What Can You Do with an English Major?
Grinnell Alumni Employment Narratives
We welcome additional short narratives from alumni. Please send them to Ralph Savarese.
Daniel Agostino '13
When I became interested in majoring in English it was likely because literature and film reflected the complexity of the world without needing to find solutions. Verbal and visual language are my largest fascinations and the English major set me on a path to endlessly engage with their possibilities. Instead of fearing or worse, not noticing language, I found that it was the most fundamental thing I could learn about in college. The return on investment is quite good if you consider that you will write, read, speak and analyze English each day for the rest of your life.
Since graduating, I have worked as a construction volunteer lead at Habitat for Humanity in Seattle and as a research intern at PBS in Chicago. I have also made a small business of creating non-fiction films while supplementing my income with customer service jobs. This year I have started work for the newly founded Public Goods Institute as an editor of the Public Goods Post and as a researcher for a wide-ranging project on the public economy. I see myself continuing in digital communications and non-fiction video, and as my work increases in impact and visibility I will feel satisfied knowing that it’s the language, verbal and visual, that does all of the work of reaching and influencing people.
Elizabeth Allan '04
After graduation in 2004, I spent a year as an English teacher in the Grinnell Corps program in Lesotho. That was right around the time of the peak of HIV infection prevalence in southern Africa, and during my time there I became interested in the field of human development. Afterwards, I worked for a time as a maternal health program officer in Nigeria, then took a job for two years in Washington, DC in the field of war crimes prosecution. In 2008, I entered graduate school at Yale in African Studies, figuring that I would eventually get a Ph.D. in political science. But I was frustrated by the abstract nature of my graduate school work. I wanted direct experiences, and I realized that the work I’d loved the most was teaching, though I was still curious about questions of human development and human flourishing. So I went to medical school (there are a few strategies out there for taking pre-med coursework after college). I completed medical school at the University of Maryland, and I am now a psychiatry resident at New York University and Bellevue hospitals. Psychiatry is sort of the liberal arts of medicine — there are many open questions of diagnosis and pathophysiology that may never be resolved, and the daily work is very much about critical thinking and synthesis. I write more on a daily basis than I have in any other job, and I act as an advocate for my patients and their families. And it’s my job to be curious — about patients, about their lives outside of my office, about the contexts in which people live with mental illness. It’s a great fit for a Grinnell graduate who is comfortable with ambiguity and has a strong sense of social justice. I used to worry that my English major would be a liability in a field like medicine, but, truly, it has always been an asset. All they say is true about the value of thinking deeply and critically, formulating an argument, finding evidence, and writing with confidence and clarity. And your encounters in English will follow you in unexpected ways in the world, maybe through chance conversations with strangers reading a familiar book of poems, or the ability to sink into a novel on the subway.
Michael Andersen '03
Michael Andersen '03 spent four years at the S&B, including two years as news editor -- building deadline writing skills that served him well in Grinnell's academic world whenever he needed to write an eight-page essay in a hurry, which was every time. However, as he looked for a job as a reporter for some small paper within driving distance of Grinnell after graduation, his sheaf of college clips and an English degree didn't mean squat. (This would have been different if he'd focused more than one of his summers on internships in his chosen career -- not doing so was probably his biggest professional mistake.) What did mean squat was the respect of his former S&B and English Department colleague Sarah Aswell, who had by that point found a job at the Grinnell Herald-Register thanks to a friend of hers who had happened to work in its art department. She nagged the editors there until they hired Michael, and over the next year they gradually scaled him up to full-time and he fell permanently in love with local journalism.
That led to a master's in reporting and writing from Northwestern in 2005, which led to a fascination with the business of online media, which led to a couple web-heavy jobs at daily newspapers, which led to him settling on a professional meta-objective about five years out of college: his goal is to do public-facing reporting on municipal policies that address and repair cyclical poverty. This led to him starting a crazy little web-news startup serving public transit users in Portland, which later joined up with a less crazy web-based startup serving bike users in Portland. As of 2016, 13 years after graduation, he's found a niche reporting on municipal policy issues -- street design, bike and transit infrastructure, parking policy, zoning laws -- for organizations with some sort of axe to grind. Somehow he's been able to keep finding organizations that want to grind the same axes he does. He earns about $65,000 annually through a combination of freelance and salaried work.
