, for the Honors College.
Chris 00:09:31 That was when I started going to these professors. I started going into the honors college too, but I went to those two professors and they were able to support me as I was going through that process. So those, I mean, in terms of, so that's going back to your question about what the thesis experience was like. It starts with your relationships with, with honors advisor and your thesis advisor. I think because, uh, especially as I started getting into the, the, the data, like the process of actually writing my thesis, I would spend weekends with Professor Coleman, uh, in his office, just crunching numbers. Then we'd go out and grab tea. And when my thesis, when I submitted my thesis, professor Berkman took us out for, took us off for beers, all of his honors advisees. I still talk to, I, I just, I was emailing, uh, professor Berkman earlier this year, actually, or late last year.
Chris 00:10:14 I think those relationships both help calm you as you are going through, uh, the thesis process. And they provide guidance and mentorship to make sure that you're going down a correct path. Um, like for instance, with, uh, my thesis, I, I initially started with a dataset that I thought was going to hit the, the, the issues that I needed. So my thesis was about essentially generational change in political affiliation among African-American communities and its effects on, uh, voting habits across generations. I initially started with a dataset, and, uh, Dr. Coleman for about six months, pushed back on me, said, I don't think this is the right one. I don't think this is the right one. And I kept saying, I think I can do it. I think I can do it. And eventually, um, you know, he prevailed upon me just because, you know, he and I had long conversations about what I was trying to do with the data, what sort of analysis I was trying to implement.
Chris 00:11:02 And that guidance, you know, actually it clarified and helped structure my ultimate thesis. So I can't, I can't overstate the value of the relationships that you can build with your, with your honors advisor and your thesis advisor. These are in a campus with 50,000 students in it. This is your, these are your opportunities to really develop these close personal relationships with, with professors who are leaders in their field and who actually care about you. They have a vested interest in ensuring that you complete your thesis. For me, especially going into my senior year, was an open question whether or not I was gonna be able to do it. But, uh, major Coleman and, and, uh, Michael Berkman really helped guide that process for me, that's the, that if if there's one takeaway I can, I can, I can offer, it's build those relationships and value them.
Sean 00:11:46 I think that is a really solid point. I also like that you mentioned about starting early, you don't really wanna do too much in your first year, but by the time you hit your second year, it's good to start thinking about those topics. I know kind of to your point with what you were saying about, Hey, this isn't the right data set, this isn't the right data set. Haring me back to also in the same department. I pitched an idea for a thesis to a different faculty member, and she was like, this is a really cool idea, but the data doesn't exist, so you need to come up with something different. 'cause you're not gonna be able to do what you wanna do. And, and I think that's really great that they're that honest with you in saying, Hey, this is how you can succeed in, but it takes it's incumbent on you as the scholar to really help start building those relationships. So I think that's really great advice, Chris. Yeah,
Chris 00:12:26 No, and it's not, it's, you know, it's not necessarily all about, you know, towards the thesis. You know, the, again, these, your honors advisor and your thesis advisor are there to help guide you, um, to make sure that you graduate with honors, but they are genuinely vested in, they have a vested interest in your success, building their relationships just as humans. Um, not as, you know, what they can do for you, uh, in terms of graduating with, uh, with your honors as a schreyer honors scholar. But just building their relationships overall can help grow you as a person, but also enhance your student life. So I, I'll give an example where I, I keep jumping back and forth here, but to summarize a, a key point in my career at Penn State, when I first got to Penn State, I got hurt. I ruptured, I ruptured one disc and herniated two others on my back, had to get back surgery.
Chris 00:13:12 And then over the course of my first two years playing football, just had this procession of injuries. Over the course of that process, you know, my grades started to fall and I needed to make a choice, essentially, was I going to try to push through and maximize my athletic career was in, in the process, potentially drop outta the honors college, you know, make drastic academic choices, or am I gonna just, you know, knuckle down and focus on making sure that I graduate as best as I could? And I chose the latter option. So I had to leave the football team, and I went to speak to Dr. Berkman soon after I stopped playing football. And, you know, he was thinking about, he was proactively thinking about the things that I could do to sort of help prepare me for drafting my thesis, um, to help build my resume.
Chris 00:13:54 And he identified a program at Duke. It was like, it's basically a pre PhD program for diverse, like PolySci students. It's like an intensive six week course where you learn database analysis, statistical analysis, statistical approaches. And I hadn't heard of it. He said, Chris, I think this would be good, a good idea for you. I will write your recommendation. I will, you know, call the people I know down there and make sure that you at least have a shot to get him. And that sort of, that didn't come out of, you know, him necessarily just, you know, wanting to make sure that I graduated with honors. He actually cared. But that was a, you know, that was before my senior year, so it was a process that started my junior year. So, um, that whole process of thinking about what you need to do, working with it, it doesn't, that you don't have to be intensive about it when you're, you know, in your sophomore or junior year, but be thinking about it, be thinking about what you need to do in order to structure your ability to write your thesis and just be speaking with your, with your advisors.
