Alumnus Highlight: John Reeder

Open yourself to new ideas, and you may be amazed by where you go. I grew up on a dairy farm in Minnesota, and as Dr. John Helmberger once said to my freshman economics class, “dairy farmers earn each dollar twice.”  That didn’t trouble me much, because farm work was all I knew, and I hadn’t given much thought to any other career.  His statement piqued my curiosity though, because I suspected that Dr. Helmberger actually knew a thing or two about working on a farm, but here he was, a college professor.  How does that happen?  My class with Dr. Helmberger was just the beginning of my awareness of a bigger world of opportunities.

My professors in Applied Economics helped set the course for my career and life. My time in college (in the 80’s) coincided with hard economic times for small family farms, continuing a trend toward bigger farms– and fewer farmers–that continues to today.  Our farm was in trouble, and my farming future was fading before my eyes, with no backup plan.  One of my Applied Economics classes, on international development and food policy, got me thinking about government policy. It mattered for farmers, of course, but government also could be a force for improving lives, achieving equality, and creating opportunity.  It could be a force for good. Inspired by my professors, I was drawn to Applied Economics classes related to public policy, such as resource economics and economic development. Along the way, I had the good fortune of learning from truly student-centered faculty, like Professors Wilbur Maki, Glenn Nelson, and Tom Stinson.  Although I was just a student with a so-so high school education struggling with an off-campus job and weekend farm work, they always found time to help me.  More importantly, they opened my eyes to another world and helped me believe in myself. With their support, I made a long-shot bid to attend the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and got in!  I was off to a future in public service.

After receiving my MA in public affairs, I went to Washington for a career in environmental policy, mostly at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  I finished my career at EPA as Deputy Chief of Staff, and I’m now teaching environmental policy at American University in Washington, DC. I look back with pride on my career, but it was the inspiration from my professors in Applied Economics that made it possible.  They helped me find my calling, and inspired me to reach for a future I never envisioned as a farm kid.  I can only hope to provide the same inspiration to my students. These many years later, they serve as a model for me as I try to do the same for my students.

John E. Reeder is an Executive in Residence and Professor of Environmental Policy at American University in Washington, DC.