Open your eyes and experience it all: Mike Bess’79

Mike Bess’79 has had a successful career in global climate change and international efforts of sustainable energy.  He returned to Beloit in the spring for a visit where he guest lectured a class, and also met with several students.  He shares some of his Beloit story here.

How do you feel Beloit prepared you for your career and it’s variations?

I think that it’s a classic excellent Liberal Arts school with that philosophy that basically you don’t just come in and say “I want to be an engineer or I want to be an English major,” you have to take science courses you have to take mathematics courses and sociology and so. It gives you the ability to learn to connect the dots between disciplines and there’s a value added, I know from a lot of my peers the same thing happened you say I want to focus on economics and then you take a couple poli-sci courses or government courses or international relations and soon you’re going off in that direction that has an economic bend to it. I had taken a geology course, and I had always loved rather amateur rock collecting of fossils and in riverbeds and I had a great professor and it was a really great discipline. I took chemistry. English I loved. Tom McBride was great. I think the thing was you again if you sort of said there were joint courses in archetypes using psychology. It was a summer course in the trimester it was just fabulous. It had the sociology which was one aspect and was heavy in that, and you’d have English international literature. It was fantastic having the two personalities of the professors of that class. It was one of those things you sort of come out with a toolbox, if you want to talk about careers it’s sort of the functional aspect. I had been recommended a book recently called “You Majored in What?!” and the first chapter is called, “the chaos theory of careers of majors.” I’ve been told I fit that. You major in English and end up becoming a banker. A person who has a career in economics ends up being a linguist. The thing I try to tell students is don’t pigeonhole yourself. Open your eyes and experience it all. For me it was the ability to try out things and experiment and basically figure out that you are/you have a toolkit, you’ve had enough of this to carry yourself further. The thing I want to tell students is that the thing you really need to do is be opportunistic. Don’t lock step. Keep your eyes open.

Why are you proud to Be Beloit?

Well, I just think Beloit gave me so much of what I am not just in terms of career but in terms of what I enjoy doing, people I know. It’s just an amazing foundation, and to take or to say any four years of my life which were to set the stage for me to do what I’ve been doing for 40 years since I graduated, I just can’t describe it. To me it set the stage for the rest of my life.

What do you enjoy most about each time you return to Beloit and get to spend time with students and in classes? 

Well I think I’ll answer the last part of that, as I’ve said I have very good friends in the community including ex-professors all though there are fewer and fewer just from what happens in life as you get older and older, but that was a major attraction for the first fifteen years after I graduated was always come back and professors would ask me to come and talk to their classes and that gave me a chance to meet with them and speak with them, and the only person left from that is Jerry Gustafson. And I still see him regularly he always encourages me to come I suppose as I said there are friends and family people I consider family I stayed with that I have known for 50 years now who are family and everything. But it always gives me a real it sounds so cliche but it makes me feel really good about Beloit when I meet the students and faculty because it’s changed so much when I was here we had probably a couple hundred fewer students and that was probably Beloit’s low point in enrollment was the period I was here. I imagine if you counted all the Europeans (the Germans, the Brits, and so forth) that were here we might have had 30, 35 foreign students non-US that’s probably counting Canadians as well. And now there’s over 300 and we didn’t have any we had I remember we had a Saudi guy, a Palestinian-Lebanese guy, a couple of guys form Venezuela and Colombia, we had a Turkish guy, a couple of ladies from Germany and Belgium. Nobody, I think we had one Japanese student in the four years I was here. And I was quite engaged with the international group we had houses in those days I don’t know if you still do. But international house was a place I would hang around because it was filled with other international students like me. I’ve met twice the last time I was here the BCICS group, powerful, dynamic, very supportive group. I mean they have a program where they have juniors and seniors mentoring freshman and sophomore foreign exchange students who come into the school and I think that’s fantastic taking that initiative because that’s probably the most daunting thing you can do coming from a place like Bangladesh or Vietnam or wherever particularly if there is no one else coming from your country, that’s not the case with Vietnam but what I’m saying you get into this group and you have a support mechanism already with people showing you the ropes and people you can talk to already and so forth. That didn’t exist when I was here and I think it’s fantastic it really really is.

