Excellence in Action
Linda Lehrer ’71, Ph.D.
Interviewed by Monique Beals • May 2, 2018
Please describe your career path from UCLA to your current role.
I didn’t really start out with a career path in mind or, if I had one, it was pretty vague. When I look back on my career I can discern a path, but it only emerged in retrospect. When someone looks at my resume everything seems straightforward and connected, but I can assure you it didn’t feel that way while I was living through it. I hope that will encourage people who don’t see things quite so clearly starting out to trust that if they keep exploring and trying new things they can find their place and their passion along the way.
After graduating from UCLA I went on to get my doctorate in English at Brown University. I think the experience of spending my junior year abroad, at the University of Birmingham in England, helped determine what I was going to do next. I enjoyed the British university system, the smaller classes and tutorials, and felt drawn to that kind of academic experience. So I decided to get my doctorate at a different type of university. I had a teaching fellowship at Brown and spent three years teaching undergraduate literature courses. While I enjoyed working on my doctorate and teaching, I felt I needed to try something different, to move out of the educational arena and see what else the world had to offer. After graduation, I moved to New York, where I had relatives who agreed to let me camp out on their sofa until I found a job. This was in the late 1970s and the job market wasn’t great. I ended up with a series of odd and interesting part-time jobs—and despairing relatives—until I finally landed a full-time position.
While I was filled with anxiety and dire visions of never earning a paycheck, my first job hunt had a happy ending. I was hired for two jobs–at the Modern Language Association and at the College of New Rochelle, the latter as an adjunct instructor for a course in Humanities for adults returning to get their college degrees. I had also begun to try my hand at freelance writing and ended up publishing articles in a few magazines.
Through my freelance work, I found my next job. An editor I had written for moved on to a marketing position at Dow Jones, the parent company of The Wall Street Journal, and invited me to interview for a job in the department. That started my career at Dow Jones, which included working in marketing, corporate relations, planning the company’s centennial celebration and moving to Brussels to help launch The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I returned to New York a few years later as the assistant to the editor of The Wall Street Journal, helping set up news operations in our new corporate headquarters in the World Financial Center as well as traveling to South America to look into the feasibility of creating a Wall Street Journal for that region.
In addition to my full-time job, I had continued to do freelance writing and decided I wanted to try reporting. I was able to make good use of my academic skills as a reporter – writing and researching, for example – but also learned some new ones, such as how to tell a clear and cogent story in just a couple of column inches.
After leaving the Journal, I edited a small business publication and worked as a stringer for The Chicago Tribune. I also did some consulting work for a public television business program, which got me thinking about doing something in television. While working on that consulting job I was introduced to some people from Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), the parent company of Sesame Street. CTW was expanding its programming, launching new series in the U.S. as well as internationally, and I was hired as the corporate publicist. A short while later I was tapped by Scholastic—a multimedia educational company that was about to launch its first television program, The Magic School Bus, based on a best-selling book series—to head Communications. While at Scholastic I worked with a number of divisions of the company, learning about TV and movie production as well as participating in some early efforts to create educational websites and online teaching aids.
A few years later I left Scholastic and New York to take a position as head of Communications for the Aspen Institute, headquartered in Washington, DC, with a campus in Aspen, Colorado where international thought leaders came together to discuss issues of importance to civil society. While at the Institute I created a program to help people think about and deal with change, both professional and personal.
Perhaps because change played such a significant role in my life and career, I understood the need for flexibility, risk-taking and creative thinking, and wanted to help people develop the skills that I knew could make it easier to navigate the various phases of their careers and lives. After a few years with the Institute, I returned to New York to grow my new business, giving workshops around the country for nonprofits, corporations, universities, spas, etc.
In 2007, I returned to The Aspen Institute to work with one of its New York-based policy programs. Two years later I was asked to help launch a new Institute program called “Conversations with Great Leaders,” showcasing the work of values-based leaders who are bringing about positive change in their communities. Speakers for the series have included jazz great Wynton Marsalis, tennis legend and activist Billie Jean King, and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
What inspired you to choose this career path?
I don’t know if I consciously chose it. When I look back I recognize that the work I have done has largely been in the fields of communications and education, which are areas that are important to me, but I wouldn’t say I set out with those areas in mind. At one time I thought I would stay in academia. I love teaching and—in addition to working at my “day jobs”—have taught courses in journalism, writing and public relations at universities in New York City.
I guess you could say that my career grew out of my educational experiences. The classes I took as an undergraduate taught me the value of curiosity, of having a wide breadth of knowledge and of looking beyond boundaries and limitations. My liberal arts background enabled me to be flexible, to try new things and to adapt my skills to a number of different areas and work situations.