He became an English major because Michael Cavanagh's Lyric, taken in his third semester, was the first class he enjoyed so much that his heart beat faster. He rarely uses the technical skills of an English major (though last month he did compose a six-stanza clue, in dactylic trimeter, for an urban scavenger hunt produced by his employer) but he's been lucky to be able to build his career around the same value: it's work that excites him. Every day he gets to learn new things, argue about their social-justice implications with acquaintances and craft sentences about his conclusions. That's the work he learned to love in Grinnell English classes.
Photo credit to BikePortland.org.
Sarah Aswell '04
I became an English major my junior year, against the wishes of my parents, who are microbiologists, and who thought an English degree would be a useless waste of money. I have always known that I wanted to write for a living in some capacity, and that my great dream is to be a humor writer.
After I graduated, I stayed behind in Grinnell to finish my degree (I had failed Latin II–I do not recommend doing that) and be with my underclassman boyfriend (we broke up–I do not recommend staying in Grinnell to be with your underclassman boyfriend). During that year, I worked for the Grinnell Herald-Register, which is owned and run by Grinnell College alumni. I highly, highly recommend working with them if you have no idea what you want to do but you do know you want to write. It was a very tough year with a steep learning curve, but I learned so much about writing that I still fall back on, including but not limited to every single thing you ever need to know about journalism, plus how to type really, really fast. Plus how to use the phone, how to find the best sources (and how to get them to talk), how to respond to criticism correctly, and how to hit deadlines no matter what.
During that year, I applied to graduate creative writing programs. I got into exactly one, the fiction program at the University of Montana, the second-oldest program in the country, and one of the most respected. I got rejected from everywhere else. I had never been to Montana, but I had also never been to Iowa when I was accepted into Grinnell, so I went. I had a really wonderful experience there, and although I learned there that I am not the super best fiction writer ever, I learned I am pretty good at non-fiction. I met many lifelong friends and mentors. It changed my life.
After getting my MFA, I thought I wanted to enter the publishing industry and be an editor, so my boyfriend and I (we are now married with two kids) packed up and moved to New York City. I quickly discovered that working in book publishing as a writer is kind of like working in a fire truck factory when you really want to be a firefighter. I became deeply depressed, but also started freelance writing out of my cubicle. This was not morally ideal, but within two years, I was able to quit and begin a freelance writing business. That was 2008. It took a lot of cold calls and a lot of risks. Once I had enough clients, I moved back to Montana, where my business is flourishing eight years later. I work from home where I raise my two toddler girls.
I write mostly marketing copy–my biggest client is Nike, though I write for tons of small and medium-sized companies and a handful of local businesses. The work is not glamorous, but it is lucrative enough that I have plenty of time to take care of my kids and a few hours a day to dedicate to my true love: writing humor pieces and writing stand-up comedy, which I perform locally. Everything about this set up makes me happy. Besides the corporate writing I do (about four hours a day), I have been published in McSweeny’s, Reductress, The Advocate, The Gettysburg Review, and a few others places. And I do stand-up comedy four or fives times a month. It is absolutely possible to have a writing career that involves both making great money and following your dreams. Contact me any time at all at sarah.aswell[at]gmail[dot]com. I love talking to Grinnell people.
Taylor Augustine '03
I graduated with the expectation that I would go on to graduate school. That did not happen and it has been such a blessing. Instead, I have a very rewarding career as a nanny/household manager. I have been with the same family for nearly ten years. Though child care is an unexpected choice for an English major, I use my degree every day. Having a strong command of English has allowed me to adapt as my charges have gotten older. I help with homework, of course, but I also arrange regular maintenance for the house and keep everything stocked. Every day is different and I don't have to sit in an office. I'm grateful for my Grinnell education for teaching me the kind of elastic thinking and problem solving skills that are invaluable when working with children.
Kathryn Benson '09
In some ways, my career trajectory since leaving Grinnell feels fated--my time in the English department has influenced every aspect of my life and work, directly and indirectly. On the other hand, my path to where I am now has certainly not been linear--it’s included plenty of false starts, confusion, and existential panic. The common thread in both my angst and certainty has been a love of books and reading, a drive to share those passions with others, and the ability to make that goal a reality thanks to the critical thinking and writing skills that were fostered in the Grinnell English department.
