Eric Lausten didn't plan on ending up in politics. He went to Georgia Tech in the late 1990s to fulfill dreams of becoming an electrical engineer. But after spending four quarters developing TV cable filters, he had to face the fact that engineering just wasn't his passion.
So Lausten did what any young person does in that situation: He took the summer off and went on a cross-country road trip. When he got back to Atlanta, he was a History, Technology, and Society (HTS) major. Now, more than ten years later, he is chief of staff for U.S. Congressman Dan Lipinksi, (D-IL 3rd District.) And when his TV is in need of repair, he calls a cable guy.
Looking back, Lausten sees value in a number of other Ivan Allen College degrees he would have considered if he had known he'd end up where he is now: International Affairs, Public Policy, Economics, or perhaps one of the newly developed interdisciplinary programs, of which he is a big proponent. He feels taking a few classes outside of any major is one of the best things an undergraduate can do, especially a student in a science track.
"Engineers need to understand what their work is going to be affecting," Lausten says.
It was a lesson he learned well his senior year. In the spring of 1998, Lausten was working on his thesis to complete his HTS major. He was studying the impact of public opinion on the development of urban infrastructure, particularly MARTA. His advisor (Steven Vallas, now at Northeastern University) urged him to hit the streets and survey citizens directly on their thoughts. Lausten did, but not to the extent he now feels he should have.
"It was easy and comfortable for me to just go to the library and look up microfiche," Lausten recalls. "It was not the challenge of going out to the Gwinnett mall and meeting people."
His HTS research was his first lesson in the importance of public input on crafting policy, marketing products, and developing ideas that resonate with the communities they serve. Having true impact before and after graduation requires getting out from behind the computer screen.
"At some point, to be successful you have to engage people you don't know," he says.
This is true in any field, Lausten feels, but most certainly in policy. Science is respected on the hill - the federal science committees affect "virtually every corner of government," but Lausten worries that involvement could be better.
"There are not enough engineering and analytical people engaged in politics and government," Lausten says. "I encourage more students from the Tech community to get involved in politics and policy." He thinks students have "a lot to contribute."
Lausten cites his unique blend of liberal arts studies on a technical campus - along with a number of stints in campaigns and political offices - as helping him land the job of chief of staff with Rep. Lipinski in April, 2011.
"He is an engineer and a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Science, Space, and Technology Committee, which makes for a good fit with my background and interests," Lausten says.
The idea of an HTS grad now working as chief of staff in Washington, D.C., is the perfect example of the flexibility Lausten advocates as a hallmark for career success. He attributes the ability to be open-minded to allowing us to see opportunities we may otherwise miss.
He should know.
"I went to Georgia Tech with the intention of becoming an engineer, but here I am 14 years later working in Congress. Not the outcome I expected when I came to Atlanta, but one I wouldn’t give up."