Chris 00:14:49 It's a helpful process. It's gonna be a deliberate process, but it's a helpful one in the long run.
Sean 00:14:53 So, Chris, I wanna thank you for talking about your, your story there. And I wanna dive a little bit deeper. So a lot of our scholars are involved in a lot, sometimes many, you know, too many things that they get involved in. You know, we've had previous episodes where we've talked about folks who've done research, they've been on the th executive committee, they're involved in homecoming, they do internships, all these things. And we do value that as a college. But there is a point where you start getting diminishing returns on being involved, and you faced a hard choice. Can you walk us through what your mindset was and how scholars who maybe are trying to choose between different things, they get to a point where they're thinking, I can't do all of these things and I need to pick what my priorities are. You know, what are, what are some things you considered some criteria and how you walked through that decision? And ultimately, obviously you graduated with honors, you're here on following the gong, you wouldn't be otherwise. So you, you overcame that challenge. What advice would you give to students who are trying to balance that and realize that they maybe took on too much?
Chris 00:15:46 Yeah, yeah. No, it's, it's a physical response that you get once you, I, I can totally empathize with, with those scholars who think that it's the only way you can have it is if to have, is if you have everything all at once. You know, you're come outta high school being told that you're, you know, the top of the class, your, your sky, the sky's the limit as far as your future's concerned. And you want to make sure that you have as many options available to you. So you try to do as much as you can, as often as you can. And while that's a, you know, it's a laudable goal, uh, as you said, Sean, it does have diminishing returns over time. And for me, the crux of the matter was when injuries started compounding in football. So that sort of limited my ability to, to really contribute as much as I was, you know, committed to trying to be the best that I could be on the football team.
Chris 00:16:39 I was, you know, I was literally hamstrung <laugh> by, by, by injuries and by, you know, the fact that, you know, it's a very, very competitive team. Uh, you know, these were excellent. A lot of, uh, a lot of my teammates went on to the pros. Um, a lot of ones that didn't are excellent, excellent football players. In addition to fighting my own body, I was fighting, you know, for, not for a roster spot, but for, you know, playing time with these, play with these, with these, uh, with my teammate. If I was fully healthy, you know, it'd be a coin toss as to whether or not, you know, I'd, I'd have some success on the field. And then you married that with the fact that I was, my grades were just, just in a precipitous decline my sophomore year, just because I was so distracted from what was the real priority, which is making sure that I, you know, got the best education I could did as well as I could in class.
Chris 00:17:30 If I could give any advice to the current and future scholars, it would be that you have to prioritize in the, I'm a lawyer now, and in law we call it triaging. You can have 10 things to do, but there are three things that absolutely, positively have to get done. And then everything else you can prioritize as a, at a secondary and tertiary level, you know, know it's a matter of making those choices. You know, for me it was, I could not let my grades drop. I could not drop, I could not fall out of the honors College. There was no net for me. I didn't have, like I said, parents can't afford college. I was going to drop out. I actually did drop out. That's, so, that's a funny story. Um, I can, I can follow up with, with that, uh, after this, after I complete this answer.
Chris 00:18:08 But, uh, ultimately I made that choice that my academic standing was more important than these extra things that I, that I, that were very, very important to me in my life. But that ultimately, if I lost these, if I lost this academic standing, my life would be dramatically different. I knew it at the time, and I knew that it was, that it was going to have consequences in the future. So I, I made that, made that choice. And that's what I would recommend to, to current and future scholars is if you are getting dragged down, if you're getting mentally distracted, if you're getting physically exhausted by everything that you have to do, it's okay to say, okay, I have to focus on this, therefore I cannot do this. It's okay to do that, and it's okay, not, you're gonna have the rest of your life to stress yourself out. And given the, given the sort of ambitions that we have, you are certainly gonna put yourself in the position of stressing yourself out. But as it stands in college, you need to focus on what's truly, truly important. And those things that you can do, by all means do. But if it gets to, if it gets to the, uh, overburdening that triage, that triage exercise is gonna be important.
