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Behind Campus Center Gift, a Story of Career Guidance with a Jesuit Bent

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Looking back on his education at Fordham and all that it opened up for him, James Rowen is grateful—and perhaps a little amazed—that everything turned out the way it did.

Going to Fordham “sent my life on a trajectory that I could never have imagined,” said Rowen, who went on to a successful career as a business executive, philanthropist, and alumni leader for his two alma maters, Fordham Preparatory School and Fordham University.

There were struggles and uncertainties—for all eight of his high school and undergraduate years, he was commuting two hours each way from his home on Long Island. And, for a time, his family finances made it seem doubtful that he could attend college at all.

But it was also a pivotal time in many ways: During his junior year at the Prep, an intervention from one of the Jesuit instructors put him on the path to the University and taught him an important lesson about overcoming difficulty. And then there was his experience at Fordham College at Rose Hill: the friendships formed, the classes that conveyed a moral sense, and faculty members’ help with the basics of landing a job.

“The faculty was very engaged, very caring,” he said. Going to Fordham “was one of those points that, when you look back in your career or your life, are transformative,” he said. “I feel I have a debt to the University and the Jesuits for how they helped me.”

He has made many major gifts to both Fordham Prep and Fordham University—including, now, a major contribution toward completing the Joseph M. McShane, S.J. Campus Center, a keystone of the University’s $350 million fundraising campaign, Cura Personalis | For Every Fordham Student. The Career Center in the new building will be named for Rowen in recognition of his gift—signifying the importance, for him, of how Fordham prepared him for his post-college pursuits.

After graduating in 1986 with a degree in English and a minor in economics, he joined Merrill Lynch and then Kidder Peabody, where he worked in the incipient field of quantitative finance. After working in executive roles at Deutsche Bank and SAC Capital Advisors, he joined the investment management firm Renaissance Technologies LLC in 2008, where today he is chief operating officer.

He has served on Fordham’s Board of Trustees and on various Fordham College at Rose Hill alumni committees, among other roles, and is a double alumnus of the University, having earned his M.B.A. from the Gabelli School of Business in 1998.

At the Gabelli School, he learned business principles that are applicable “to almost everything,” he said. And that includes philanthropy: Harnessing the benefits of competition, he founded and funded the Great Ignatian Challenge, in which 27 Jesuit high schools (so far) in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions strive to collect the most food for the hungry during the holidays, with the winning schools receiving funding to help provide financial aid to their students.

“It’s been very rewarding to do this,” Rowen said, “because you can see an Ignatian teaching supercharged with some basic business principles, and you make an impact in the lives of thousands.”

Why was it important to you to support the McShane Campus Center project?
The campus center is important to the University on so many levels, physically and emotionally and psychologically. Both for folks who live on campus and those who commute, it’s extremely important to have that place to hang your hat. I just feel that it’s good for the University’s culture. And there’s also such a “wow” factor—when you see that new building, with its big open spaces and how inviting it is, it sends a very strong message to faculty, current students, potential students, and parents that the University is vibrant and it’s growing. And ultimately, the direction of the University is extremely important to me.

Why is it appealing to be the namesake for the Career Center?
Not coming from a white-collar background, many of the items of preparing to look for a job were foreign to me. The only work experience I had when I was in the college was working in a hardware store. I had no idea how to write a resume. I found that the faculty was extremely helpful in sharing their views and advice and helping me with the types of questions asked in interviews. Today, the competitive pressures for jobs continue to go up, and many students may not come from households that are that familiar with it either. The Career Center becomes extremely important for how to present yourself and what the expectation is when doing interviews. Interviews are evolving, and Fordham has to be ahead of the curve while sticking to its traditions.

The Ignatian teachings of being in the service of others are a differentiator for our students. The moral compass is a critical element of Jesuit education, and also the ability to employ critical thinking and discernment. I think you’ll find most employers are looking for that ability to de-engineer a problem and make recommendations for solutions. That’s what the Jesuits do—they’ll be there to help, but they don’t want to give you the solutions. They want to help you foster the skill to come up with a solution.

Do you have a career lesson for today’s students?
Don’t rush to judgment; things aren’t always what they seem. I find that when employees didn’t meet expectations, often, when you do a little digging, you’ll find out that there’s something more serious going on, and that’s when the Ignatian-based attitude of “how can I help?” becomes important. We need to understand the circumstances of the individual first before making any recommendations or changes. During the COVID pandemic, we’ve had exceptional employees who struggled, and when you peel back a little, you find out a child is sick, a parent has passed away, a health issue in the family has gotten worse, a loved one has been laid off. It’s not a function of, “Oh, they’re not working well at home”; they have a real paradigm shift in their life. So I think we’ve done a pretty good job of just checking in on employees to make sure that if there are issues, they know they have a safety net. We’re there to help.

Is there a person or experience that was pivotal in your education?
At Fordham Prep, Father Stan O’Konsky would help us with our college essays in junior year, and one day in homeroom he walked around and said, “Hey, Jim, why aren’t you working on a college essay?” I said, “Well, I chatted with my mother during the summer; we don’t have money to send me.” So I wasn’t going to do any applications. He looked at me and walked off, and at the end of homeroom he came back and said, “You know what? We’re not going to let you off easy. I’ll tell you what, I want you to write an essay. You apply to Fordham, and if you get in, we’ll make sure you find a way to go. We’ll find the money.” So at that point I started working on my essay and he helped me. We compared my commute from Long Beach, Long Island, on the Long Island Railroad and the subways, to the adventures in Virgil’s Aeneid. He was very helpful in saying, let’s do a creative essay around something that’s really unique about your time at the Prep, which was my commute.

Basically, he said don’t give up. Apply, and if you get in, we’ll figure it out, right? It was a typical Jesuit approach—let’s think about it, let’s discern, let’s come up with alternatives. If there are problems, there are solutions. That has always resonated with me, to this very day, and has been a cornerstone of what I would consider any success I’ve had.

How were the folks at the Prep prepared to help you attend Fordham?
They offered financial help if it was necessary—I think they would have found ways for me to earn money—but I found a way, through student loans and scheduling my classes Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and working Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at my uncle’s hardware store while commuting to Fordham.

Looking at the world today, what are you optimistic about?
I’m optimistic about evolution and how things have changed. You can see it in the strides that we are making with artificial intelligence and understanding the genome. There are many diseases and afflictions that I assume are likely to be cured in the next decade. Plus we’re becoming more globally connected. You can see it in how so many countries and individuals have rallied to help Ukraine. So I do think interconnection, globalization, and automation are going to create so many opportunities and a better quality of life for people.

What have you enjoyed most about staying involved with Fordham as an alumnus?
It’s the ability to be a steward of the things that I hold important about Fordham. I love the debate and discussion—what will the world look like in 20 years, and how will Fordham students be able to manage that? It is just really interesting to be part of a group of caring individuals who want the University to continue on its mission and try to figure out how the mission will be most impactful as the world evolves. You meet individuals from all walks of life who have one thing in common: They’ve had the Jesuit experience, they want to continue to be in the service of others, and they have decided to do it through stewardship of the University. It’s nice to have that kind of relationship.

You graduate from college thinking, okay, this is a chapter that’s closing. It closed for a little bit, but when it opened up, it opened up in a way that I could never have fathomed. It is just so much bigger and broader than I could have ever anticipated.

To inquire about supporting the McShane Campus Center project or another area of the University, please contact Michael Boyd, senior associate vice president for development and university relations, at 212-636-6525 or mboyd7@fordham.edu. Learn more about Cura Personalis | For Every Fordham Student, a campaign to reinvest in every aspect of the Fordham student experience.

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