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Alumnus Abroad

A Q&A with David Luhnow '90

David Luhnow with sons Andrew (l) and Bobby and Snowy.
Where were you born? What do you consider your home town?

I was born in Mexico City, a small and bucolic town of 20 million. My dad is from New York and my mom was from Boston, but work brought my dad to Mexico in the early 1960s and he’s never left. For a glimpse of my childhood, watch the Cuaron movie, Roma. He captures Mexico City in the 1970s perfectly. And yes, it’s my hometown, though I am always threatening to leave….

Why did you choose to attend William & Mary?

I wanted a small liberal arts college on the East Coast. It came down to Swarthmore or William & Mary, and I chose Williamsburg for three reasons: the students seemed happier; the campus was gorgeous; and the weather was a lot better for an American raised in Mexico who came to Virginia via Los Angeles and Texas. In other words, I wasn’t ready for a Pennsylvania winter. Even as it was, I still stumbled down the steps to the Morton building whenever it snowed, much to the amusement of my fellow students.

What was your major?

I majored in the dismal science, a.k.a. economics. But when I got to econometrics, the math gave me hives, so I spent most of my senior year in the English department. I found English easier than economics, and a kindly professor one day approached me and said, in a half-compliment, half-rebuke, “Where have you been the past three years?” The combination of writing and economics served my career as a journalist.

Did you study abroad while you were a student?

I didn’t need to, since I was raised abroad. My time at William & Mary was my time to experience Americana. But I think studying abroad  is  vital for American students. The USA is an amazing, dynamic and indispensable country with much to admire, but, given its size and might, it can be blinkered and  provincial  and  cruel  to both other countries and many of its own citizens. It is also, thanks to television news, far too scared of the rest of the world. Viewing the country from the outside gives people valuable perspective. I’ve never met anyone who lived outside the U.S. that wasn’t grateful for the experience.

Did you have a favorite course while you were at W&M?

My favorite econ course was stabilization policy, which taught us how governments try to stabilize the economy to allow steady growth. It sounds boring, but it’s an essential thing to know and explains why things like the Federal Reserve exist  and  why deficits matter (despite current thinking). In my career as a journalist, I’ve covered financial crises in Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and elsewhere, and seen the suffering and poverty that result from poor macro-economic decision making. I’ve glimpsed, too, where populism leads (hint: nowhere good).

I also loved Development of the Modern Democratic State, largely thanks to the professor’s vivid descriptions of history and the smells of European cities in the middle ages, and cosmology, which taught me an endless fascination for the story of our universe. Everyone should learn how a star works.

Do you have a favorite memory of your time at W&M?

My first day I took a loaf of bread from the cafeteria and went to the duck pond and began feeding the ducks. They all started following me back to my dorm, Yates. I remember trying to shoo them back into the pond with little success. A few other students joined in, and we started talking. It made me feel at home, and to this day I am very grateful for the friendships I made at the school. It was my friends who taught me to be a better person, and to aspire to help the world  and not just myself. On a less serious note, I also have fond memories of dancing to “Come on Eileen” at my fraternity, Sigma Nu.

What career path(s) have you pursued?

My senior year, I had a job interview for a position with a bank in Virginia. I really hit it off with the interviewer and we talked about everything from the fall of the Berlin Wall to poetry. At the end of the interview, she saved my life. She said, “I’m not going to hire you, and I’ll tell you why. You’re going to be bored to tears at my bank. Go explore the world and find out what it is you want to do.” So I did. And shortly after, having spent the  summer  traveling  in Europe and watching World Cup soccer in Italy, I was reading a copy   of The Economist when I came across a story about U.S. politics that began with a poem by William Butler Yeats, whom I developed a fascination with during my senior year Modern Poetry class. This short article combined economics, politics and poetry, and when I finished reading it, I decided that I wanted to become a journalist.

In the years since, I’ve had the good fortune to cover life’s rich pageant, first for the British news agency Reuters and then for The Wall Street Journal. I’ve lived in Panama, Mexico, Scotland, and London for my work, and traveled to countless countries. I’ve met peasants and presidents, covered coups, armed conflicts, and currency crises, and tried to make sense of why some countries make it and others don’t. I went to Baghdad for the first months of U.S. occupation after the Iraq War in 2003. I met wonderful and crazy Egyptians during the Tahrir Square rebellion in 2011, and was once kicked out of the offices of Northern Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein for asking questions about the IRA they didn’t like. And, throughout, I’ve tried to explain Latin America  to  the  outside  world  and  to itself. It is a region crippled by its history, and often tragic for its violence and inequality. But it remains fun-loving, inspiring and beautiful. Kind of like the world at large.

Do you have any current projects/ passions you’d like to share?

My big project last year was trying to explain why Latin America was the world’s most violent region and what can be done about it. In coming years, I hope to focus more on the global environment and explain the issues in a clear and unbiased way.

Apart from work, my passion is my family. We are a globalized family. Like me, my wife was born and raised in Mexico but to British parents instead of American. My kids have three passports: US, UK and Mexico. And we have all three cultures at home.  We watch baseball, eat salsa with our tacos, and drink tea.

I also play way too much tennis, love books and British detective shows, and hiking and gardening. My colleague says he’s going to take away my American passport unless I stop gardening and drinking tea.

How do you think your experience at W&M has affected your life and decisions you’ve made?

W&M taught me how to learn. I was the youngest of three overachieving kids. My older brothers went to Stanford and Penn, and had perfect grades. They were smarter, better looking and better athletes than  I.  But it wasn’t until halfway through William & Mary that I realized I, too, was smart, and that with a little luck I might someday even be wise, which is better than smart. William & Mary gave me the self-confidence to know I could learn and  achieve  almost  anything.  It also taught me a love of nature and history that  endure  to  this  day.  For a kid who grew up in a smoggy city    of millions, walking under the shade of sun-dappled trees near a building designed by Sir Christopher Wren was a life-changing experience.

Do you have any advice for current students?

Careers often narrow a person’s interests, so before you leave school, take all the different classes you can. Who cares if you get a C? Get the most out of  it,  because  your  future  boss  is probably not going to know much about literature, biology or history. And get to know the professors. They are often incredible people with so much wisdom    to    share. In fact, one of my economics professors — I forget his name but he was a riot — once told us he was smarter than his wife because he married someone smarter than he was. I never forgot that, and now I’m smarter than my wife, too.

Is there any advice you wish you’d received?

Don’t   take   accounting,   you will hate it! Take more history classes instead. Oh, and learn to laugh at yourself. It took me a while, and my life has been so much better ever since!

Do you think international experience as a student is helpful in future life and career?

Of course. Much of the U.S. economy is linked to the  rest  of  the  world,  and knowing how to navigate other cultures and countries is a huge plus. But beyond the utilitarian calculus, there’s also something deeply human about leaving your home culture and comfort   zone,   and   getting   to know the    rest    of     humanity.   Our    country    and our leaders could use  a  little  humility sometimes, and traveling the world gives you that in spades. It also leads to some excellent food!

Anything else you’d like to add?

Gratitude. I’m grateful I got to go to William & Mary. The U.S. is such a rich and privileged place that, sometimes we don’t appreciate fully enough our many blessings. Many teens in other parts of the world would  dearly  love  to  have a chance to study at a place like our wonderful university.