Sean 00:19:14 So before we get to your story about, or maybe this is tied to it, so take this, that question as you will here, Chris. You know, a lot of our students, they may pursue opportunities on campus in different leadership roles, or there's an internship that they really want, and they may not get it. Obviously football was probably a huge part of your identity, and then you had to give that up. So how did you adjust to life as a scholar? Post football
Chris 00:19:36 <laugh>? Yeah. Yeah. Okay. So yeah, that does tie into the dropping out or, so it was, uh, it, I thought I dropped out basically. So end of the, right before junior year started, I went to talk to Coach Paterno. I told him that try as I might, injuries were too much, my grades were falling, and I greatly appreciate the opportunity. I sat down in his office, said, I, I can't thank you enough for the opportunity, but I have to make a choice. And this is the choice that I made, is for, to make sure that I can at least pursue, uh, focus on academics. Then I went to the honors college, and I talked to the staff there and said, Hey, I appreciate the opportunity, uh, but I'm, uh, no longer playing football. So I presume this means that I will not be able to, uh, to stay at Penn State anymore.
Chris 00:20:17 Candidly, I was, I was planning to go back to Baltimore, start working in a box factory, save up money, and then try to apply to University of Maryland. I actually went back home, um, and I was laying in bed, and, uh, I get a call from the football team from somebody on the football team who said, Hey, where are you <laugh>? And I said, I don't, um, I, I talked to Joe, I'm not, I'm no longer on the team. And he said, basically what had happened was, uh, after I spoke with Coach Paterno and spoke with Dean Berg and other staff at the, at the Honors College, Dean Berg, and Coach Paterno actually had a meeting and reached an agreement that would allow me to stay in school. So, how it worked was Coach Paterno would keep me on football scholarship for my junior year, and then Dean Berg would find a scholarship for me for my senior year, so that I was going <laugh> I was gonna be able to stay in school.
Chris 00:21:01 That, uh, was a tremendous act on both of their parts. And I, I, to this day, I, I, uh, am endlessly grateful to both of them, but that's, you know, that's, it feeds into how my transition worked away from away from football, because, you know, it was, it was an adjustment. It was a very, very significant adjustment because your day is scheduled, your day is, is from the minute you wake up until, you know, nine, 10 o'clock at night, your day is scheduled when you're playing football. And it's probably the same when you're, you know, on most of the athletic teams at Penn State. Losing that structure is it, it took some time to adjust to, because all of a sudden, you know, it's 6:00 AM and I don't have to be in the, be in the training room, or it's 5:00 PM and I don't have to go to video, or it's 7:00 PM and I'm not in, uh, study hall.
Chris 00:21:50 The process was a, was a, was a long one, and it took some time because Penn State is not a, um, if you want to be distracted at Penn State, it's very easy to be distracted at Penn State. So, knowing that the reason that I had to leave the football team in the first place is because I was too distracted, sort of helped give me a little bit of discipline in terms of, uh, you know, what was happening next. So it was a lot of exploring Penn State, what it had to offer, but also a lot of just closing out the distractions, closing out the noise. I have work to do, I have to do this work. You pick the times, you pick the times when you can engage, and when you have to, you know, just buckle down and get the work done. But, uh, at the same time, I would, I would caution the scholars against getting so deep into, you know, the work they have to do, the organized activities that they have to do, that they miss the opportunity to really enjoy what Penn State is.
Chris 00:22:42 Penn State is a community. It's got a lot to offer just outside of the classroom. I don't think I would've appreciated Penn State as much as I do if I didn't have that opportunity to really engage with the, with the campus, just, you know, meet the, meet regular students, go to the bars, <laugh>. So there was an, a somewhat arduous, but, um, ultimately enjoyable process of sort of adjusting. But, uh, again, the pri you keep your priorities straight, um, no matter what happens, do the work. If you have to dis uh, cut out the distraction though to get the work done, you get the work done.
Sean 00:23:15 I think that's impressive that, you know, you only have so many scholarships on each of the different athletic teams. So that's impressive. That one was leveraged on somebody who wasn't able to play anymore. So, uh, and if you're a scholar, and you're probably thinking, wait, Dean Berg isn't our dean, Dean Mather that, you know, we get these emails every week, the student newsletter, and if you don't read it, you should, uh, and he writes a nice little note to you all in the top of it, and you're like, wait, what? I'm confused. So Dean Ackerberg was the first dean of the Honors College. Uh, so she helped, uh, get things up off the ground after the gift from the Schreyer family. So, a little history lesson for you, as you know, two liberal arts grads sitting here talking. We've talked a lot about your time here on campus in Happy Valley, but eventually you left, you graduated. Tell us about your first rollout of college, because it is a little bit different than what you're doing now. So how did you decide on what was the next, next step,
Chris 00:24:04 Right. Yeah, so, um, so yeah, I got my, I got my thesis in on time. I graduated with honors. I got my, uh, medal, my, my honors medal when I was graduating the, my senior year, I was speaking with my honors advisor and my thesis advisor about, uh, just continuing in this process. You know, I've already started to dig into, you know, quantitative analysis, statistical analysis for, uh, in this political science space. I should just go ahead and go through, uh, and get a PhD in political science. And that was my initial, like, that was the initial long, long-term plan. But then I decided, you know, I, I don't necessarily wanna stay on a campus for, you know, the next five years. I want to take some time out, but I don't wanna go fully off track of this PhD process. So I started looking for, um, basically jobs and research firms.
