Mara Mayor

I grew up in New York City, the oldest of three children and the only girl. Despite the very traditional roles then ascribed to women, I had  parents who believed I could accomplish anything I set my heart and head to do.

I went to Brandeis for my BA. In the first year we were required to take introductory courses in history, literature, music, and science, and I was intrigued and confused by the possibilities. I talked to my advisor, Eugene Black, who gave me advice that I have offered in turn to many of my own students. Go through the catalog and put a check next to every course you think you would enjoy. Then count the checks, and major in that field. I did, switched to a history major, and have been hooked ever since.

I decided that I wanted to become a history professor, which meant I needed a doctorate. As always, my parents were entirely supportive although this was not a typical path then for a young woman. I went to Yale, earning an MA in History and a Ph.D. in American Studies.

In my first year of graduate school I met Bruce Mayor, who was in his last year at the law school. We met and married in eight weeks. We knew it was right and, as always, my parents were behind us. (His parents were somewhat skeptical, but in time they came around!)

I still remember being called into the office of the head of the history department that spring. He needed to decide whether my fellowship should be renewed for the next year. "Are you pregnant?" he asked. It was the 1960's, women's liberation was barely a concept, but I remember saying to him — "you know, even my mother didn't ask me that." The fellowship was renewed.

I received the Ph.D. in 1969 and joined the faculty of the University of Connecticut where I taught history. In 1970 our daughter Loren was born, opening up a new and wonderful chapter. By the mid-70's, Bruce and I both wanted to test our professional wings. I learned about the Intergovernmental Personnel Act, which allows state, federal, and municipal agencies to borrow staff from each other. I approached the National Endowment for the Humanities to see if they'd be interested, and they were. We moved to Washington in 1978, fell in love with the city and the scope of our work, and have lived here since.

The thread that ties my career together is that, at heart, I am an educator. I taught students directly at UConn. At NEH I was in the Media Program, where we provided support for television and radio programs that also were aimed at teaching, but could reach a national audience.

I moved on to become director of the Annenberg/CPB Project, which developed educational resources aimed at opening the doors to a college level education through the use of television, radio, and ultimately online.  We were doing  “distance learning” when it was barely a concept.   As I watch the spread of MOOCs and on-line learning in general, I am proud of being a pioneer.

Then in 1994 I became director of The Smithsonian Associates, which is the center for life-long learning at the Smithsonian. Each year we created more than 1,800 different educational programs — courses, seminars, lectures in nearly every discipline. People participated in real time in traditional classroom settings, though increasingly programs were made available on line. I left in 2005, thinking I would “retire,” but in 2006 I “re-wired” and became Director of Education at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.  I learned a huge amount in the next two years – about conservation, about education in a natural setting, and about the challenges of managing a collection that does not simply get pinned to a wall, as pictures do.

In 2008 I moved on once again, this time to focus on the subject that I find fascinating – how to make productive use of the bonus decades we, and those who follow my generation, will have.  We are really inventing a new time of life, and the opportunities for creativity and for contributing to society are huge.  The challenge is to recognize the possibilities, and develop strategies and tools for navigation.  It is an extension of the thread that ties my experiences together – it’s about new opportunities for teaching and learning. 

I am currently a senior fellow with Encore.org, which has been the leader in framing the concept of “encore careers;” on the Advisory Board for ReServe in the mid-Atlantic region, which helps the 50+ population link up with non-profits for meaningful, paid employment; on the steering committee of the Washington region chapter of The Transition Network, which helps professional women who are 50+ navigate new opportunities and challenges by sharing experiences and opening new doors; on the Advisory Committee of Montgomery College's Lifelong Learning Institute; and on the Vital Living Committee of Montgomery County, MD, which explores and encourages new ways to engage the 50+ in our community.  I also continue to keep connected to the humanities and the arts, serving on the Board of WETA, our public television and radio station, and on the grants committee of the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County.