Department of English

12.02.13- Paying for Process: Sitting Down with Clemson Grad Will Cathcart

By Parker Essick

Alumni Spotlight_CathcartAs a self-diagnosed ADD journalist who has made his name in a broad array of career fields, Clemson alum Will Cathcart tends to finish conversations in an area far removed from where he started.  Because of this, within a two-hour interview, questions about his work as an advisor to the president of Georgia can lead to answers about objectivity in journalism, and an in-depth analysis of the events of September 11 can quickly become a discussion on the meaning of college education.  However, one specific theme ran through the main vein of the varied conversation:  his experience with the English major at Clemson both changed his life and positively influenced his astounding list of achievements and careers.

Cathcart returned to Clemson this October to receive the prestigious Roaring 10 award, presented every year to ten extraordinary, high-achieving alums; however, he stayed an extra few days in order to share with students the joys and privileges of studying English at the undergraduate level.  While he studied at Clemson (2001-05), he told me that, “People were always surprised, asking ‘Why are you an English major at Clemson?’”  He discussed how the major confusingly appears to non-English majors:  an “arbitrary…literature major” that also somehow includes “literary theory, international politics, history, philosophy [etc.].”  However, as he sees it, the major takes on a very different, and much more valuable meaning:  “We’re looking at a way to study the world,” he said distinctly, emphasizing how the English major focuses on “the ability to creatively analyze a situation, break down what’s going on, and express yourself coherently.”  The major, to him, roots itself in something more than an arbitrary, sometimes outdated and limited text.  English students learn how to take those texts and apply them to both everyday and more prodigious problems, and from this, they are able to solve those problems quickly and succinctly.

At the same time, and really in the same way, Cathcart explained how the English major teaches students to make mistakes gracefully and solve problems by learning from those mistakes.  “The lectures I remember the most,” he admitted, “are the ones where we were arguing or discussing something and I was wrong…I don’t remember the ones where I was smart or looked cool.”  He credits a lot of this to professors like his mentor Keith Morris, Mike LeMahieu, and current department chair Lee Morrissey, who “took the time to tell [him he] was wrong in class and challenge [him],” claiming that this pressure has helped him handle novel situations in various foreign fields.  As he expressed to me, “the world is always changing,” and the ability to soundly interpret and interact with that world leads to better performance in a variety of academic and professional pursuits.

Aside from that—and perhaps more importantly—Cathcart’s experience with the English department made him realize the importance and purpose of his college education.  During one of his classes, Morrissey asked his students, “What exactly do you think you’re paying for here?” After receiving several unconvincing answers, the professor expressed his answer:  that the students were “paying for time.”  Cathcart explained that this time in college becomes time “to read texts, to go talk to professors, to think about things, how you’re going to influence the world, [etc.]…because later in life you’re not going to have time; you’re going to be busy as hell.” College, in this case, becomes a form of scholastic monastery, where students are encouraged to learn about the world from the outside.  As a result, these semi-monastic students emerge into that world more ready to interact with it effectively.

“What you’re paying for then,” Cathcart kept explaining, “is the process of being here.”  Sure, college kids are paying to go to college.  It’s his emphasis on “process,” though, that really drives the importance of education home.  While tuition costs inflate indefinitely year after year, students tend to turn towards more applicable, occupational degrees that will ensure them a safe job after graduation.  However, as Cathcart argues, “[College is] about that process.  It’s about the concept… It’s not about the job, and it’s not about the degree.”  Collegiate education then becomes not a short step towards a career but rather an enriching process from which students emerge more prepared for the ever-changing world around them.

As he stepped away from the table to buy us both a second cup of coffee, it struck me that Cathcart, an ex-pat journalist living in the Republic of Georgia, had taken his English education to become that kind of prepared student.  His savvy interaction with the world around him has led him around the globe to Europe, Zimbabwe, and Argentina, through careers in both news journalism and health policy, and ultimately back to Clemson to share his incredible experiences.  During his short stay here in October, he reminded me not only why I chose to study English but also why I study at Clemson, in general.  He made me feel like a freshman again, when college seemed like something incredible, invigorating, life changing, and altogether enriching.

Parker Essick is a junior English Literature major.


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