Life, according to Northwestern University School of Professional Studies alumnus Benjamin Clinger, is about putting yourself in a position to maximize your opportunities, and jumping on those opportunities when they present themselves. He was a three-sport athlete in high school, took every AP class available, and finished in three years. Then he did what you’d expect any motivated, academically gifted student athlete to do: he dropped everything to tour the country with a rock and roll band. “The band moved to Atlanta, then we moved back to Chicago. I needed to raise some money to make a record, so I started driving a taxi.” Always entrepreneurial, Clinger soon pulled together a business plan and a bank loan and started his own black car service. Then September 11 happened, and his business tanked. “I was married. I was in my mid-20s. Do I keep making records? Do I try to ride out the storm with the black car business? Do I go back to school? We decided my going back to school would give us the most options.”
So Clinger retook the SATs with a bunch of 16-year-olds and started considering colleges. “My philosophy is that if you work hard enough, you can compete with anybody. So my goal was to get into the best school that would accept me. In Chicago, that meant my choices were Northwestern and the University of Chicago.”
Because Clinger demonstrated such ambition and success when he entered the program, the School of Professional Studies allowed him to supplement his evening classes with daytime classes with traditional Northwestern students. “That really proved to me that I was getting a ‘real’ Northwestern degree. The faculty was the same. The caliber of students was the same. In fact, because the classes are smaller, I think I had more access to faculty and better conversations with my classmates in the SPS format.”
The other thing the School of Professional Studies offered Clinger was speed. Knowing Clinger wanted to finish his degree quickly, SPS administration helped him build a schedule that allowed him to graduate magna cum laude with a double major in political science and history in just two years.
Clinger directly credits his SPS experience and Northwestern’s reputation with his admission to Yale Law School. “I applied everywhere from Kent to Harvard, and I was shocked when Yale accepted me. But that’s when I really learned the power of prestige and personal connections. I chose Northwestern out of my own sense of competitiveness. I wanted to measure myself against the best students and the most challenging curriculum. But what got me into Yale were the personal relationships I’d formed with my professors and the letters of recommendation they wrote for me.”
Once again displaying a talent for everything but timing, Clinger finished a joint JD/MBA at Yale just as the 2008 economic crisis was beginning. But thanks to his motivation, intelligence and credentials, he was aggressively recruited by Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago, where he is now a successful mergers and acquisitions lawyer.
“I counsel current SPS students that they need to set goals and treat every class, every paper, every test as a step toward that goal. Then if you work hard and you’re lucky, you might find opportunities along the way that exceed your goals.”