Meet the Mentor

A visiting alumni program brings distinguished public servants to campus to dispense advice.

July/August 1997

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Meet the Mentor

Photo: Charles West

His advice to a group of skeptical history students sounds simple: Pursue academic interests that are personally meaningful. Chris Avery, '74, ought to know because it worked for him. Twenty-three years ago, he did his undergraduate honors thesis on the treatment of black prisoners during the Civil War. His scholarly passion led him--circuitously--to Amnesty International, where he defended human rights cases as a legal adviser for 12 years.

Avery's pep talk was just one of the duties he performed as a visiting alumni mentor this spring. He also gave lectures, presented slide shows, dispensed career advice and met one-on-one with students and professors. As Stanford's 7th visiting mentor, Avery joins a prestigious group of artists, authors, physicians and civic activists who have shared their experiences and the choices they made in their careers.

Developed in 1993, the program is a joint effort of the Haas Center for Public Service and the Alumni Association's Community Service Fund. It's financed by supplementary donations from nearly 2,000 life members of the Association. For a week during the winter and spring quarters, an individual with a distinguished public service background comes to Stanford to meet with students, faculty and staff.

Avery went to UC-Davis Law School after Stanford and then into family law. Frustrated by the amount of time spent on litigation rather than client contact, he took a break from work to pursue a master's in law at Columbia and explored other options. While in New York City, he volunteered to represent Haitian asylum seekers and observed a United Nations human rights committee in action. The experiences captivated him. Avery had found his direction. He joined Amnesty International in London as a legal adviser and was dispatched on missions to Gaza, Hong Kong and South Korea.

Hundreds of human rights cases and a dozen years later, a still lean and youthful Avery speaks with the clipped precision of an American who's lived for many years in London. He recalls the prisoners and torture victims with reverence--from Sudanese thieves sentenced to have their right hands cut off to a Ugandan woman tied up by government soldiers under a burning tire that dripped molten rubber. After Amnesty brought the woman's case to public attention in England, the British government withdrew all military and economic aid to Uganda, which led to the regime's collapse.

Reflecting on his eventful career, Avery recalled that his path to public service was not a smooth one. "I zigged and zagged my way around," he says. That decidedly unlinear path made him an ideal adviser to students who wonder where an alternative career might lead them. "He knows exactly what issues students want to hear about," says Debra Solomon, the student co-director of the Visiting Mentor Program and a history major herself, "particularly in terms of how your time at Stanford prepares you in a broader sense for the working world, and especially for public service."

Avery's week at Stanford came at a crossroads in his own career. He decided to leave Amnesty International last year and embarked on a new project to encourage corporations to do their part to improve basic needs like housing, safety and health in developing countries. He won't hesitate to expose companies that choose to do nothing. "I would hope that the Neanderthals, the laggard companies, would say, 'Hey, this is hurting our bottom line.' "

Avery welcomes the opportunity to help students make career choices. "I wish that 25 years ago I had talked with practitioners in different fields to get their personal reflections," Avery says. That's why he advises today's graduates to get plenty of experience: Join an organization, work for free if necessary and learn another language. Most of all, don't give up. If public service is right for you, the opportunities and satisfaction are remarkable.

Chlöe Rebecca Sladden, '96, MA '97, is a consultant in New York.

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