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Paul Nelson

Paul Nelson '78 is a professor of international development with experience in the field.

I graduated in 1978 with a History major, and there isn’t a smooth, easy way to connect the dots and account for my career path since then. I am now a professor and direct a Master’s of International Development program at the University of Pittsburgh, working with students from around the world and with US citizens who want to go to work for humanitarian and global justice agencies such as Oxfam, Care or World Vision.

I left Wheaton excited to start a PhD program in History at Princeton University. I was in the program for two years, which were exciting intellectually but (no fault of the department) unrewarding personally. I had a growing sense that there was another kind of work for me, and I took a leave of absence and began an unpaid internship at Bread for the World, the citizens lobby on US food policy. I worked in that field for several NGOs for 15 years (with a break for graduate school in international development at Wisconsin), went back to work in international development as a practitioner, and in 1998 I took a faculty position at Pitt, where I have worked for 17 years.

I have two things to say about this story, and about my study of history at Wheaton. First, my path toward a vocation – a calling – changed directions a couple of times, in ways that surprised me at the time but that are closer to the norm now. I wouldn’t choose an undergraduate major now assuming that it will launch me into one career path, and in retrospect I didn’t in the 1970s, either. Second, I majored in History because I loved reading and writing about history, and in the process I had professors who paid close attention to how I thought about things, and how I wrote and spoke about them. They taught me to write, speak, and think more clearly and critically. I also see now that history, like math, teaches us a way to think, to reason about a problem without being bound to a single field’s set of theories and methodologies. Those are the strongest links between my history major and the work I do now, and I think that’s true for a lot of professionals.

I don’t regret starting graduate school in history, but if I were making a choice about graduate school today, I’d think seriously about working for at least a couple of years first. (Remember, I teach in a master’s program – and yes, I give this advice to prospective students interested in our program, too.) It is hard for most of us to know what we want to do professionally, and how that squares with the person we want to become, in our senior year of college. I didn’t, and I was a much better student when I went back to grad school after working for six years or so, because I had real questions, based in my work experience, that I wanted to answer, and I knew at least some of the skills I wanted to learn to do my work better.

There is a practical financial issue, too: I was lucky and didn’t go into debt for graduate school, thanks to financial aid. But if I had, that might have made some of the choices I later made more difficult. I didn’t make a lot of money those first several years working for a public interest lobby, but I know it was absolutely the right place for me to be, and it would have been harder to stay there if I had been paying off big student loans.

I also learned about myself during those six first years of work: that I like working in a team; and that I do like to think, reason, write, and argue, but I like doing those things when I feel there’s really something important at stake, when I can make a difference in how governments respond to the needs and aspirations of their poorest citizens. I don’t see how I could have learned these things about myself in a classroom. So I would choose a history major if I had it to do over again, not assuming that I would become a professional historian, but because I love history. And I wouldn’t assume that grad school should come immediately after college, but would consider working or even interning for a while – you might find your calling.