Chris 00:24:52 I, those, those, uh, liberal arts honors majors. I'm sure they'll know Brookings Institution and ran corporation and all those things. There are companies around the, uh, mostly in the DC area, but around the country, really, that do these statistical analyses that, you know, uh, the survey research with, uh, you know, a political bend or a, a sociological bend. So I ended up finding one of those, one of those research firms is called westat, Western Statistics, uh, is what it's called. It's based in, uh, just outside DC where I could essentially continue in the vein of, you know, doing research, doing hard quantitative analyses. This was a survey research firm, essentially. So it, it primarily worked, at least in the, the segment that I was working in, the division I was working in. It was, uh, evaluating federal programs. It would craft surveys, implement surveys, analyze the surveys, write reports, essentially us evaluating and assessing, uh, various funding programs from the Department of Education, uh, bureau of, uh, department of Justice, few other departments, federal agencies.
Chris 00:25:52 That was hardcore work. I mean, it's, it's, it's going into going into schools, implementing surveys, going into, uh, prisons, uh, juvenile justice facilities, speaking with students, implementing surveys. We write the surveys, then we implement them, then we do the backend statistical analysis of them, then we write the report. So it was, uh, I thought it was very similar to what, and a lot of the people that I work with at WESTAT were PhDs in political science, or PhDs in statistics. So, um, it seemed like a, you know, appropriate sort of ac uh, in line with academia. I could maintain the, the sort of the skillset, but take some time out of, take some time off campus, get to explore the world a little bit. That was, you know, it was a very good experience. I got my first taste of academic writing is one thing.
Chris 00:26:35 Um, writing for reports that are gonna be submitted to Department of Justice or department, or submitted to Congress, that's another thing. They don't language. They like straight to the point. Here's the deal. So, um, <laugh> the idea, the, the practice of sort of sifting out the flowery, here's 10 pages when it could have been six, uh, process. It started there. That was a, that was an enlightening experience, and it was good. Ultimately, I decided that, you know, the PhD route wasn't, wasn't one for me. Just a choice. I think it's just a choice of, of future career paths. Academia is a, it's a competitive space. It's a very, very competitive space, uh, especially for PhDs, uh, trying to get professorships at the time. You know, I was three years in, or two and a half years in at WestEd, making the choice between PhD programs or something else. And I, you know, after thinking about a little bit further, I decided on something else. And that process was very, from there, it was actually very straightforward. I'd spent three years, um, doing deep research and writing law school. I'm gonna go law school <laugh>. That's just research and writing. That's research and writing too. Okay. <laugh>.
Chris 00:27:38 So, so that's how I ended up in law school
Sean 00:27:40 And trying to go in full circle. You ended up at Stanford?
Chris 00:27:44 I did end up at Stanford. I actually wrote in my, uh, my, uh, essays, you know, talking about my undergrad experience, talking about how I was being recruited for football. I specifically mentioned that I was, that I got a scholarship from Stanford in my essay. I don't know if anybody read it or cared about it, but it's a, it was an, it was a verifiable fact that they cared to go back into the football records.
Sean 00:28:03 So what was your law school experience like? Especially you had some opportunities out, like you just described. You were out in the working world for a few years. You had the research background. How did you translate that into your law experience and a key part of law school as well, I'd love you to talk about is what you do in the summer, those practical experiences and how you leverage those opportunities to set yourself up for success.
Chris 00:28:27 Law school is a little bit of a different, it, it takes an adjustment from a space like, uh, Westat into law school, because again, uh, I spent three years at westat sort of learning how to adjust my writing to the mode of, here's what you're asked. Here's what you asked, here's what we did, here's the answer. And law school, at least, you know, especially that first year of law school, the, basically the style of, of law school is essentially exploration, right? So those scholars who are thinking about law school are going to hear about the Socratic method, where professors perfor purport to teach the class by essentially asking questions and getting, getting the student allow, asking questions to allow the students to reach the conclusion themselves. And that sort of process extends into exams for, for law school as well. So where you're going to, you have to ex you, there's a heavy amount of, but this, here's the question.
Chris 00:29:20 It could be this for these reasons, or it could be this for these reasons. It's essentially the process of getting to maybe, maybe yes, maybe no, but here's what we recommend sort of thing. And, uh, that was an adjustment because I, again, I'd spent the last, the previous three years saying, there's a yes or a no answer. And in law school, it's not necessarily that it's understanding why it could be yes or why it could be no, the academics were an adjustment. But the, the actual process of law school, the, the, the practical experiences are what I appreciated the most. They're the summer experiences where you can get an internship, and then at most law schools, they're also going to be what are called clinics, legal clinics, where you can actually get practical experience, um, in a courtroom dealing with contracts, dealing with clients that would be otherwise difficult to get in your regular legal coursework.
