Former AHI Undergraduate Fellow Will Eagan

Will Eagan, from Hingham, Massachusetts, a 2011 alumnus of the independent Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI), is completing a doctorate in statistics at Purdue University.  This summer current AHI Undergraduate Fellow Amy Elinski caught up with him to conduct an interview, seeking his thoughts on higher education and his memories of the AHI.  He has an inspiring story to tell.

Tell me about your experience at Hamilton

My time as a Hamilton student was a mixed success. By finding the correct professors I was able to learn much about a genuine liberal education, hone my writing skills, and develop myself as a researcher. I really enjoyed my time as a mathematics major, spending the summers conducting astronomy research, and of course being part of the AHI immediately after its founding. I feel so blessed to have the AHI as part of my college experience.

Did you have any particularly hard times with certain professors?

I preface my answer with my definition of a professor, one who conducts truly original research and inspires students through teaching along with providing service to the academy. I believe there are those on the Hamilton College faculty who fail to satisfy that definition and whose actions with respect to me and other members of the college community are unworthy of the title professor. When I saw examples of the worst, my Socratic reflections regarding the purpose of higher education allowed me to see how essential the AHI’s programming has been to my personal intellectual development. The AHI gave me the courage to consult one of the great scholars of Western Civilization of the twentieth century. He offered me encouragement and told me “There are few principles important to academic life as freedom of inquiry and the solemn obligation of the faculty to educate and expand students’ perspectives rather than to indoctrinate and attempt to coerce them to accept a particular set of beliefs or ideas.” Now that I am in the role of instructor at Purdue University, I strive to promote a truly free and challenging learning environment to embody the best of higher education.

What is your favorite experience from Hamilton?

My favorite memory was presenting my senior thesis at the American Astronomical Society Meeting in January 2011. Several top astronomers encouraged me to apply to graduate school, and that was the pivotal moment when I could convince my parents (and myself) I could be accepted into a Ph.D. program and even win a fellowship. Although this event was unrelated to the AHI, the leadership lunches and regular interaction with leading outside scholars is the best preparation for these spontaneous moments.

Do you feel you received a well-rounded education at Hamilton?

As I a proponent of liberal education, I reject the “open curriculum.” A liberal arts college needs a directed curriculum with rigorous courses in core disciplines: literature, foreign language, history, economics, government, physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, and statistics. I received a well-rounded education better than most of peers by recognizing this fact midway through my Hamilton College career, but I would have been much better off as a graduate had there been a serious curriculum from the day I stepped on campus. I advise all new students to talk to someone like Professors Douglas Ambrose and Robert Paquette early on and seek their advice on how to achieve a rigorous liberal arts education; not just in history but in all the disciplines. Also, I offer the additional advice: GPA is overrated. Take courses where you will be challenged and learn the most and step out of your comfort zone.  If you are successful, opportunities will arise from graduate programs or employers.

If you could change one thing about your time at Hamilton College, what would you change, if anything?

When I was applying to schools, I intended to double major. A double major is a huge mistake. I should have just been a mathematics major and sought out the best faculty the college had to offer across disciplines. My advice to college freshman is that you are first a student of the liberal arts before any particular discipline. As a double major, you take courses in too few departments.  Many courses I took were redundant or I could have done (perhaps better) through self-study. I recommend college freshmen to follow ACTA’s What Will They Learn and talk to people at the AHI for how to best utilize your time at Hamilton College. Also, seek out good professors. Good professors will challenge you; that is the ultimate sign they respect you as a serious student.

How did you get involved with the AHI and favorite memory of the AHI?

I first became involved with an upperclassman and friend named Joe Bock. Joe told me to attend a speaker. The speaker was Colgate University Professor of Political Science and AHI Senior Fellow Robert Kraynak. I would say this was my favorite memory of the AHI because it was the moment I knew this experience was something I could not find on campus. I was so impressed with him, I brought him back as a speaker. My interactions with him allowed me to discover so many intellectuals from whose work I could learn.

