Harrison speaks about benefits of charting your own path

“Consider supporting those institutions that have made a positive difference in your lives,” Robert Harrison ‘76 said during a visit to campus last month, where he had the chance to speak to members of the Robert S. Harrison College Scholar Program. “In my case, that has been, at the top of the list, Cornell and the Rhodes Scholarship.” 

Harrison’s Cornell visit offered a chance for him to share the story of his experience tackling interdisciplinary studies as a college scholar of “personality and politics” through courses in sociology, psychology and government during his undergraduate years.

Harrison was the inaugural speaker for a new lecture series in the College of Arts & Sciences honoring Associate Dean Lynne Abel ‘62, who supported students in many ways, and directed and expanded the College Scholar Program from 1974 – 2003. The series will continue with more talks and lunches to foster connections between alumni and students, said Michael Goldstein, professor of psychology, Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow and director of the Robert S. Harrison College Scholar Program


Bob Harrison smiles with a student.
Chris Kitchen Alumnus Robert Harrison '76, right, chats with a student during his visit to campus this month.

During his talk, Harrison recounted pivotal moments in his undergraduate years, such as his involvement in campus politics and his internship experience working for a congressman on Capitol Hill. As a college scholar, he combined his passions by studying the behavior of a congressional committee as a function of the personality traits of its members. He did this by interviewing and administering personality tests to 17 members of Congress for confidential analysis for his honors thesis. 


“My college scholar experience led me to become comfortable, I would say for the first time, operating outside of my comfort zone,” Harrison said. 


This curiosity led him to divert from his planned pathway numerous times throughout his life. For example, Harrison’s initial post-graduate plan was to apply to law school. However, former Cornell provost and dean Dave Knapp and vice provost Mark Barlow ‘62 urged him to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship. 


Because of this decision, Harrison spent two years at St. John’s College at Oxford University, reading a plethora of great books in politics, philosophy and economics and strolling down the same streets Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien and John Locke once walked. “Rhodes and College Scholar were both off of my planned trajectory, and both of them were positively transformational,” he said.


“The one lesson I would suggest, as you move beyond Cornell,” Harrison said, “is please take seriously the advice of those who you respect and who know you well, or at least be curious and not dismissive of that advice…were it not for Dave Knapp and Mark Barlow, I never would have applied for a Rhodes Scholarship, and were it not for my advisor freshman year, government professor David Danelski, I never would have applied to the College Scholar program.” 

After Oxford, Harrison's curiosity continued guiding him down unfamiliar roads, from practicing corporate law to investment banking at Goldman Sachs and later becoming CEO of the Clinton Global Initiative. His decision to pivot professions exemplifies the value of cross-disciplinary learning in shaping one's perspective and career path, he said.

Current college scholar and talk attendee Sasha Boguraev ‘24 said, “I also found it immensely inspiring to hear him talk about how his lived experiences in my own major set him up for such success going forward. I think hearing him talk about just how beneficial it was for him to learn how to step outside of his comfort zone and explore his academic interests was greatly appreciated, as these are things I have been doing for the last 2.5 years in this very program."

Overall, Harrison's visit to Cornell catalyzed meaningful dialogue and reflection among students and alumni, reinforcing the importance of interdisciplinary learning, mentorship, and adaptability in navigating the complexities of the professional world. As the Robert S. Harrison College Scholar Program continues to evolve, Harrison's experiences inspire current scholars to chart their own paths with confidence and resilience.

Hannah Mitchell is a communications assistant for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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Bob Harrison presents at a podium.