Sam Pressler

Sam Pressler

Sam Pressler (ΦBK, College of William & Mary)​ is the Founder and former Executive Director of the Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP). He grew ASAP from a student initiative at William & Mary to the nation’s preeminent military/veteran arts organization. For his work with ASAP, Sam has been recognized as a 2015 Echoing Green Global Fellow, 2016 Halcyon Fellow, and 2017 Forbes and Pacific Standard 30 Under 30 awardee.


As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

In my fifth-grade yearbook, we were asked the question, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” All my classmates wrote “professional athlete.” I emphatically wrote “comedy writer.” I grew up on Saturday Night Live and stand-up comedy. I think I watched Chris Farley’s “Van Down by The River” sketch 25+ times as a kid. Instead of reading the Harry Potter series in elementary school, I was ensconced in the autobiographies of Jerry Seinfeld and Al Franken.

My life peaked in the fourth grade when I had the opportunity to have lunch with Tina Fey while she was head writer at Saturday Night Live. She and my father had the same physical therapist. My dad, who is no wallflower, approached her one day and said something along the lines of, “Hey, my son wants to be a comedy writer, would you meet with him?” He didn’t mention to her that I was 10 years old. She agreed to meet with me, and we had lunch for an hour. Apparently, all I talked about was Jimmy Fallon, with whom I was obsessed at the time.

What was the most transformative course from your undergraduate education?

The most transformative element of my undergraduate education was not a single course, but rather the collective support I received from my professors. As a kid coming from an average public high school, I was certain that I was under-prepared and, frankly, not as intelligent as my classmates who had graduated from the most prestigious private schools and top public schools in the country. 

Ultimately, it was my professors at William & Mary who made all the difference.  It seemed as if nearly every one of them was invested in my learning and growth. Two professors in particular, Professor Sasser and Professor Agnew, transformed my experience and took a genuine interest in my success. Through this encouragement and support, I was able to feel less like an impostor and more like a student who belonged. 

You are the Founder of the Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP). How did the creation of this organization come about, and how would you explain the work that ASAP does?  

The military transition is abrupt, and often leaves veterans in need of social support, purpose, an expanded identity, and relevant skills in the civilian world. Essentially, veterans and their families must ask themselves, “who am I now, where do I belong, and what’s next?” 

That’s where the Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP) comes in. We’re a nonprofit with a mission to cultivate community and growth with veterans, service members, military families, and caregivers through the arts. We promote expression, skill-development, and camaraderie through classes, workshops, and performances across a variety of artistic disciplines. We offer programs in everything from stand-up comedy to creative writing, and pretty much everything in between. Through the arts, our approach provides participants with transferable life skills, a renewed sense of purpose, and improved well-being, while strengthening ties between veterans and their communities.

What started in 2013 as an idea for hosting one writing workshop at William & Mary has grown into a non-profit with a well-established presence in Hampton Roads, VA and Washington, DC. We’ve served nearly 1,000 veterans, service members, military families, and caregivers through approximately 250 classes and workshops. We’ve delivered close to 150 performances for over 15,000 audience members — including shows at The White House and for President Jimmy Carter — and our alumni’s performances have reached an estimated 100,000 people. Most importantly, our recent study on ASAP’s impact is showing that our programs produce statistically significant increases in our participants’ well-being — and these improvements are sustained over time. From our humble beginnings, we’ve grown into a sustainable organization that is making a demonstrable difference in the lives of our veterans, service members, and military families.


What was the best advice you were ever given and who gave it to you?

If you had asked me this question last year, I would have told you, “by failing to prepare you are preparing to fail,” a quote that is attributed to everyone from Benjamin Franklin to John Wooden. Whatever the source, when I heard this quote in high school, I immediately decided to make it my life’s creed. 

Living by this adage served me well athletically, academically, and professionally—until it didn’t. I became a good basketball player, but my three daily hours of practice led me to severely injure my knees. I excelled academically in college and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, but, my laser-like focus on school caused my relationships to languish. I founded a non-profit to improve the well-being of thousands of veterans and military families, but I did so at the expense of my personal well-being.

Needless to say, I am in the market for new advice and new quotes! I’ve really appreciated reading Reinhold Niebuhr lately, starting with: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.” He goes on to say we are saved by faith, love and finally forgiveness.

Are you working on any upcoming projects that you’re excited about? 

Recently, I’ve come to realize that effective nonprofit management is neither a marathon nor a sprint — it’s a relay. In July, I passed the baton to ASAP’s new Executive Director, Brian Jenkins, who will guide ASAP through its next phase of growth. I couldn’t be more excited to support the organization as a Board member and advisor. 

I’m taking a two-month road trip, and I’ll be hiking and writing my way across most of the major national parks in the Lower 48. I’m looking forward to catching my breath, processing the last six years, and reflecting on who I want to be in this next phase of my life.