Chris 00:30:08 So, um, I took advantage of the clinics as much as possible. You could take, you could take up to, at the time when I was there, you could take up to two clinics, um, and then you could take an advanced version of one of the clinics that you'd done previously. So I did all of that af after my first year of law school, I interned in, uh, a school district, uh, the legal, the legal counsel's office for a San Diego Unified School district, just because I was doing a lot of education work, um, at Westad. And it seemed like a, you know, an interesting area to explore as a lawyer, um, just seeing the, the legal side of public education. But a lot of the practical experience was in dealing with my classmates. There are a lot of students in law school who choose, you know, the, again, the, and I imagine a lot of scholars are gonna, would be of this mind as well.
Chris 00:30:51 There are these gold stars I need to get, you know, I need to get a get on the law journal. I need to publish something. I need to, you know, become a, a research assistant for my, uh, for a professor so that I could get a clerkship, uh, for a judge when I graduate from law school. And that's all good. That's all good. And well, and I, if, if you have the ability and interest to do that, uh, I'd recommend doing it. But for those who are a little bit more on the fence about going that route, I would say it's not necessary that you sort of force yourself into that bubble if it's not, if it's not something that you think is actually the correct fit for you. So I did a lot of, in addition to, you know, worked in a law firm my second year, um, after my second summer, or excuse me, after my second year of law school, I worked in a law firm.
Chris 00:31:34 While I was in law school. I did a lot of, uh, I worked, I was in the law school student government. I was the president of the Black Law Law Student Association. I was a treasurer of the Black Graduate Students Association. I was trying to find ways to really get to know the campus and my classmates and the broader university and just, you know, developing, again, it's, I say this, I said this about, uh, uh, you know, your advisors at Penn State, and I'll say it's a, it's a continuing skill that's, that's valuable to you. Developing a relationships, you know, developing, you know, personal relationships with, with people. Not just because they can, they can benefit you in the future, but because it'll help you grow as a person. You know, being stuck in a, in a classroom or a library or a conference room, it can help certain people. But for a lot of people, myself included, relationships help just as much. I'm 10 years outta law school now, and, you know, there are people who I met in the medical school and the business school at Stanford who, um, are not only close friends, but they're moving into positions that might actually be valuable to me as a lawyer. It's important, I would say, to sort of value those relationships and build their relationships even while you're in law school.
Sean 00:32:46 I've had a couple other attorneys on this podcast before, and a common theme with law school is that there's a lot of things you can do with a jd. Lots of different paths. You can go, you can be a general counsel in, say, a for-profit business or a non-for-profit. You in interned in a, uh, the legal team for a school district. You can be a business owner, you could be a sports agent, lots of different things. What specifically led you to corporate law of all things? And for scholars who may be interested in that path as well, what would help them to know ahead of time to help them be successful?
Chris 00:33:19 Giving a a bit of just practical advice, uh, for law school. Make sure you have, uh, I would recommend that you have a reason to, or you have a, have a plan for when you go to law school. Um, and it's not necessarily, I want to do this, or I want to be this person. It's just make sure it's not your, like a, just some, oh, I don't know what else to do with my life. I'm gonna go to law school with me. I had, you know, like I said, I had a solid foundation and the sort of skills that were gonna be useful in the law that I understood were practical benefits to being a lawyer. The research and writing. A lot of my classmates at Stanford, it came from varied backgrounds, and they're doing exactly what she said they were doing. Sean did, some are some are they own startups.
Chris 00:33:57 Some of them are working in, you know, far-flung locations around the world. Some of them are investment bankers, <laugh>, you know, so, so, um, it's, uh, it's not necessarily a given that you go to law school to become a corporate lawyer, but for a lot of these, especially the, the sort of higher ranked law schools, it's sort of like a, it's a given path to go to. Like these firms are eager to, to have highly intelligent, highly skilled, eager lawyers, uh, coming from these sorts of the operational on law schools. For me, corporate law, it seemed like a, like a good, uh, career path to sort of continue again, where my skillset, where my skillset was. And now I do antitrust litigation, which is <laugh> really a continuation of research and writing, and it, it has, uh, an economic spend and statistic is economics. Statistics and economics are two entirely separate, um, academic fields.
