Recently, Baker Scholar Albert Eisenberg (C'13) had the opportunity to speak with Rev. Kevin O’Brien, S.J.: Vice President for Mission and Ministry at Georgetown, Baker alum (C‘88), devoted Jesuit, and consummate gentleman. We talked about everything from his time as an undergraduate to which dessert he would make more available if he were emperor. Read on!
AE: What was the program like when you were a Baker Scholar?
KO: I was accepted in 1986, and it was smaller than it is today – not in terms of other people, but in the sense that it wasn’t as organized as now. The core of the program – mentoring in the spirit of cura personalis – has remained the same since the beginning. That has been consistent.
Bakers was in its first generation, really, so you knew most of the people in it, which was cool. Now it’s much bigger. We did community service, we did New York, but that was it. Now, with our commitment to the Baker Difference, well, that’s very different; we’re much more intentional about making sure it’s an active part of the program and of our mission. The type of service we do is much more connected to what Bakers is about. We’re certainly much more intentional about marketing – more people on campus know the program. So it’s changed a lot since I was a Scholar, but the program still operates by the same fundamental goals – preparing liberal arts majors for professional careers and mentoring them professionally and personally.
AE: There were 40 such programs founded across the country. Today, only two remain: one at Harvard Business School, and one at Georgetown. What makes Georgetown different?
KO: There’s something unique about Georgetown. And I think the mission of the Baker program and the mission of Georgetown as a Jesuit university are compatible. For instance, our attention to cura personalis, caring for each person, mind body and spirit – that’s what mentorship is really about. The notion of being “men and women for others” and contemplatives in action – that is, we want our graduates to be people of depth who will search for meaning and will do good. That is part of the mission of the university, and we insist on it in this program.
AE: How did mentorship influence your path coming out of Georgetown and the Baker Scholars program?
KO: I think in a couple of different ways it influenced me. There were some early mentors in the Baker Program that I met when I was an undergraduate who helped me work through my interest in law and public policy. And that was very helpful to have people I could talk to, since I didn’t have lawyers in my family. That’s what drove me to the Baker program; it isn’t just about business, it’s about professions. If you look at where alumni go, it’s certainly in the business world, but also many who are engaged in law and science. And there’s always a connection to business no matter what you do.
A second important avenue of mentorship was Father Davis. Emerging within me was this idea that I could become a Jesuit, and there was Father Davis who was somebody I could talk to about that. There were mentors who were very helpful to me, not just in terms of a career path – what we’d call a vocation – but those who would ask: “how do you integrate values into your work?” I met people who were mentors to me in terms of balancing, in terms of, you could be a good person and a good businessperson, or a good lawyer, and they taught me how to balance.
AE: Can you talk about your path to becoming a Jesuit priest?
KO: Well, I was in my mid-twenties, and this often happens: I was very successfully using my degrees, making a living. But a few things happened – nothing dramatic – but that really called me to ask, “well what do I really want? What would give me most lasting meaning?” And emerging at that time was this desire that had been latent for a while, which I had dismissed pretty easily, about becoming a Jesuit. I was given the opportunity by a friend to teach Social Studies in a local Catholic high school. I had this great job in a law firm, I had this political career mapped out, and then suddenly she offers me this job.
And I turned her down. But within two weeks I changed my mind and accepted. Because I just found myself captivated by this idea of teaching, and working with young people, and that it would be a good place to figure out what this call to the priesthood meant. And then when that happened, I was a teacher, I was a coach, I developed retreats for young people, I did all this stuff, and just loved it. And being in that environment made this desire to be a priest just a bigger and bigger force. And I went back to all these priests I knew in Georgetown, and I thought, “I want to be like that”.
AE: What was it about these priests that inspired you?
KO: They were interesting men. They were funny men. They were compassionate men. They had boldness and conviction and passion – they were alive. They were alive intellectually and they were alive in spirit, so I immediately was attracted back to Georgetown in that way. People like Fr. Davis, who spent most of his life here; generosity marks our lives, and I was inspired by his generosity.
AE: How can students at Georgetown incorporate these Jesuit ideals into their daily lives?
KO: Well, I think that’s something we’ve been very intentional about including in the Baker Program, to help our Scholars be more reflective and discerning. And things have changed, right? The culture is more fast-paced. Information is more accessible. We fight a trend of even more “business” and even more distraction. And one thing our program has tried to do is to provide a space where not only do we enjoy each other’s company, but that we have conversations of meaning that are intended to help people develop their interior lives, and to get in touch with what matters: like feelings, and dreams, and anxieties. We have to discern or sift through these things as a way to make good decisions about our lives and our careers. And the Baker Program can help with that, because we have permission to have these conversations of depth. And that happens one-on-one with mentors, and we make sure it happens in a group as well.
AE: So let’s say you never made the choice to become a Jesuit, and instead you’re in politics – as you thought you would be as an undergraduate. What would your life be like?
KO: I think that God is very creative and generous. I think all of us have a lot of different passions and interests and talents, and that we can’t reduce any human life to one way. It’s too limiting for the human person. But I also think we have to make a choice. When you’re 22, your choices are provisional, but when you’re 35, you have to choose. To paraphrase Socrates, a life without commitment is a life not worth living, because we define who we are by what we commit to. If we commit to nothing, we really are nothing. But there’s a strong cultural resistance to say “keep your options open”. So I imagine I could have done well in politics, but I don’t know I would have been happy. But I can say, if I had been a high school teacher, if I had continued to that, it would have meant a life full of meaningful relationships. That’s what’s important. And either way I would have been happy, and God would have been happy, and it just would have been really different.
AE: Final question: by some fortuitous twist you’ve been made emperor of the world. What’s the first change you make?
KO: Can I do a few things?
KO: Well this in impractical, but I would try to erase national boundaries. I would try to find a way to bring the outcast in and the poor to the center of our living. I would make ice cream more available to everyone, because I think ice cream makes people happy and I like ice cream. I’d want to make sure everyone could read.
I think we’d be happier.