Were there any speakers or events with the AHI you found particularly enjoyable?

Honestly, all the events and speakers were enjoyable.  The leadership lunches were the most enjoyable because it offered an opportunity for me to converse with scholars beyond the mathematical sciences. I really did enjoy playing summer baseball with Baylor political scientists David and Mary Nichols, lunch with Dr. Steve Hayward, and meeting Harvard’s John Stauffer.

What made you choose to pursue a Ph.D. and what are you studying?

I am pursuing a Ph.D. in statistics, which is a distinct discipline from mathematics. Ever since I was in high school I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. Originally my desire was to pursue mathematics, but my research experience as undergraduate convinced me that the ability to understand data was the future, and it really appealed to my curiosity. Also, different professors encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D. in statistics.

Is there any particular discipline in statistics you’re focusing on in your studies?

Very good question! Most branches of statistics interest me. Currently, I hold two divergent interests. The first is applied and the second is methodological. I hold a growing passion in understanding very large genomic datasets and understanding the treatment of diseases using those. My second interests are in the Bayesian inference and its relation to non-parametrics and machine learning. I am very curious so I am willing to research anything!

Why did you choose Purdue?

When you apply to a Ph.D. program you really focus on the department. Purdue was exactly what I was looking for. After becoming interested in the interdisciplinary application of Bayesian statistics and being the only student at Hamilton with that interest, I realized I needed to be part of a large department.  For me a large department offered the most opportunities and chance to embrace the breadth of my discipline at the graduate level. Purdue’s Department of Statistics is one of the largest and best departments in the country, and since so much of the department’s research aligns with my interests, it made for a very good fit. When Purdue offered me a very generous fellowship, it sealed the deal.

Please discuss the leadership at Purdue under Mitch Daniels.

I have not yet met President Daniels, but I see him at the fitness center often. I really applaud his efforts to freeze tuition and end speech codes.  He is also pioneering a charter school system to improve STEM in Indianapolis as a feeder program for Purdue. I think making higher education affordable is something every president should make a top priority especially at state universities, and I hope other institutions follow suit. One thing I see as promising is how much President Daniels reaches out to organizations like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for courageous ways to improve the academy rather than cocooning oneself from the public in denial about the dumbing down of standards.

One future challenge for colleges like Hamilton, Trinity, and other elite schools in the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) is the rise of the honors colleges at state universities. The large universities have economies of scope and scale on their side.

What are some of the biggest differences between Purdue University and Hamilton College that you’ve observed during your time at each?

Purdue University is a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Agricultural, and Mathematical Sciences) focused state-research university in the Big Ten Conference with about 40,000 students. Hamilton College is private liberal arts college in NESCAC with about 1,800 students and is exclusively undergraduate. I have been nothing but impressed with Purdue University.

First, Purdue emphasizes affordability and accountability. There is considerable pressure and expectations from the community to make your time here affordable and, as a public university, Purdue has to be compliant with federal legislation. Second, Purdue believes in academic rigor. Every student I meet has some plan for the future with the serious coursework to back it up. Additionally, the university really works to ensure quality control of coursework across all levels. I see many undergraduates completing impressive internships. Also, Purdue houses a large number of international students and faculty and is one of the largest universities in the United States. I really think it elevates the reputation of the institution when it attracts attention across the world (and the moon thanks to Neil Armstrong!).

Academically, Purdue is much more utilitarian in outlook than Hamilton. I would say Hamilton students are more willing to take courses in disciplines outside their majors and are far less concerned with their postgraduate plans. There are opportunities for undergraduates to work with faculty at Purdue, but it is probably easier to do so at Hamilton with no competition from graduate students.

Quite fortunately, the AHI brings many of the advantages of Purdue (or perhaps any large research university) with a Western Civilization focus. To attend AHI programming is free. Many of the discussions and panels at the AHI are at the graduate level, as are the talented students drawn to the lively debate and to hear top scholars lecture. I encourage all Hamilton College students at the very least to check out the AHI; you will be impressed!