Chris 00:34:52 But, uh, it still does lend some familiarity to the analyses that are required in the, in the type of law that I do. So it seemed like, um, for me, it seemed like corporate law was an appropriate fit for what I'd been doing. And, you know, what my skillset, what my skillset was. If I was, you know, talking to a, to a current or future scholar who's thinking about law school, I would say some people go to law school, um, because they don't know what else to do. Some people go to law school because it helps to clarify their goals in life. Make sure you know that you have a reason to go, and don't be beholden to any particular path. Like, don't say, oh, I'm gonna be a public interest lawyer. A lot of people say that going into law school and they end up being corporate lawyers.
Chris 00:35:32 Don't have a <laugh>. Be open to the possibilities of, of possibilities of what law school presents to you, especially if you go to a school like Stanford, or you go to a school that otherwise allows you to engage with business students and, uh, engineers and you know, the other aspects of graduate, of graduate life on the campus that you're at. Don't be afraid of opportunity because, uh, you know, there's a lot of it out there. There are a lot of smart people who are doing very interesting things. And if you happen to build that relationship that that leads you into something new and exciting, then you know, you'll be all the better for it.
Sean 00:36:05 So Chris, you are a donor to the college. So first of all, thank you for supporting our scholars. I wanted to ask what inspired you to do that? There's nothing that made you do that, that's not any kind of requirement, certainly not for one, for being on this show. I've had plenty of folks who are not donors, I've had some who are, some who aren't, but what inspired you to give back and, and support current and future scholars the way that you're doing? Yeah,
Chris 00:36:28 So going back to that sort of pivotal, after I left, uh, stopped playing football, and when I thought that I was not going to have any funding, it was gonna go work at a box factory. Uh, and then got the surprise that I was actually still at Penn State, I went to, to thank then, uh, Dean Cheryl Berg, and we had a nice conversation where she pointed out, she, she said to me, so Coach Paterno stepped in and said, you know, I was gonna, you know, he would cover the scholarship for, for this upcoming year. But then she said, even if he hadn't, we would've found a way. And, you know, she mentioned that there are scholarships that are available for just those students who there's a last minute, very important need, like these highly, highly extenuating circumstances where it's just this student has no other option and needs this money.
Chris 00:37:14 Heard. Discussing that, just saying that, you know, basically the honors college prepares for these sorts of situations where, you know, when all else fails, we want to keep the student here. Let's do what we need to do in order to keep him here. That resonated with me, that, that still sticks with me. You know, as I started to settle in my career as a lawyer and, you know, <laugh> over time started to save up a little money and, uh, get a little settled, make sure, like reasonably confident now that they're not gonna be summarily fired, 10 years in, I, you know, that sort of thought of, you know, those kids who have, who really have limited options and, you know, worst case like the, the bottom could fall out. They're operating without a net to begin with. What can we, what can I do in order to, you know, try to fill that gap the way that Dean Berg says that other donors to the Honors College try to fill that gap. So this is the, this is actually the first step, like this, this donation that I, when I set up, I mean, I'm hoping this is the first, this is the first piece of a, a going relationship with the Honors college because I, I was that kid that didn't have any other option and the honors College stepped up. So, um, I would like to be that for somebody in the future,
Sean 00:38:16 And we really appreciate that Chris. And this podcast originates out of the development alumni relations office. So we're a little, you know, kind of our job to do these kinds of
Chris 00:38:25 Things, <laugh>
Sean 00:38:27 And obviously, and if you're more, and if you wanna hear more about still, you know, jobs and philanthropy, go back and listen to, I think it's episode 13 with Tina Hennessy. It's a great conversation about philanthropy. Really appreciate that. Chris. If you're an alum listening, this is certainly something that you can do as well. Also, come talk to us, and if you're a scholar who, if you're finding yourself or you have a friend who's also a scholar who's in a position similar to the story that Chris shared, or maybe, you know, something else extenuating happens with your family or other things where that net falls out from underneath of you, or you don't have one to begin with, come talk to us. We care about you. We want to see you succeed. If you're a Schreyer scholar, we want to get you across that finish line. So come talk to us. If you find yourself in that situation like Chris did, many not, but not too many moons ago. <laugh>
Chris 00:39:11 Enough moons, yeah, and I, I, I just, I'll echo that, Sean. It's, it's incredible both the resources and the dedication of the Honors College. Like, they don't, you're not a number when you get into the Honors College. You're a real human person. And the, the staff and the university as a whole and the Stre Connors College, they appreciate that you're not going, you're not alone, whether it's a financial thing or you know, you're struggling one way or another. The Honors College has resources. They'll do what they can to, uh, to try to get you through a tough time.
