You Can Do Amazing Things: Video Transcript

Dr. Darrell West (BA Political Science, Miami, 1976) [Vice President and Director of Governance Studies and Director of the Center for Technology and Innovation at the Brookings Institution]: I gave the gift to support the lecture series just because, as a student at Miami University, I always really enjoyed the speakers who came through from government, business, and other parts of the country. It was a way to broaden my horizon; it would give me experience in how other people saw an issue. So I think it's a way to help educate students and give them perspectives outside their own point of view.

Choosing Miami was an easy choice for me because I grew up 10 miles from here; my mother worked at the university, so I got the benefit of the employee-tuition discount. This is in the 1970s; my average student tuition during that time was $125. So Miami University was the best bargain of my lifetime.

I took a variety of different courses; I had internships; I worked on the student newspaper. I originally wanted to be a journalist, but after those experiences, being a journalist you know a little bit about a lot of different things, but you aren't really an expert on any one thing. And I came to realize that I really valued developing expertise in more specialized areas. So it was at that point where I got interested in political science and went to graduate school, got a PhD, and went on to become a college professor.

American politics was always something that interested me. My father had been an elected official at the local level; he was a township trustee. And he used to go to Columbus, Ohio to meet with various members of the legislature and elected officials. He would come back and tell us all these stories about how politics worked and what went on in the state capital. And so, it just created a lot of interest in my part on understanding that world and eventually I decided that's what I really wanted to study.

I had lots of terrific instructors at Miami University. The professors were first-rate and I felt like I got a great education. I took courses in a variety of different areas: American politics, comparative politics, international relations; I found all of them fascinating in different ways. And I also had professors that ended up giving me really good advice. I mean, this was in the 1970s, kind of at the very beginning of the computer era, and I had one professor who said, 'Look, computers are really going to be big and you should take a programming course on Fortran.' And I was thinking, 'Hey, this is crazy,' like I'm not interested in computers and I would do terribly at Fortran. I took the class, I ended up doing terribly; I think I got a C or D in the class, but it gave me a better understanding about computers and it turned out, the guy was right. It's like, now computers are everything. And so, getting really great advice from the faculty was very important early in my educational career.

I did not do any study abroad; that was something that would have been a little too exotic for me; I wasn't ready for that. But I did have a number of internships. I went to Washington, DC for a couple of summers; I had an internship with a public interest advocacy group, and so that kind of exposed me to the nonprofit world. Later, I had an internship in a federal agency so that gave me some experience in how the federal government operated; that, by the way, convinced me I never wanted to become a federal bureaucrat. But that helped me decide what I didn't want to do; sometimes having an experience that you don't like can be as valuable in leading you to where you end up finding what you do like.

I work at a think-tank in Washington, the Brookings Institution, and our job is to identify problems and come up with practical solutions. And I think being at Miami provided a really great background for that because I got a liberal arts education, I learned about a variety of different topics; what I learned was not particularly ideological, I wasn't taught from a real liberal of real conservative perspective; so it helped focus me on kind of pragmatic solutions that help solve problems.

I think the biggest advice I can give to students is really to aim high. I mean, Miami is a great university and you can go on to do really amazing things and so, you really should follow what you're interested in, and go as far as you can because you are going to meet great people here.

The most interesting aspects of the work I do now is doing research and meeting leaders from the worlds of government and business. We meet CEOs of leading companies, we have Senators and House members and Cabinet officials who come to Brookings to give talks. And so, you get a chance to see the person behind the scene and learn a little bit about how they think. Sometimes you end up thinking better of these prominent individuals based on how they come across; sometimes you end up with a more negative view, but either way you get a more nuanced view of who they are and how they approach their particular positions.

Ten years from now, I hope to still be working at Brookings; it's a great place to work. Many of the policy problems on which we are working now are not going to be solved right away. We work on issues of education, healthcare, technology innovation, how to improve the governance process in the United States. I hope that we are able to make progress over the next decade, but there are so many challenges that there are still going to be aspects to those problems that are still going to need research.

[February 2013]