It’s a bright Monday morning and when Dr. Daniel Aldrich enters his public policy lecture, there is an instant energy in the air. The political science professor has an aura of spontaneity that just can’t be denied. Dr. Aldrich talks at the speed of light, a trait he attributes to how he was brought up. “In my house, you had to talk fast if you ever wanted your voice to be heard.” One of the most approachable professors at Purdue University, Dr. Aldrich has a flair for making his students fall completely in love with the coursework. Known for his unique teaching methods that keep his students on their toes all semester long, Dr. Aldrich has perfected the art of making learning fun. “Often students will adjust their schedules around to fit a class by (Dr. Aldrich) in their schedule, even if it isn’t a requirement towards their degree,” says Carol Randel, a pre-law advisor in the College of Liberal Arts. A regular on national television, he was recently featured on a news segment about the Japan disaster on MSNBC’s “The Last Word.” Her Campus brings to you a sneak peak into the life of this amazing individual who expertly fulfills the roles of professor-extraordinaire, father, spiritual leader, and role model.
Her Campus: Professor Aldrich, you’re such an inspiration to so many people. Tell us about your journey. What brought you to Purdue?
DA:My first job was at Tulane. While I was there, Hurricane Katrina happened in 2005. It was Sunday, the 28th of August. I still remember. The very next day, fall semester was going to begin. But the hurricane destroyed everything including my house. Tulane was going to shut down for a semester. We lost almost all of the freshman class and most of the sophomores. That fall I decided to go back to Harvard as a visiting scholar. In the spring of 2006, Tulane reopened. We decided to cram a whole year of teaching in 20 weeks. Later in fall of 2006, I was offered a fellowship back at Harvard for a year and I took it. While I was at Harvard, I got a call from Purdue, asking me if I wanted a job there. My wife and I decided, it was time to move to Indiana.
HC: What’s your favorite part about being a professor? How did you get involved in your field of interest?
DA: My favorite part about being a professor is how you can combine teaching and interaction, as well as research. Being a professor helps you travel a lot and teach things that are important and that you feel strongly about. For example, it gives you a chance to talk about, say, nuclear power in Japan, or discuss the nuclear leaks in class as it is happening out there in Japan. I can’t think of another field where you have that sort of flexibility. Plus, students make you think hard. It makes your perspective clearer on things, keeps your thoughts fresh, because you’re challenged everyday.
HC:Aside from being a full-time professor, you are also a rabbi and have opened your home to the student community as a spiritual leader, and as a friend. What made you want to do that?
DA:When we were in college, there was a rabbi in the community who had opened his house to the college kids. We were all away from home and we missed the home environment and the home-cooked food, so we began to go to his house. My wife and I often thought to ourselves, “It would be kind of cool to open our house like this when we are adults.” In 2007-08 in Tokyo, we put advertisements up and had 20 people come to our first “open house.” It’s always been really easy. For the kids, a normal environment is to always have people around. We always have students, friends, and other professors in the community over all the time.
HC: What made you want to become a Rabbi?
DA: It’s a funny story. One day I told my wife I couldn’t get any more academic degrees (at that point I had a bachelors, two masters’ and a PhD). She told me if I wanted to keep learning I could get a degree to become a rabbi. Becoming a rabbi is like becoming a pilot. There’s a 10-hour written exam, it takes two and a half years of studying every single day. It’s almost a clinical process. But I had a quest for knowledge that brought me here. We also founded PurJEW at Purdue (my wife is the executive director). We regularly get involved with local organizations; we have peace dinners; I’ve given talks about the nutritional value of kosher food in the past. It’s a big part of our life.
HC: What motivates you on a daily basis?
DA:Learning. There’s so much to do, so much to accomplish. I feel like it’s never ending. What we can do with our time if we really utilize it is incredible.
HC: You spent a lot of time in Japan and India. What can you tell us about your experiences?
DA: You begin to notice the small differences we have when you live in a foreign country. Out there in Japan, people don’t speak in public on cell phones. In India, people are loud all the time. You notice how you really behave (as Americans) when you see people of different cultures behave differently. Students in Japan don’t really ask questions, they feel hesitant and there is a strong sense of hierarchy there. They feel like they shouldn’t interrupt a professor when he’s teaching. In India, it’s more relaxed; people carry out conversations freely. No one minds interrupting you (laughs).
HC: What is an important piece of advice you have for someone who wants to follow your career path?
DA: Try as many things as you can; internships of every kind, whatever you can get your hands on. Knowledge gained is never wasted. I did some sort of internship ever summer. I interned with the police department one summer, did a mountaineering survival course the next, and worked with Microsoft once. One summer, I designed my own internship in Japan. When thinking about life, see where you can go. Don’t think, ‘I got in this way, I gotta leave that way.’ You will learn eventually that your happiness isn’t dependent on your income. We make ourselves unhappy by pursuing things we don’t need.
HC: What is on your bucket -list?
DA: I want to boat the Amazon. I’ve never been down there. I generally want to spend more time outdoors, hiking and climbing etc. Oh, and I want to extensively visit China.
HC: What is something that not many people know about you?
DA: I played viola semi professionally. Actually, I was in an orchestra for a long time. I was a gold medalist in Fencing in Junior Olympics. I love fighting with a saber. Who doesn’t? (laughs)
Dr. Aldrich on MSNBC’s “The Last Word”
Photo 1: R' Dr. Aldrich (All photos provided by Dr. Aldrich)
Photo 3: R’ Dr. Aldrich with sons Gavriel & Yaakov (Photo from his personal collection)
Photo 4: R’ Dr. Aldrich in Japan (Photo from his personal collection)