Sean 00:39:40 Absolutely. We can't guarantee anything, but we will do whatever we can to help you. So, you know, come talk to us if you find yourself in that position. So Chris, I think you teed up kind of the, I wanna move to the last third of our conversation here. How do you feel that your experiences as a scholar, as a nittany lion on the football team as a poli sci major, how do you feel that these helped you along your path? And would you have done anything differently? <laugh>,
Chris 00:40:06 Besides,
Sean 00:40:07 Besides maybe getting injured? I think, I think that's probably one we might <laugh>, but maybe not. Maybe that that was your, that was what was meant to be. I'll let you answer that one.
Chris 00:40:14 I always caution against the what would you do differently, because you know of the butterfly effect scenario, right? You know, if I picked this one thing to do differently, how might that have affect, how might that affect everything in my life? That, that followed it all things considered. I like where I'm right now, there are some, a lot of bad, but a lot of good as well. Um, you know, it's a, it's, uh, I think my experiences at Penn State really helped sort of firm up that, that mentality, no matter how, what's the best way to say this, uh, a hearty mentality, you know, this, just this reality that, you know, sometimes life sucks, bad things are going to happen, but there's always going to be a tomorrow. And you have to keep looking at that. You have to keep saying, okay, well, this was no good, but, you know, I've got other things that are going on in my life that are, that are good, and I know that, you know, overall things are gonna get better.
Chris 00:41:03 Especially during that, that period when I was, I thought I was, again, I was done, you know, I thought I was, you know, I was gonna have to make a really, really dramatic restructuring of my life, you know, I was excellent. I was, you know, looking at the positive, you know, there, well, you know, I have to drop off for a little bit, but you know, I can, I can make it. And I was undyingly appreciative. It's just, it's just never gonna end. I'll be, I'll go to my grave thanking Dean Berg and Coach Paterno, but having that hardy mentality and just saying, you know, life is gonna be tough sometimes, uh, but you can do it. You know, if anything, I learned that from, from my time at Penn State. Chris,
Sean 00:41:39 What would you say is your biggest success to date? <laugh>?
Chris 00:41:44 So, you know, that's the, I don't, I don't know that I, you know, I can answer that question. I think, again, if you look at everything as a, if you try to look on the bright side of things, then saying, what's your biggest success? You know, my biggest success is, you know, being where I am right now, being where I am today, given all the bad stuff that happened in life and all the, all the hurdles that you had to overcome. Just being able to say that, Hey, I've got a good career of, I'm surrounded by people who respect me. I'm in a good position in life, all things considered. I'm just happy with that. You gotta have a little humility. <laugh> success is a, is a relative thing. I'm happy to be here. That
Sean 00:42:23 Is a great approach. And speaking of positions, Chris, one thing I don't think we've actually ever mentioned, we've talked a lot about the football team, but we never actually mentioned what position you played. So what, where did you line up on the field? Oh, yeah,
Chris 00:42:34 I, I was recruited as a running back. So my, my red shirt freshman year was Larry Johnson's fifth year. His 2000 yard year was my first year on campus. So, uh, then I switched to fullback. But yeah, I was a running back, uh, overall when I was at, when on the team.
Sean 00:42:49 So, kind of going back to the, the previous question that I asked, you know, biggest success and, and you had a great answer there, but what would you say is your biggest transformational learning moment?
Chris 00:42:58 Well, I think that would actually be in law school because like the, I got to, to Stanford and, you know, I, I'm humbled by, you know, how brilliant, I'm like the people that I'm surrounded by. Same thing when I was in the honors college, you know, you get humbled a little bit by recognizing the, the intellectual, like heaviness that surrounds you. But in law school, it's, it took me some time to realize that, you know, I can run the same race in a different way. That a lot of these people who were sort of, you know, they want to go for the gold stars and be the, the ideal law student. I'm like, well, maybe I'm not built for being the ideal law student, but I can succeed in law school and I can build these relationships that I know are gonna help me in a different way.
Chris 00:43:39 Even if I'm not gonna be, you know, president of the law review or the research assistant for the, for the top professor, all these things, it's okay. It's okay to, to, to sort of reset your goals on the fly in that, in that sort of respect and that ability to, that recognition that it's okay to, to adapt. You're not gonna get your, if you don't get your first goal, reset the goal, go for that new goal that it really hit home when I was in, when I was in law school. And that's, that's really sort of been a, a guiding approach since then. Great
Sean 00:44:08 Advice. Speaking of advice, how do you view yourself as both a mentor and a mentee? What advice do you have for students as they approach those kinds of relationships? Yeah,
Chris 00:44:16 Again, I mean, I, I, I keep banging this horn, but, uh, or banging this drum, but it's, uh, it's an important one fo both for, you know, mentor as a mentor, and as a mentee. The focus is on the relationship. The focus is on getting to know this person as a person rather than as a, you know, as a box to check off because you're a mentor and you had you signed up for this, or as somebody who knows this, this particularized knowledge has this particularized knowledge and is therefore valuable to you in the, as a, as your career. You want to know these people as human beings, and that actually helps deepen their relationship and gives invest, uh, invest both the mentor and the mentee in the relationship and in the future success of, of one another. So, um, that's how I approach it. I, I want to get to know them as people and then I go from there.
