As a teen, Ray Boshara ’83 could not foresee a career distinguished by public service and policymaking. But Ohio State put him on that very path.
True story: Ray Boshara tested into remedial English his first quarter at Ohio State. He’d graduated high school with a 2.7 GPA and “didn’t give a hoot about education.” But he fell under the influence of friends and challenging teachers, and he graduated cum laude with an accounting degree and a Pace Setter Award, given to the top students in Fisher College of Business.
Boshara started his career at Ernst & Whinney, but was drawn to public service. He completed a degree at Yale Divinity School, worked in Congress and the United Nations in Rome, completed a master’s in public administration at Harvard and got into nonprofit and think-tank work. Today, Boshara is a senior advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and a senior fellow at The Aspen Institute.
Boshara stood in the Oval Office in 1998 while former President Bill Clinton signed into law a bill built on policy Boshara helped shape. And this former remedial English student has written a book and penned opinion pieces for The New York Times and other publications. “I’m so glad Ohio State took a chance on me,” he says.
A life so richly lived sounded to us like an opportunity for some shared wisdom, so we asked Boshara to answer questions about what fuels his curiosity, how he balances life and work, and who he turns to for advice and guidance.
How did you move from being a disinterested student in high school to becoming not just an engaged but a passionate student?
At Revere High School in Akron, I wasn’t disinterested in cars, music, sports and dating, but I certainly was disinterested in my classes. At Ohio State, I became an engaged student because my dad threatened to cut off my funding if I didn’t get off the dean’s “other list” my first quarter, because my good friends were great students, and because I learned there were good jobs in my major, accounting. I became a passionate student at Yale and Harvard because I was discovering ideas to be passionate about. At Yale, it was through philosophy, religion and ethics courses that I learned how much ideas have consequences. At Harvard, I was passionate about an anti-poverty idea that I thought could really impact people’s lives; I remain committed to that idea today. I went to Yale because I didn’t know what to do with my life and to Harvard because I did. But throughout, it’s always been about ideas that, to me at least, seem to matter.
Certainly, a lot of students can relate to a first-semester stumble. What would you have done differently if you’d known how challenging it would be?
I was totally unprepared academically for college. In the early 1980s, there wasn’t much attention to first-generation college students like me. I wish I had bothered to find the counselors I’m sure were there. I would tell students today — as I tell all three of my kids — try to be around other motivated students, and try to both work hard and play hard. I somehow talked my way into living on an honors floor in Taylor Tower so I could be surrounded by other good students. At Taylor, my roommates and I would study hard until 11 every Thursday night and then go out. I cherish those memories. When you’re in college, you don’t fully realize what a great time in life it is.
How do you sustain and cultivate your habit of learning?
No doubt it’s been challenging while raising three kids and trying to be a husband who contributes his fair share to managing the house and kids. I try hard to read outside of my field, so in the last year I’ve read some interesting books on epidemiology, human social evolution, race relations and physics, though of course there’s much I don’t fully understand. My wife, Lora, and I now also have three subscriptions — theater, jazz and the symphony — and I meet with a group of Washington University professors each month to discuss mostly politics and economics. My ongoing fascination with ideas keeps me motivated, though having some structure as well as friends with similar interests really helps a lot, too.
Who has impacted your life or been a mentor over the years?
I’ve been influenced by many thoughtful people, but especially by my parents, who taught me the values of family, hard work and persistence. I'd also include a few good friends — especially Greg, Jim, Mike and Scott — without whom I never would have gone to college or knew how to be a successful student. Without my good friend Bill, I would not have been exposed to, or taken a risk on, a career in public service. At Ohio State, it was a Newman Center priest, Father Chris, who encouraged my first act of conscience, a hunger strike. While in divinity school, it was a professor and nun, Margaret Farley, whose successful reconciliation of faith and reason really affected me, as did the encouragement I received from another good friend, Jim. Michael Sherraden birthed the idea that shaped my professional life, while former Ohio Congressman Tony Hall gave me an opportunity to bring that idea to life in the U.S. Congress. And I count Lora as my lifelong mentor. She has always challenged me to do better, to be a better person. I’ve made conscious efforts to remain close with my good friends and teachers, which gives me great joy.
What books have influenced you? And do you have any recommended reading for students embarking on their college careers or other educational and life adventures?
I slowly read Walden while bicycling down the West Coast, trying to see for myself how rewarding a simple life could be. Thoreau’s observation, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone,” still rings true. After being thrown into an existential and spiritual funk by Nietzsche, I thankfully read Anna Karenina, in which the character Lev (who was really Tolstoy) questions but then affirms the truth of Christianity. [Czech dissident, writer and former president] Vaclav Havel’s essays convinced me that my time was better spent reducing poverty than slowing the nuclear arms race, the focus of my first post-accounting job. For students today, I'd say read biographies; you can see how one crafts a meaningful, consequential life even from often quite humble beginnings. Most recently I loved The Road to Character by David Brooks, which offers biographic sketches of people who lived remarkable, purposeful lives — Frances Perkins, Dorothy Day, Samuel Johnson, George Eliot, St. Augustine and others. President Clinton required all of his staff to read presidential biographies to see what was possible, something that really struck me. All of our lives could be otherwise; it's good to see what possible lives we could live, the consequences of our choices.
How do you achieve balance in your life and carve out time for those things you love — music, reading, running?
I actually often feel quite out of balance, crazy-busy. Lora and I always say we need to slow down but then refuse to give anything up! On a practical level, I make sure I always have something with me to read. I try to turn off my phone or computer a few hours each day so I can in fact have time for things I love. But the key is to weave the people and activities you love into the fabric of your life; when they feel essential to who you are, you find the time. However, it's not just about time. My mom, who passed away in April, was always so present in my life and those around her. From her I learned that, no matter how busy you are, or how rich your life may seem, you also have to really be there, really be present, for the people and activities you love. My mom was practicing mindfulness long before that became a fad, and she set a high bar I’m always striving to reach.