Lee Schatz, alumnus '74
Learning to Learn
It was always expected that alumnus Lee Schatz ‘74 would attend college. As the first born son of a farming family on the Rathdrum prairie, he would become the first generation in his family to pursue a higher education. His father wanted him to become an engineer, so after graduating high school, Schatz enrolled in North Idaho Junior College, the predecessor of North Idaho College (NIC). In-between school years, Schatz worked for the forest service, a job that would not only pay for his education, but also shape his future.
“Foresters, who at that time were typically pure forestry said if you were going to do forestry you should also get a business degree,” Schatz said. “Because someone who is successful in going up through the system is going to need to understand the business more than we do now.”
Encouraged by the advice of his coworkers, Schatz switched his major. After his sophomore year at NIC, Schatz transferred to the University of Idaho to complete an undergraduate degree in business, continuing on to complete a master’s in agriculture economics.
“I have always jokingly, but not jokingly, referred to college as the best eight years of my life,” Schatz said. “It was an absolute great experience; I got to learn how to learn.”
One course from his time as a master’s student continues to stick out in his mind. It included students from a variety of different countries, including Argentina, Taiwan and Ethiopia. The course required students to read and discuss case studies.
“What was fascinating about it was the different take that people from different backgrounds had on the same case study,” Schatz said. “It was bringing that cultural vision to what you see and what you hear and what you read, and I found that fascinating to try and understand more than one position.”
The course was the first time he had met people from different places in the world, and the first time he learned that points of view vary depending on your background. It is a lesson he has returned to over and over again throughout his career, which has taken him all over the world, most famously to Iran, where in the late 1970s he and several coworkers had to go into hiding during the siege of the U.S. Embassy. They were eventually snuck out of the country by the CIA. The saga inspired the recent film “Argo.”
Schatz visited the University of Idaho for the screening of the film as part of the Ag Days activities in September. During his visit he spoke to students and provided honest advice for future graduates.
“The key is having fun, enjoying what you do,” Schatz said.
But he admonished students to also always be ready for change, because it will happen.
“If you can figure out where you want to be because that feels right for you, there are many different ways to get there,” he said. “In this constantly changing environment we live in, fighting that change uses a lot of energy that takes away from other things.”
He also suggested a bit of a slowdown.
“Anybody who is in a hurry to figure it out probably needs a little more time to do so,” Schatz said. “Because they could get themselves somewhere they don’t want to be because they think they have to do something.”
This is where he values his undergraduate experience. For Schatz it was easy to go to community college, a natural transition to the University of Idaho. He was able to live at home and explore options for his future before committing to a bigger program. For him, college was a way to broaden his world, to make it bigger.
“What is relevant to a lot of people is what helps them get a job now and that is harder and harder to differentiate yourself from someone else,” Schatz said. “What have you done to improve your skillset? How have you shown that you can learn new things? Really I think that is what a bachelor’s degree is.”
Article by Whitney Schroeder, Office of Alumni Relations