For over 25 years, the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation has invested in rising college students who show great potential to lead and be a force for good in their communities. While Class of 1990 alumnus Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) is only in his first term in U.S. Congress, he has already proven himself to be an accomplished leader and problem solver, with an incredibly diverse resume for a career that spans just two decades. 

Senator Sasse has worked in the private sector, in two branches of the federal government, and in academia. Most recently, he served as president of Midland University, a 130-year-old Lutheran college he steered out of bankruptcy to become one of the fastest-growing higher education institutions in the country by the time of his departure. He thrives on a challenge and is known for helping organizations from a number of different sectors confront problems head on.

We sat down with Senator Sasse in his Washington, D.C. office for a conversation about his experience as a Coca-Cola Scholar, his career, family and a few words of wisdom.

The mission of the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation is to develop service-minded leaders. Did you know that you wanted to serve your country when you applied to be a Coca-Cola Scholar?

I was 17 when I applied and on any given day I wanted to do a different job. My dad was a football and wrestling coach, so I mainly wanted to grow up and be the offensive coordinator for the Nebraska football team. Actually, that’s still my dream! In all seriousness, I applied to be a Coke Scholar at the end of the Cold War and thought a lot about the future of global issues. I knew pretty early on that I wanted to help organizations – both corporations and nonprofits – tackle big challenges. And that’s most of what I’ve done for the past 21 years. I’ve worked on about 26 strategy projects that have helped organizations find synergies and address challenges in mergers, during periods of rapid growth, or in crises.

Is there a particular memory from your experience as a Coca-Cola Scholar that has stayed with you?

I remember my interview during the selection weekend very clearly. Five interviewers, bright lights and a lot of questions that challenged us not to give predictable answers about wanting to save the world. I remembered and appreciated the rigor of those questions in the following years. It’s been great staying connected to the Scholars Foundation, and I was honored to serve on that same selection committee later. Getting to see the caliber of high school students who apply to the program is humbling, and a lot of fun. These students have both breadth and depth – they are involved in a lot of things but have gone really deep into one or two areas.  

You restored the struggling Midland University to growth during your tenure as president. How did you approach this challenge?

By telling the truth about the unsustainability of the path the university was on. We had 38 majors that were economically unviable and a huge share of our revenue going to human capital expenditures for tenured professors in departments that didn’t have students. We had to address this elephant in the room and restructure things pretty radically. I was able to lay out a rational plan for what recovery would look like in a way that recognized the contributions of the university’s faculty while prioritizing new models for the future. We got rid of lifetime tenure, replacing it with “term tenure." That was the heart of our turnaround. The ability to invest in the areas that were most going to benefit the kids of tomorrow, not the legacy obligations of the organization’s past.

Are there key learnings from your business career that are helping you today in your first term as a U.S. Senator?

I think the most important thing is to be transparent about the challenges that an organization or our nation faces. The public is so much more willing to wrestle with hard questions than politicians or the media assumes. They want leaders that have a focus on the big problems and a strategic plan for addressing them. That’s something I am trying to provide in my first term. 

Your children have rather a unique homeschooling arrangement. Can you tell us how it works?

About four years ago my wife Melissa and I decided to homeschool our children, now aged 13, 11 and 4. I was on the road a lot when I was leading the university and didn’t want to miss milestones in my children’s lives, so I would take one of them with me any time I went on a trip. We found this model works for us and are still using it today, rather than moving the family to D.C. It is important to us to raise the kids in Nebraska around their grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins. Melissa was an inner-city high school principal so she knows curriculum and supplements that with online classes and by joining a homeschooling co-op in Omaha. And then each week I have one of the girls with me in D.C. My 11-year-old gives a lot of constituent tours to the Nebraskans who come to D.C. My 13-year-old works on legislative mail for our Nebraskans.

What do you hope they take from this experience?

My desire is for them to live a life of gratitude by loving their neighbor, being productive and serving people. I think the vast majority of that is by figuring out how to put bread on the table and serve your local community. I appreciate the range of issues they get to learn by sitting in on a number of meetings here in D.C. They also travel the state of Nebraska with me, so they see plant tours and different types of agricultural production. Nebraska is the bread basket of the world, and the kids know a lot more about farming now from being with me on the campaign trail last year than they would if they were just visiting their cousins’ farm.

What would you say to a high school or college student who aspires to have a career in politics?

I think that many of the healthiest and most effective people in politics are people for whom politics isn’t the center of life. I would urge people who think they want to be in politics to go do something else first. Be a doctor. Build a company. Produce food. Go serve in another way and bring that outside perspective to government.