Alum shares experiences, advice with students

by Marcus Koontz

Your Whitman education will give you “the ability to think critically, to communicate, and the confidence it takes to succeed,” said Travis McElfresh, class of 1988, during his recent lecture on his own career path after attending Whitman.

McElfresh came to Whitman from Hillsboro, Oregon almost 20 years ago. “I looked at Reed College. I hated it. It was scary,” McElfresh said. “They were all a bunch of nonconformists that looked the same.” Then he came to look at Whitman and deemed it “perfect.”

In his four years at Whitman McElfresh claims to have “spent a lot of time on the river … too much.” He also thought he spent a little too much time playing a video game called “Crystal Quest.” He said that on his first paper in Modernity he received an ‘F’ and that his first semester GPA was less than 2.0. “The second semester was worse,” McElfresh said, but he kept at it and eventually achieved 4.0s. “I just was a procrastinator,” he admits. “That was a skill.”

Some of his most interesting memories of Whitman are traditions that have been forgotten. “Room jacks, that’s a lost tradition,” he said. “You basically punk somebody’s room, you dismantle everything.” To get back at someone who has room-jacked you, he suggested that you “penny lock” their door. You do this by stuffing as many pennies as you can between the bottom of the door and the doorjamb, while pulling the door away from the doorjamb. After you let go, people will have a hard time getting the door to open.
McElfresh talked about many of the things he did at Whitman—rock climbing, party planning, procrastination, and river rafting, to name a few—as skills he has leveraged to help him in his career path. He suggests that nothing he did at Whitman was wasted.

Of course, McElfresh said that he took more away from Whitman than the ability to sabotage dorms and climb rocks. Remembering things he thanked Whitman for, McElfresh said, “I learned a lot from my professors, but I learned just as much from the students. The students are top-notch.” He also said that he got his ability to think critically from Whitman professors and the “intense four years of doing [critical thinking] here.” He said, “I had professors that would invest time in me to help me problem solve.” He talked about problem solving and noted the importance it has had on his career: “That’s probably one of my greatest assets now. … Whitman will prepare you in great ways.”

Among the advice McElfresh gave Whitman students was that they should chase opportunities as they arise instead of sticking stubbornly to a plan. “I stuck to that Ph.D. track for a long time, but now I chase opportunities,” he said.

McElfresh talked about his journey from Whitman to graduate school to the dot-com boom, Microsoft, Xbox and to his current job at MSNBC.com.

When McElfresh decided to get involved in technology he was only a few months away from obtaining his Ph.D. in high temperature geochemistry at the University of Wyoming.

“That was a huge stress for me,” he said. “Giving up the Ph.D. route was probably when I started losing most of my hair.” During the dot-com crash, McElfresh said he “worked like a dog and loved it” for a company called OneSoft. However, he eventually “headed for the high hills…the safe hills” of Microsoft. His job at Microsoft was “figuring out which courses to build with a Microsoft developer, then building them.”

When he made the decision to move on to the Xbox, McElfresh believed he’d gotten the job because of his experience in playing Xbox games and his ability to talk about potential ideas he had for enhancing the games. Now McElfresh believes, “Xbox was cool, but it’s all about wasting people’s time”.

McElfresh is currently the Vice President of Technology for MSNBC.com. He spoke about how MSNBC.com is the world’s number one online news website. “It’s about morale, about being in something you’re passionate about. [MSNBC.com is] a great service to the public,” said McElfresh. “[I] enjoy creating an environment that people love to be in.” Aside from work, his crew at MSNBC.com has morale-boosting events such as paintball and whitewater rafting or floating down a river while drinking beer. “We’re still doing jacks … just at work,” said McElfresh.

Three main points that McElfresh wanted students to take away from his speech were: “You will become a producer of a product or service,” “You are what you are, the only change is that you’ll better understand yourself,” and that you need to “embrace opportunity, don’t stress about a change in plans.”

The Sava and Danica Andjelkovic Endowed Fund was created to bring speakers, most of them graduates of Whitman, to campus to share information about their career paths. The endowment was funded with a gift from Vojislav Andjelkovic, class of 1994, in honor of his parents.

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