Alumnus John Calhoun, ’09, is a cheerleader for philosophy majors.

Calhoun describes the philosophical foundation he built while studying at the University of Richmond as central to how he sees the world today. His first classes in modern western philosophy and Freud, Marx and Nietzsche made him think harder than he had before—and he was hooked.

“Philosophy is excellent mental calisthenics,” he said. “Even if you’re not convinced the material is useful, the critical thinking skills definitely are.”

After graduating from Richmond, he received a Fulbright grant to research education policy in Kaohsiung, Taiwan before earning a Marshall fellowship to continue his studies at the University of York in the United Kingdom.
Calhoun’s passion is political philosophy. Next year, with the help of his Marshall fellowship, he plans to either study economic and social history at Oxford or earn a masters in public policy at University College London. Oxford isn’t new to Calhoun; while he was a student at Richmond he studied abroad at Oxford, where he focused on political philosophy.

“I think contemporary political philosophy is really just a fascinating, important conversation about how we run our society,” he said.

Calhoun’s professional ambition is to work at the federal or city level as a policy aide or speechwriter. He said he wants to “take a shot at correcting the inequalities of opportunity that I have witnessed firsthand” in places like New Orleans, where he observed issues of social injustice on a service-learning trip, and the Bronx, where he is from.

Currently in the first year of his Marshall fellowship, Calhoun is focusing on the treatment of special needs students in American charter schools. He said his goal is to figure out a way to convince top-shelf charter schools to serve more special needs students, providing them with more opportunities for a quality education.  

Calhoun credits much of his success at Richmond to the dedication of UR staff and faculty in helping students meet their goals. Because he was able to study abroad with Richmond’s financial help, Calhoun was inspired to apply for the Fulbright and Marshall fellowships. He also praised his mentors, Dr. Nancy Schauber and Dr. David Leary, for “four years’ worth of great advice” and continued contact.

“I think the most underestimated thing about UR,” he said, “and the thing that I think explains why UR does so well at producing scholarship and fellowship winners, is how much it is willing to invest in talented, ambitious, driven students. Richmond can give to you every bit of what you're willing to put into it.”

In addition to his fellowships, Calhoun was the Clarence J. Gray winner at his graduation, where he gave the baccalaureate address. He also interned at the World Affairs Council in Richmond and won a Yitzah Rabin Fellowship at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., which included traveling monthly to D.C. to meet with a high-profile speaker and discuss Middle Eastern politics.

Calhoun recalled specific classes that helped shape the thinker and person he is today, such as his CORE course with Leary, where he honed his ideas on morality and valuing others, and a poetry course with Dr. Louis Schwartz, who “both encouraged students to think creatively and taught them how to defend an argument with evidence,” he said.

The biggest pieces of advice Calhoun offers to current students is to take advantage of the opportunities and resources available, get to know your professors and don’t be daunted.

“Richmond is a phenomenal incubator for idealism if you’re willing to share your idealism,” he said.