Do you have any higher plans beyond those outlined in your above answer?

Not yet.

What are you doing with your summer?

This summer I am doing three things: (1) edit a grant proposal for my adviser (2) founding the Purdue University student chapter of the American Statistical Association (3) studying for qualifying exams.

Can you please explain the purpose and mission of the American Statistical Association and what compelled you to found a student chapter at Purdue?

As the name suggests, it is directly related to the American Statistical Association (ASA). The concept started last year. Purdue is the largest producer of bachelor degrees in statistics (we battle with UC-Berkeley for that title) and one of the five largest graduate programs. One professor approached me with the idea. This was one of my unfulfilled undergraduate dreams. I formed a similar group my final semester at Hamilton, but there was little appreciation for statistics with so few people there to share my passion. Ironically, my organization contained more faculty than students as active members. Also, an illness forced me to cut back on my ambition. Purdue offers a great place to put together a great statistics community for both graduates and undergraduates, and I really want to form a welcoming and vibrant statistics community open to all students.

Tell me about your personal life.

Since graduating from Hamilton in 2011, my biggest challenge is overcoming a debilitating illness. I am now effectively cured and still working to improve myself. In my spare time, I mentor for the Disabilities Resource Center at Purdue University to help younger students like myself and other young men in the same situation through my doctor’s office. As a hobby now, I am trying to learn to converse in Mandarin Chinese.

Would you mind elaborating more about your battle with illness?

I don’t mind telling the story to inspire others with chronic and severe illnesses. I have been cured of intestinal disease known as ulcerative colitis in its severe and chronic form. The disease has at times taken away my ability to even drink water and most foods. I even have gone through the process of receiving nutrition through an IV.

My battle with illness began before my senior year, and to some degree and I still struggle with it today. I was diagnosed with the disease over spring break of my senior year after losing fifty pounds and a considerable amount of blood.  I feared cancer and welcomed the eventual diagnosis so that I could begin treatment. When I gave my speech at the AHI colloquium in 2011, many of those in attendance incorrectly believed I had had an eating disorder. I remember Professor Paquette out of concern offering me a chance to opt out, but I really wanted to take a moment and thank the AHI, which contributed so much to my personal intellectual development. I especially wanted a chance to thank AHI senior fellow and Colgate University Professor of Political Science Dr. Robert Kraynak for introducing me to the study of political philosophy.

Unfortunately I would like to say things got better after my diagnosis; I was wrong. I ultimately failed to achieve remission even with the treatment of the most sophisticated drugs. To be cured of the disease, I had to undergo a sequence of three surgeries to have one of intestines removed and then have my digestive system reconstructed to function without it. The process was very trying and required me to reteach myself how to sleep and eat. Now I am recovered and I am quite functional, but I will never be quite the same.

The lesson I take away from my struggles is that when the worst happens, you can more fully appreciate the wonderful things that exist around you. I now welcome the opportunity to mentor others with UC or any other conditions and urge them to tackle their ailments head on. Wisdom on this score for all to hear comes from professional figure skater and cancer survivor Scott Hamilton:  The “only disability in life is a bad attitude.”

How did the AHI influence you in your time at Hamilton?

Without the AHI, I would not know what a liberal education is.

Did the AHI continue to influence you after graduation?

Absolutely! The AHI is about learning to become a young intellectual and student of Western Civilization. Improving your writing skills can really open doors for someone in the hard sciences whose undergraduate education prioritize quantitative thinking.

Any memorable stories you’d like to share?

I remember Professor Paquette going over my first paper I wrote for him in his office. I had to come to the library early on a Saturday morning, but it was well worth it. This meeting was the first time someone took the time to improve my prose. Ever since then I have improved as writer. When I teach, I encourage all my students to work on their soft skills. By practicing every day you can blossom into a polished student by graduation

Anything else you’d like to add?

One thing which astounds me about the AHI is every week I hear about another wonderful, new development.