The Power of One

Author: Scott Beaulier, Dean of NDSU’s College of Business

Hovering in Indecision

For some people, it’s a parent. For others, it’s a sibling, spouse, or friend. In my case, it was the good luck of ending up in the right class, at the right time, with the right professor that changed my life forever.

20 years ago, I was a young college student somewhat directionless. My bosses at McDonald’s told me I was “management material” (could they see a future as an academic dean in me then?!) and were encouraging me to finish school and then head to Hamburger University to become a higher-level manager or franchise owner. That was certainly an option I was open to pursuing. I would have been good at it: I’m punctual, I value cleanliness, I can motivate a team and seeing happy customers gave me joy.

Considering the future I envisioned—being financially well off, having a wife and kids, and having fun in my job—this path seemed bright, but I couldn’t shake the idea that it just wasn’t quite right. As I plodded through college, I remained restless. I found myself on my third or fourth major as a student. Nothing really seemed to set off a spark. I was hovering in indecision and apathy. Professor Dave Prychitko would soon change that and help me discover a career path that spoke to me.

Finally! Direction!

I met Professor Prychitko in the fall of 1997 when I “ended-up” in his Econ 101 class. It wasn’t a choice on my part—it was the only section open since students naturally avoid the “new guy.” The unknown ended-up setting off a spark that changed the trajectory of my life.

For the first time, I was interested in reading course content beyond what was required. The content and ideas Professor Prychitko introduced me to that semester lit a fire within me. In fact, that course was my entry point into the life of a reader, an intellectual, a scholar, and an academic.

I didn’t know it then, but I was on track to become a dean and university administrator. That initial course and the many Economics courses that followed, opened me up to these possibilities. As I look back on how I ended up where I am today—something that people often do when big numbers like 20 year anniversaries arrive—I realize how lucky I was to meet Dave Prychitko, my mentor, my friend, and the Econ 101 professor who changed my life.

Dave Prychitko

I did pretty well in the 101 course, and Dave suggested I take another Economics class.  I was clearly good at Economics and while that certainly is a testament to Dave’s teaching skills, it was his mentorship and encouragement that makes him an exceptional professor and person.

I’m a first-generation college student; I’m a Yooper; I’m Midwestern tough (and nice) and from lower/middle-class stock. The life of an academic, and dean of a business school no less, would never have crossed my mind. Dave didn’t see my past and, what I now recognize to be self-imposed, obstacles as barriers. He saw my potential and helped me chart a different future.

While most professors are prickly about students disrupting them, Dave was patient and open about office hours and would talk with me until my questions were answered. He was this young guy at the time—not much younger than I am now—filled with energy about his craft, and he gave me a sense that the ideas we were discussing and our time visiting was the most important and only thing that mattered.

After I finished a book, such as Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom or Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Dave was curious to hear what I took away from those books and would then suggest three more for me to read next.

By my junior and senior years as an undergrad, he was the person helping me make decisions about the best courses to prepare for graduate school. He carved out extra time in his week for lengthy one-on-one reading groups with me and also co-authorship of papers.

As I reflect back on Dave’s generosity and think about the fact I’ve interacted with hundreds of professors in my career now, I’m shaking my head at my desk as I type and saying to myself, “Who does that? And, why did he do that for me?”

Gratitude

That I get to live my life playing with ideas, teaching others economics, and managing a knowledge enterprise where, each day, we are aiming to deliver higher value to the students and stakeholders we serve still seems completely inconceivable as a life outcome.

It’s a miracle I’m where I am today, and my career rise is something I would have never guessed. But, that’s the beauty of dumb luck, on the one hand, and people who care are on the other. That one person or one meeting or one conversation can literally make the difference between one life outcome and another life that’s drastically different and completely unimaginable.

In my case, Dave Prychitko is that key person who changed my life. I suspect many people have a story like mine, where someone—a friend, a mentor, a business partner—activated or sparked a creative, ambitious, and previously untapped side of a person. With the many hats I wear, I try to pay it forward and be some else’s Dave. I’m not sure if I’ve been successful but my gratitude to Dave continues to inspire me to be a better teacher, leader, and all around person.

Earlier this month, almost 20 years to the day I met him, I returned to my alma mater, Northern Michigan University, to say “thank you” again to Dave.