Jeff Caldwell, '98, GC'17

May 12, 2017
Jeff Caldwell, '98, GC'17, 2-time UR graduate, reflects on value of liberal arts in public service

Jeff Caldwell, ’98, GC’17, arrived as a freshman at the University of Richmond in 1994. Like many students, he wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted to study.

He looked into music and theatre, thinking maybe that was the right direction. He considered law school and wondered if law might provide a fulfilling career. Eventually he settled into an English major and earned a minor in history while also taking coursework in music, arts, and journalism.

He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1998 and took a job in corporate communications with Circuit City.

The University’s Office of Career Services had worked with Caldwell to land an internship with Richmond Magazine during his undergraduate career. That experience exposed him to the breadth and depth of Richmond’s vast array of tourist attractions; to its arts, cultural, and nascent culinary richness; and to Richmond’s importance in Commonwealth governance.

Caldwell reflects that perhaps that internship gave him experience in journalism and familiarized him with the workings of local and state government. Originally hired to work in the Virginia Department of Transportation for what he thought would be a six-month tenure, his VDOT career lasted more than a decade. He clearly impressed his supervisors, because in 2011 he accepted a position as press secretary to then Governor Robert McDonnell.

As Governor McDonnell’s term wound down, Caldwell shifted to the private sector and took a job in corporate communications with Altria. He credits Altria for providing the opportunity to return to school for his master’s degree: The company provided tuition assistance to pay for an advanced degree in his field of media relations and public policy. As a result, Caldwell enrolled in the School of Professional and Continuing Studies Master of Liberal Arts (MLA) program.

Three years later, he returned to state government and now serves as the Director of Public Relations for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. And he graduated with his master’s degree from SPCS on May 6, 2017, during SPCS Commencement Exercises.

Caldwell’s path through the University of Richmond is an important one to trace, for it demonstrates the value of a liberal arts education across his career trajectory to date. Caldwell identifies two specific benefits of his liberal arts experience.

First, the ability to dabble in many different interests. Countering the common narrative that “dabbling” is counter-productive, Caldwell points to specific ways he’s leveraged his various curricular experiences across fields in his career. He’s been asked to professionally speak on subjects as varied as arts, science, and environmental grants; been asked to address public policy questions as they relate to business, social issues, and the environment; and to converse on a variety of subjects well outside his field of public relations and policy. His undergraduate experience in journalism, music, arts, and history classes has given him tools and skills to effectively communicate across disciplinary and professional boundaries.

Second, the opportunity to test out different career fields and perspectives. As a native of a small town in New York, diversity of thought and perspective was hard to find. Coming to Richmond and studying in the liberal arts opened his eyes and mind to the world of potential careers awaiting him. Rather than focusing on a single career throughout his undergraduate experience, Caldwell explored careers, and continued that exploration after leaving school, equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to adapt to existing and emerging professional opportunities.

Given his successful path through and following his undergraduate career, it’s no surprise that Caldwell turned to Richmond once again for a master’s degree — not in communications or public policy, but in liberal arts.

Why the MLA?

First, he sought a program that was tailored to his interests and career path. His interest, incidentally, is the relationship between the media and public policy, and the MLA program allowed him to develop a course of study that specifically addressed that interest.

Second, he needed a part-time program that didn’t involve weekends and allowed the maximum flexibility for a working professional and single father of three children. Caldwell was able to cluster classes around his availability and to construct an independent study program that adapted to his schedule.

Third, he wanted a graduate program that focused not on the semantics of the business of public relations — semantics and operations he felt pretty comfortable he already had down following a stint as the governor’s press secretary and as director of public relations for multiple state agencies — but on his specific interests, the way the media influences and affects public policy.

He found those things at Richmond.

His graduate study is titled “How media has influenced American public policy in the late 20th century and early 21st century.” Specifically, he’s studied the way policy decisions are being made in part based on media reporting.

There’s no shortage of examples for him to study.

More importantly, earning the MLA and completing this study has provided him a better, clearer understanding of his own profession and field. As he seeks to communicate public policy with media outlets, he recognizes the ease with which a news cycle of minutes can influence policy development. His graduate study at Richmond has enabled him to better understand his own career and the decisions he makes each day as a professional.

Caldwell offers some advice to those considering their undergraduate and graduate experiences.

To incoming freshman, Caldwell encourages students “not to assume what you’ll do for the rest of your life.” It’s difficult for 18-year-olds to make concrete plans about their future, and he sees in a liberal arts approach the value of learning how to think, not what to think.

And to graduate students “looking to dig into a specific issue or professional subject that will serve [them in] their careers,” Caldwell recommends the SPCS MLA program because it’s flexible and can be customized to create a personal curriculum for career development.