And that has internationalized Beloit in a way that didn’t really exist. We had a probably much stronger program, because it was a requirement we had to do a year abroad or at least a semester. A whole program was built and it was endowed and the rest of it. And the Associated Colleges of the Midwest which I understand the ACM connection isn’t as strong as it was, but it was great! There were 30 Universities around the world you could go to. You could go to Japan, you could go to Korea, you could go to Ecuador, you could go to Peru. You could go like I did to Cairo, Athens. You name it. So the international element of Beloit, the framework is sort of how internationalism has changed a bit in that regard.

What kind of activities were you involved with on campus as a student? Well I was a sometime reporter on the Round Table throughout my time that was fun and a good way of meeting different groups, Martha Peterson who was the President at that stage, Beloit was at a very low point at that time, a very struggling period. She had a lot to do with turning that around. But as I said meeting them interviewing the Beloit City Council, I did the first lesbian gay group on campus. I quite enjoyed going in and interviewing various groups who were doing something different. The other thing I did we had the option if you had the chance on the old trimester system, it was great in the summer because you could do a sailing course or you could do a canoeing course. I did both of them and I loved canoe, and I knew how to sail, but it was just great just to get out on it. I don’t even know if the boathouse still exists anymore. So there were two three of us who were real avid canoeists or sailors, really anytime if you had the afternoon free and the weather was right just go and you could get a boat and go not just with the course, but the course gave you the introduction of where it was and we canoed up and down the Rock, and it was fun, but that was another set of activities. I guess the rest of the time I was working off campus just waiting tables and making ends meet. And that was really great because I met a lot of people in the community I got to know people well and still do. I have dozens of “Beloiters” people from the community of all walks of life. People who work in Fairbanks Morse still today or have retired from it. So it was really really good and I think that’s one of the things that I often times think students miss when they come to a College or University is they don’t really get a chance to meet local folk. It’s quite, it can be quite insular. But when you’re waiting tables on a Friday night you meet people from everywhere. Plus all the staff are in the community.

Where was your favorite space on campus? The Library

When I came to Beloit I had been out of secondary school for 6 years. I was in the military for four years in the Air Force and then I did two years with VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) in North America with Native American Indians and I had been out of school for six years so you know I had been out of study practices and habits and everything so I just sort of set my mind the first semester and said “well I’m gonna finish my last class go here sit after I have dinner an early dinner or whatever until it closes” and so just get into a quiet space in a booth and just go at it because if I don’t do this I’ll never study. And that surprisingly I suppose there were a lot of places but from a quiet place where I was able to reflect and to get into the right habits and carried it on throughout so it was a very very nice space. Still I go there every time I’m here I go there and find a quiet place to look out and work away. And I love just the documentation things have become in forty some odd years so much more electronic and you can get just about anything you would go through particularly all the journals and magazines all bound and everything going back 40 or 50 years. But anyway, it was always a good place, and it would be that kind of thing I worked and waited tables on weekends and Fridays and Saturdays but it was a great place on Saturday when I really had to break the back and just get in there and it’s not the greatest way to spend a Saturday but the work has to be done.

What is something you would encourage all students to do before graduating from Beloit? 

Well I think that what I always really loved were not only visiting or faculty visitors, or other speakers whether they were students, professors or admin. In the old student union we used to have at least various groups would sponsor speakers and that was just great we got everyone from the Mayor of Beloit to the professors from the Universities and some good authors and of course the faculty you weren’t taking courses with that would be on a topic of some sort. And students would’ve done a year abroad and a couple of them would’ve gone to the same place so there was always just as much as you wanted or as little as you wanted. But it was good because you met a lot of students you wouldn’t meet in your other classes maybe they were different years and so forth certainly different disciplines, but Beloit the curriculum in Beloit is such that you meet people outside your major as it were, and you have to, but those were really always good. And the other thing is we would always or usually every but depending on the semester it was usually on a Sunday would show films. Everything from Monty Python to Art, but those were good spaces, I don’t know what the equivalent today is, but the big auditorium that is where those were.

August 08, 2019

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