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‘Aha' moments change career paths for faculty members


July 03, 2006
Aha' moments change career paths for faculty members

Steve Doig, who holds the Knight Chair in Journalism in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, planned to be a doctor.

So did Carol Johnston, a professor of nutrition at the Polytechnic campus.

And Lee Croft, a professor of Russian language and literature, majored in math – even though he knew, deep down inside, that he disliked the subject.

What happened to change the course of these professors' lives?

For each, there was an “Aha!” moment when they knew they were on the wrong – and finally right – path.

Doig's revelation came in Vietnam .

“I was there, serving in the Army, because I had been a completely unmotivated student during my first two years at Dartmouth,” he says. “Freshman chemistry had persuaded me that my original career choice – medicine – wasn't going to happen.

“Lacking other career ideas, I partied my way through the next couple of semesters, getting ever-worse grades, until finally I became draft bait. Because I could type and spell, the Army sent me to the Defense Information School to be trained as a reporter.”

Doig was sent to Vietnam for a year, where he did stories for Army publications and hometown newspapers. During this time, he met many of the professional reporters who were covering the war for television and newspapers.

“My moment came in Khe Sanh, the abandoned Marine base that had been the site of a bloody, 77-day siege three years earlier,” Doig says. “The base was being reopened as a staging area for the Vietnamese military to invade neighboring Laos, in hopes of cutting off NVA supply lines.

“I was with several reporters, including war photographers Larry Burrows and Henri Huet, who all were telling exciting stories about being journalists. That's when it finally – and belatedly – occurred to me: ‘Hey, I could do this journalism thing for a living!' ”

Burrows and Huet were killed the next day in a helicopter crash, but Doig says that “despite that reminder of the grim side of this profession, from then on I was focused.”

As a pre-med student at the University of Michigan in the 1970s, Johnston found herself struggling with a decision about picking an undergraduate major.

Biology was a likely choice, but it “didn't sound interesting,” she says, adding that the advising was so poor that she didn't get much guidance.

“My roommate and I were sitting on the floor in our dorm room, and we felt a bit overwhelmed with our classes – which were quite hard – and the unapproachable professors,” Johnston says. “My roommate was flipping though the course catalog and saw the ‘nutrition' major, and said that it matched the prerequisites for applying to medical school quite well.”

Johnston says she didn't even know there was such a major as nutrition, but after she finished her degree, she never gave another thought to medical school.

Croft says his “Aha!” moment was the time he decided what he should not do for a living.

“I was a student of mathematics right here at ASU,” he says. “I took MAT-445 – Number Theory – from Charles Wexler, for whom the Math Building is now named. He worked us very hard.

“I struggled to get the homework assignments done. I'd mow the lawn of the apartment near campus my wife and I managed, then I'd vacuum the pool, then go to my night job at a drive-in theater in Scottsdale . I just could not get around to facing that homework.”

In class one day, a fellow student took great delight in solving a complex problem several different ways, leaving Croft scratching his head.

“When I saw him do this, I said, ‘Aha!', realizing that solving complex number theory problems was that guy's idea of fun,” Croft says. “And I realized I was setting myself up to compete with his ilk in the job market all my days.”

Croft finished his math degree and taught for several years, but finally went back to school to get a degree in what stirred his passion: languages, linguistics and literature.

Croft now shares his hard-won wisdom with his students.

“I tell them: ‘Do what you like to do in life. You'll do it better, and its result will be a joy to you and others,' ” he says.