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Meet the Johnsons: Graham Novak ’19

“Don’t fret about making an exact four-year plan when you arrive on campus; your interests will change, you’ll find new passions, you’ll want to explore various fields, and you want to be open-minded.”

Meet Graham Novak ’19, an aspiring – and already accomplished – entrepreneur

Q: How did you first hear about the Johnson Scholarship?

Graduating debt-free from a highly respected university was a top priority in my college search. With that said, I targeted top universities that had full-ride scholarship programs, and Washington and Lee quickly became a top contender.

Q: Were you considering any other colleges when you applied to W&L?

Vanderbilt, University of Pennsylvania, Emory, Furman, and Washington University, St. Louis

Q: Why did you ultimately choose W&L?

Of all the colleges I visited, W&L’s professors were the most down-to-earth and well-connected to the students. Going to class didn’t seem like a chore, instead it was a time to look forward to. Additionally, I came to the realization that the quality of education between the schools was extremely close; I’d have the opportunities to be successful at any of the institutions, but W&L expressed their genuine interest in me by offering a tremendous scholarship.

Q: How has Johnson affected your views on leadership and integrity — or on academics?

The Johnson Program represents a convergence of W&L’s traditions and the embodiment of student-driven passion for excellence and innovation. Academically, it reminds me that I have a high standard to uphold. The biggest impact, however, is an internalized sense of commitment to the university’s culture and community. I strive to be an ambassador of our values, role model for others, and contributor to the greater good as a small way of saying thanks to the school for providing me this unparalleled opportunity.

Q: What is your favorite story about your W&L experience, if you had to pick one?

Each fall, the university hosts its annual Entrepreneurship Summit; hundreds of students and alumni gather to hear from founders and CEOs, participate in a school-wide pitch competition, and network with the individuals who are creating the businesses and technologies of the future. My freshman year, I managed my way into the final round of the pitch competition, standing on a stage in front of peers, professors, and potential investors. When they announced the winner, I felt the sting of loss but it only lasted a moment; as soon as the session ended, alumni swarmed me with their congratulations, offering their mentorship, asking me to tell them more. They didn’t talk to me like a student. They talked to me like a future partner.

Q: Do you have a mentor on campus? Faculty, staff, or another student?

Dr. Goldsmith is not only one of my favorite professors, but also my economics major advisor. Whether I want to discuss the repercussions of Brexit, pursue research opportunities, or get advice on the best vacation places in Australia, the man has advice on everything.

Q: What extracurricular are you involved in right now that you are extra-passionate about?

Without a doubt, my favorite organization is the Venture Club. We consult for start-ups, provide resources to student entrepreneurs, have case competitions, sponsor student pitches, and meet with alumni and business owners.  While it can be time-consuming and intensive, it is amazingly rewarding. Right now, we’re consulting for five different businesses, including a food producer and distributor in Shanghai, a digital publishing/marketing company, and a non-profit that wants to reimagine the way people donate money. Every semester is full of new projects that continue to challenge me in different ways.

Q: What is your favorite campus tradition or piece of history?

The Honor System creates an amazing sense of trust, mutual respect, and understanding between students and professors. I can leave my door wide open without the fear of someone taking my things. I can schedule my final exams to the times when they’re most convenient because the professors know that I will not cheat. I can trust that the students around me are honest and act with genuine integrity. It’s comforting, supportive, and held with the highest respect.

Q: If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to “first day on campus” you?

Don’t fret about making an exact four-year plan of all your classes when you arrive on campus; your interests will change, you’ll find new passions, you’ll want to explore various fields, and you want to be open-minded. There are many amazing classes that you just don’t know about yet.

Q: If someone asked you “why choose W&L,” what is the one reason you would tell them?

Students are happy, amazingly accomplished, and have a track record of unprecedented success after graduation. I feel genuine connections to my peers and professors, I’m given the tools and skills to accomplish my loftiest goals, and every day I’m thankful for making the best choice of my life; I don’t think there’s anything else I could ask for.

Thinking about W&L for college? Why not apply for the Johnson Scholarship?

If you know a W&L student who would be a great profile subject, tell us about it! Nominate them for a web profile.

A little more about Graham

Naperville, Illinois

Economics and Computer Science

Extracurricular involvement:
Venture Club, Contact Committee, Appalachian Adventure Trip Leader, Outing Club, University Ambassadors

Off-campus activities/involvement:
Remote Software Engineer for the U.S. Department of State, Illinois Boys State Mentor, beach volleyball enthusiast

Why did you choose your major?
After high school, I started a digital marketing company that focused on building websites, so it seemed natural to explore computer science further. I’ve also grown interested in finance and investing, so I decided to study economics as well. I’m fascinated by the convergence of the two—the possibility of writing predictive economic algorithms or software for new investing strategies.

What professor has inspired you?
Dr. Shay is the entrepreneur I aspire to be. His accomplishments as a consultant, partner, and founder seem unending, and the man has wisdom for seemingly everything. I admire his ambition, drive for innovation, and willingness to help every student.

What’s your personal motto?
There’s time to sleep when I’m dead.

Best place to eat in Lexington? What do you order?
Napa Thai’s crispy shrimp gives me tears of joy

What do you wish you’d known before you came to campus?
It isn’t the Freshman 15 you have to worry about. It’s the Sophomore 15.

Post-graduation plans:
Start my own business. Simple enough, right?

Favorite W&L memory:
My first year at the university, my hall decided to have a “family dinner” and cook for ourselves one night. On a whim, we invited President Ruscio to join us—needless to say, the next week, he and his wife joined 15 first-years around a long study room table for a home-cooked meal served up on paper plates.

Favorite class:
Last Spring Term, I took “The Science of Cooking,” which focused on organic chemistry applications in food science. The class took place in Siena, Italy, which allowed us to visit a multitude of food producers and manufacturers.

Favorite W&L event:
Early in the fall, I had the thrill of a lifetime white water rafting with the Outing Club on some of the world’s best rapids on the Gully River.

Favorite campus landmark:
The view of House Mountain from the Center for Global Learning

What’s your passion?
I want to leave everything I touch better off than how I found it. That includes student organizations, my friends and family, the companies I work for and the world as a whole.

What’s something people wouldn’t guess about you?
I have some mad badminton skills.

Why did you choose W&L?
Academically rigorous, small class sizes, hyper-qualified professors, tight-knit community, and an unbelievable career services team.