BA in Integrative Studies

Chris Fowler, 2001

Chris Fowler

Chris Fowler, BA Integrative Studies ‘01, works at the U.S. Department of State within the Bureau of International Security and Non-Proliferation, Office of Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism, where he serves as lead of its Global Initiatives team. Prior to this role, he was director of corporate development at the United Service Organizations (or USO), where he created partnerships to strengthen America’s military service members by keeping them connected to family, home, and country throughout their service to the nation.

A born storyteller and creative problem solver, Fowler was raised near Syracuse University in New York, where he later earned his MBA. He has more than 20 years of experience in creative professional services and more than 10 in digital marketing and strategic communications, with a portfolio of projects that includes the United Nations and two hall-of-fame songwriters.

CHSS had the privilege to sit down with Fowler to discuss his career path, how his degree played a pivotal role in his career trajectory, and his advice to students pursuing a degree in the humanities and social sciences. Here’s what he had to say. 

Can you tell us about your college-to-career journey?

My college-to-career path involved three things: being bold, taking risks, and failing forward. I actually started my career before I graduated. I worked for Mason’s on-campus food service provider, so at age 20, I helped lead all the food service operations in the Johnson Center and had a staff of about 150 people. It was a great leadership experience at a young age.

I went to school to be a teacher, but I found that when working with adults, I helped them learn new things and advance their careers, which I found satisfying. I did that for a while and continued to earn promotions and higher levels of leadership every two to three years until I felt like I was stuck. At that point, I decided to get a master's degree and joined the professional creative services industry. I worked at a creative agency, which in my mind had a lot in common with the food service industry. Instead of food, we were taking creative ideas from conception to consumption. I worked in creative agencies for years, working in any one place until I felt like I had learned all I could. And any time I felt stuck, I would look for another opportunity where I could continue to grow and learn.

And as I said, I failed forward in some cases. How should I say it? I was asked to find another job—that happens from time to time. In those moments, you need to see it as an opportunity to find the career and the job that you want.

After a lengthy career in the private sector, I wanted to wrap my arms around a non-profit cause and community I cared about, which led me to the USO. While there, I led partnerships to help strengthen America's military service members by keeping them connected to their family, home, and country. That experience, combined with my engagements with the Global Diplomacy Lab led me to my current position with the U.S. Department of State.

How has your CHSS degree helped you get where you are today?

It has taught me to be curious and ask questions to better understand the context of a given situation. Having a degree in integrative studies, I am better able to look at situations, systems and circumstances, “read” them and then navigate them. To really appreciate something, and what might contribute to its success or failure, it's important to understand the context in which it exists. 

What skills did you learn at Mason that have been most valuable to you?

I’ve been given credit for being a creative problem solver and helping “connect the dots.” One of the most valuable skills I learned at Mason—and have put into practice over the years—is the ability to collect the dots before you can connect them. Why is that important? If you were to paint a picture and connect the dots, if you only talk to four people, that’s going to look like a square and not be terribly exciting. But if you can collect a lot of dots—little inputs from a broad and diverse community of stakeholders like the student body here at Mason—the picture you can put together is one that people can get excited about. Due in part because they see their contributions to the solution that you've built together. You'll all be more successful for that.

What is your favorite Mason memory?

I took a number of independent studies while I was at Mason. I spent a summer in the South American tropics, researching a unique species of spider and writing a group research paper that was delivered to the Virginia Academy of Sciences. I'm a published scientific author, and that was the first and probably the last time I could say that!

Beyond that, experiential learning was such an important part of my academic career at Mason. I took a class called genre TV production, where our entire class made a TV film production company. We took an original short story, and some members of the class worked as screenwriters to turn it into a script, while others served as the production crew. And for better or worse, I was chosen as the male lead in the piece. We created a “Made for TV” science-fiction movie that debuted at the Johnson Center. It was an incredible experience.

What is your advice to current CHSS students?

Take the greatest advantage of the faculty and the students that are here and build community. Connect with the people around you; no one goes through life alone. The film that I mentioned and the research trip to South America were both done with a professor who has become a mentor and a friend. He even officiated my wedding to my wife 20 years ago, and still remains a mentor to me now. This is an incredibly diverse community.  Get to know the people that you're going to school with. Get to know your professors and learn as much as you can.

One of my mentors once shared with me that what you withhold of yourself weakens you, and it cheats me. And what I withhold of myself weakens me, and it cheats you. So explore all of your interests here at Mason. Continue to practice those interests as you look for opportunities outside of your profession to continue your growth. Gone are the days where you can rely on your employer for all of your professional and personal development. You will need to find those opportunities outside of your profession. Look for leadership opportunities in clubs and in communities that you care about. When you participate in leadership opportunities at Mason, you learn, grow, and expand your network. That's when your life really comes into full color.