Sean 00:45:04 Speaking of people other than maybe Dr. Berkman and Major Coleman, who you talked about, and, and Dean Ackerberg, are there any professors or friends from your scholar days that you wanted to give a shout out to <laugh>?
Chris 00:45:15 Well, all of the, see now, um, uh, for better or worse, there's been a 100% plus turnover in the football program. But Kirk deal, I keep getting emails from Kirkdale, hope he's doing well. He's, I think he's, uh, he's a staffer now for Penn State Athletics communications. Wally Richardson, I believe he's still there. Um, he's now the <laugh>. Yeah, Wally Richardson is, uh, he's a hell of a guy, uh, running the academic program at, for the football team. Uh, I hope they're doing well. There's some good people in that program, a reckoning, A reckoning rightfully occurred within the program, but I'm glad that there are, that there are still some good souls in there.
Sean 00:45:50 So, just final three questions here for you, Chris, as we're wrapping up our time, what's a final piece of advice that you wanted to share, but maybe didn't come up organically in our conversation? I
Chris 00:45:59 Mean, one thing I would say for the scholars that are there is, I can't overestimate how important it is to, to really take the time to try to enjoy yourself while you're in state college. I mean, you're gonna go back, you're gonna look back 15 years after you graduate if your experience did not include some of the fun things that, you know, you see other, uh, Penn Staters, Penn State alumni talking about and enjoying when they're 35 years old enjoying a beer at, uh, they come back for a game or they, uh, they meet up with alumni, uh, in their, whatever town that they're living in, you're gonna feel like something's missing. So, I know there's a lot of, especially for scholars, there's a lot of, uh, a lot of people have that urge to, to really just buckle down. I don't, I don't care about the parties, I don't care about the football, I don't care about this or that. I just wanna get my thesis. I wanna do my job. I wanna do my work. That's important. But you were in a, you were in a special place. It's important that you at least try to engage with that in some respects. You know, try to, try to have a little bit of fun. Don't stress yourself out too much, because there's a lot of ways to have fun at Penn State. That's, IM, that's important. Be open that side up, make some good memories.
Sean 00:47:00 Absolutely. College flies by. So I can give really, really good advice. I recently hit my 10 year mark and I was like, wow, where did that time go? So <laugh>, I wholeheartedly echo that. Chris, if a scholar wanted to reach out to you and, and take this conversation further, what's the best way that they can get in touch with you? Um,
Chris 00:47:16 Yeah, so LinkedIn is, is very easy. Um, you can just Google, you can also Google Christopher Wilson Baker Botts, B a k E R B O T t Ss. Just Google it and I'm gonna be, I'll come up as the first link. Uh, but yeah, no, I'm, I'm, I'm happy to, if you're in DC I'm happy to meet up for coffee. Uh, if you have any wanna talk on the phone or discuss by email, I'm happy to be there. Awesome.
Sean 00:47:39 Thanks for that, Chris. And finally, as is tradition here on the show, if you were a flavor of Burke Creamery ice cream, what would you be? And as a scholar alumnus, most importantly, why would you be that flavor <laugh>, especially as a lawyer? Chris, explain your rationale. <laugh>.
Chris 00:47:53 Yeah, well, no, I think I could be pithy with this one. It's the, there's a sticky, there's a hot, there's this grilled stickies ice cream, right
Sean 00:48:00 There Sure is. It's one more flavors. Yep. Yeah,
Chris 00:48:03 Yeah. No, I, I, I believe I had that at one point. At one point when I, when I first came, when I, when I last came out to Penn State, I think that, um, that would fit me pretty well, uh, just 'cause I'm a, I, I consider myself to be a, a cool take on an old classic. So, uh, that's, that's how I kind of see myself at least. That
Sean 00:48:21 Is a great, great way to wrap up, Chris. And if, you know, if you get sick of being a lawyer, I think there's maybe some branding and marketing in your future too, <laugh> with,
Speaker 1 00:48:29 With,
Sean 00:48:29 With a phrase like that. And I think you're, the first person has the time of recording to pick that flavor, so congrats on, on being the first one on that. <laugh>.
Chris 00:48:36 Hey, it was tasty when I tried it, so, uh,
Sean 00:48:38 It sounds delicious. I haven't had it yet, but I will definitely try to. Chris Wilson, thank you so much for joining me here on following The Gone. I know you've gotta run, you've got lawyer things to do. Thank you so much for joining us here today. Appreciate it.
Chris 00:48:49 Thank you for having me, Sean. I appreciate it. Take care.
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