I think serendipity also played a role in my career. Perhaps serendipity is just putting yourself in a place where interesting things can happen and then taking advantage of what comes your way. Taking a chance, even when you know you don’t have all the skills necessary for the job. That’s where courage and creative thinking come in. I didn’t have a clear sense of a direction with regards to a career, but I knew the areas that interested me and in following those interests—and taking some chances–I ended up in jobs that were fulfilling.
How did your UCLA experience help shape your success?
UCLA is a big university with a diverse student body as well as diverse educational offerings. In fact, I wish I had taken greater advantage of all that UCLA had to offer when I was an undergraduate. I think there are very few academic institutions that can match UCLA’s breadth of offerings and experiences for students. For instance, I participated in the study abroad program and spent a year at a British university. That was my first time in Europe and it had a big impact on me. I loved living in another country and knew then that I wanted to travel and live other places as part of whatever I did in my career. Which is pretty much what happened.
I also had some wonderful professors at UCLA who helped me think about my direction and my interests. And the university’s stellar academic reputation helps when applying for jobs. People are impressed when they see UCLA on your resume – it opens doors.
In what ways have you utilized the UCLA alumni network?
One of my first friends at the Aspen Institute, a policy program director, did her undergraduate degree at UCLA. When I went to Children’s Television Workshop, the head of the legal department was also a UCLA graduate. That common experience connected us and was like an informal alumni network. Now that UCLA has an active alumni operation in New York City, I’ve attended talks with the Chancellor and lunches with various Deans. I am more involved with UCLA today than in previous years.
What has been your greatest career challenge and how did you overcome it?
While there are always challenges along the way, especially if you’re interested in trying new things, my first challenge felt like the biggest – that is, having a doctorate but deciding not to pursue an academic career. I don’t know if it’s still true, but when I started looking for jobs people saw my doctorate as a degree that qualified me for only one thing – teaching. That was the subject of my first published article — What does having a doctorate in English Literature qualify you for? The people I was interviewing with had no idea, and I soon realized that it was up to me to translate the skills I’d acquired while earning an advanced degree into something that related to the job I wanted.
I “repackaged” myself in order to get those first jobs. In fact, I’ve done that throughout my career, moving from print journalism to public television to consulting and program development. Every time I’ve changed my career or moved in a different direction, I’ve had to figure out how to convince people I could do the job, even though, at first glance, my experience didn’t look like a good fit.
What advice would you give to UCLA students and alumni interested in your industry?
There are many different components to what I would call my “industry.” Right now, I’m working in the nonprofit arena and what I do is a combination of program development, communications, writing and speaking. The skills I use today were developed as a result of the jobs I’ve had along the way.
As I said at the beginning of this interview, don’t worry if you aren’t clear about your direction when you’re starting out. Get a job that interests you and gives you room to grow, then look at the skills you’re developing and figure out how to apply them to the next area you’re interested in moving into. Be flexible and willing to try new things. Offer yourself as an intern or pro bono consultant to an organization in the field you want to enter. You’ll learn new skills, add credentials to your resume and gain confidence in your ability to do the job.
How do you participate and support in the UCLA community now?
There are activities in the New York area that I attend. I recently went to a conversation with Chancellor Block, who talked about new and exciting projects the university is involved in as well as how UCLA is responding to some of today’s challenging issues, such as diversity and immigration. I’ve also tried to connect UCLA staff with opportunities to participate in Aspen Institute programs, including the summer Ideas Festival in Colorado. When possible, I try to connect with UCLA students, faculty, and alumni. I’m happy to be a resource when I can.
What makes you most proud to be a Bruin?
I attended UCLA on a combination of scholarships and work/study. A number of universities are now talking about how to make a college education more affordable to a wider group of students, and I think UCLA has been a real leader in that area.
I’m also proud of the fact that the things I thought were important to my education – a broad exposure to learning, incorporating both the sciences and the arts–are still considered important by the people who are leading the university today.
And finally, what’s next?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, but don’t have a definite answer yet. One of the programs I created, called The Next Step, helps people recognize when it is time to make a change and then figure out what the next step is. I’m at the point in my life and career where I’m exploring possibilities. My next step may be a combination of teaching and writing, which feels like closing the circle. I’m currently in what I call the “foggy phase” of the journey where you know there’s a path ahead, but you can’t quite see it yet. That’s a bit scary, but also very exciting.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Monique Beals is a Communications major and UCLA College Honors student from Memphis, Tennessee. She has previously interned at the Office of Senator Lamar Alexander, the Orange County Register, and Tegna Inc. She has also worked as an Urban Fellow for the City of Memphis. At UCLA, Monique has been involved as Marketing Director of the Community Service Commission in addition to working as a Student Recruiting Assistant for UCLA Athletics. After graduating from UCLA, Monique intends to pursue a career in journalism or law.
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