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They Studied What?!?

A look at where 6 celebrities hit the books before they found their fame.

3/21/2017 | Academics, Featured | 9 minute read

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You know where these people are now, but do you know where they started? Take a look at where these A-listers hit the books.

J.K. ROWLING

JK RowlingExeter University, bachelor's in French and classical studies

Wondering how J.K. dreamt up Harry, Hermione, and Ron? Well, she got her literary juices flowing at Exeter University. Rumor has it that she based many of the places in her books—from the Gryffindor Common Room to the Great Hall at Hogwarts—on buildings on the Exeter campus.

Photo: Daniel Ogren, CC BY 2.0, via  Wikimedia Commons

Her advice to students?

“I hope you take some risks and make some splendidly useful mistakes so that these three years at Exeter don’t turn out to be the happiest of your life—but I hope they do come close,” said J.K. Rowling to Exeter’s graduating class of 2000, according to the Telegraph.

CONAN O’BRIEN

Conan O'BrienHarvard University, Bachelor's in American History and Literature

That’s right—one of America’s funniest comedians graduated magna cum laude from one of the most prestigious universities in the United States. Before becoming a professional producer, writer, and superstar, Conan wrote for The Harvard Lampoon and served as its president for two years.

Photo: Gage Skidmore,  CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr.

His advice to students?

“I think Harvard, as great as it is—and no one is telling you this, it’s just subliminal—students too often think, ‘I have to do great things, and I need to succeed.’ You just have to be willing to screw up and not freak out when you do screw up—because you will survive,” said Conan in an interview with the Harvard Gazette.

DENZEL WASHINGTON

Fordham University, bachelor's in theater

Denzel WashingtonBefore becoming an Academy Award-winning superstar, Denzel was a premed student and basketball player at Fordham University. Going into his sophomore year, he was one credit shy of the required course load. So he decided to take Beginning Acting as an elective. From there, his passion for acting bloomed, and he changed his major to theater—earning lead roles in Eugene O’Neil’s Emperor Jones and Shakespeare’s Othello.

Photo: Bobby Mcdobbin,  CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr.

His advice to students?

“It’s not what you have, it’s what you do with what you have,” said Denzel at a 2012 Fordham event.

SUSAN WOJCICKI

Harvard University, bachelor’s in history and literature

Susan WojcickiYou may not recognize Susan Wojcicki by name, but you almost certainly know the company she leads: YouTube. Before becoming CEO of YouTube, Susan was integral in the early days of Google’s success. She is considered a pioneer for women in tech. Growing up in a community of academics taught her the importance of being passionate about your work, which has influenced her career to this day.

Photo: Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch,  CC BY 2.0, via Flickr.

Her advice for students?

“Plans are made to be broken. You need to be prepared to explore a bit, to make decisions on what you find, enjoy, discover. I never would have discovered that technology could be creative. I never would have started my career in tech, joined Google, led YouTube, if I had tried to stick to a specific plan that I had made when I was your age,” said Susan Wojcicki to Johns Hopkins University’s 2014 graduating class.

DWAYNE “THE ROCK” JOHNSON

University of Miami, bachelor of general studies in criminology and physiology

Dwayne The Rock JohnsonFootball player, professional wrestler, actor, philanthropist, and businessman, Dwayne has played many roles in his life. But before becoming the Rock, he was an undergraduate at the University of Miami. In addition to playing defensive tackle on the football team, he also hit the books—gaining the skills that would one day put him on Forbes’ list of highest-earning celebrities.

Photo: David Shankbone,  CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

His advice to students?

“Success isn’t always about greatness. It’s about consistency. Consistent hard work leads to success. Greatness will come,” said Dwayne in an interview with Fortune.

MINDY KALING

Dartmouth College, bachelor’s in playwriting

Mindy KalingBefore taking her seat in The Office, Mindy studied Latin and playwriting at Dartmouth College. When she wasn’t in class, she performed in the improvisational comedy troupe the Dog Day Players and the a cappella group, the Rockapellas.

Photo: iDominick,  CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Her advice to students?

“Being expressive is important, and I want you to feel like you are worthy of being heard, but there’s value in listening, too. It makes you more perceptive, more sensitive to how people really work. So when you finally take your place in the spotlight—whether it's doing your own TV show or whatever it turns out to be—you can put all those stored-up goodies to work. And you’ll be so brilliant that no one will be able to look away,” wrote Mindy in a Seventeen magazine article.

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