My senior year at Grinnell I applied to traditional MFA programs--but, after being accepted, I found that I wasn’t ready to commit. After a couple of post-Grinnell years of retail underemployment and feverish novel-writing, I found my way instead to the Master of Information Studies program at the University of Texas at Austin, where my drive for public service and my tendency towards obsessive organization found a happy union in the field of librarianship. After receiving my MSIS, I returned to my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I now work as a reference and instruction librarian at a community college. I teach students how to approach research challenges, I collaborate with colleagues to ensure that library services reach the students that need them most, and--perhaps most thrillingly--I get to spend several thousand dollars each year on books. The strong research skills I cultivated during my time in the Grinnell English department have served me well in my library career, as have the writing skills that allow me to organize projects and communicate effectively with students and faculty.
Most recently, another element of my time at Grinnell--my love for creative writing in all its forms--led me to pursue an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults through the Vermont College of Fine Arts. It’s a low-residency program, which means I spend two euphoric ten-day periods on campus each year, and dedicate the rest of my time to the cultivation of a daily writing practice in partnership with a faculty advisor. When I was at Grinnell, I signed up for every creative writing workshop available, exploring poetry, creative nonfiction, and short stories--and learned the valuable skills of giving (and receiving) constructive criticism. At VCFA, I’m pursuing my writing fully, as part of a nurturing and supportive creative community--and I absolutely wouldn’t be doing that without the strong foundation in creative work that I built at Grinnell.
Rebecca Bernstein '10
Today, I am working at Swarthmore College’s Title IX Office, thinking about how to do innovative sexual violence prevention on a small campus and provide opportunities for students to be engaged in this crucial work. But 10 years ago this summer (*pause to realize it’s been 10 years… ...annnnd we’re back!*), I was sitting at NSO, 99% sure that I wanted to major in English. I majored in English because English classes were my favorite classes in high school, because I loved to read and write, because I had Steve Andrews and Ralph Savarese in my first two years of college and thought to myself, “I want to spend more time learning with those guys.” But what I got out of my English major was very different from what I expected going in. Sure, I built writing and critical thinking skills that I carry with me to this day. And the whole knowing-how-to-behave-in-a-small-group-discussion thing has proven very useful in the conversations that I have at Swarthmore with students and colleagues daily. But even more than that, I gained a sense of empathy. As my fellow English major and partner, Erica Hauswald (’12), constantly reminds me, literature really is an empathy tool. Following different characters from place to place, seeing the world from their perspective, inhabiting different people’s psyches and lives – this was perhaps the most useful part of being an English major for me.
At Swarthmore, I am constantly pushed to see both our campus and the world from other vantage points. From an incoming student who did not have comprehensive sex education before coming to Swarthmore, to a survivor who wants to make Swarthmore safer before they graduate, to a faculty or staff member who feels anxious about reporting requirements and what this means for their role on campus. It is the process of trying to inhabit someone else’s world – someone else’s story – make sense of it, and build a relationship, that constitutes the very core of my work here.
I should also say that there were many chapters before this one, connecting my experience as an English major (and, unsurprisingly, a Gender, Women’s & Sexuality Studies concentrator) to my current story. There was the AmeriCorps chapter, just after graduation, where I lived in a city on my own for the first time and had very little clue what I was going to do next. There were the chapters where I met my first post-Grinnell mentor who took me under her wing, invited me to work for her non-profit, and taught me how poems and short stories could be directly linked to social justice and civic work. There were the grad school chapters for when I had a clearer vision of the kind of work I wanted to do in the future and the kind of degree I needed to get there (I have an M.Ed. in Student Affairs for those who are curious). And of course there were the people along the way who have tied together my narrative, many of whom have been English majors themselves.
For the sake of space, I’ve had to create a tight narrative here, but if there are other questions or thoughts that come up for you, feel free to email me directly at rbernst1[at]swarthmore[dot]edu.
Eli Best '07
After graduating from Grinnell in 2007 with a degree in English, I worked for the college for a year as an admission counselor. During that year, I took the LSAT and applied to law school. I spent my first year of law school at the University of Michigan and then transferred to Yale and graduated in 2011. I then returned to the Midwest and spent a year in Madison, WI as a law clerk for Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, followed by a year in Minneapolis, MN as a law clerk for Judge John Tunheim on the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota. Next, I moved to Washington, DC and worked for two and a half years as an associate at Covington & Burling LLP, where I focused on employment law. In July 2016, I will again return to the Midwest to join Fredrikson & Byron, PA in Minneapolis, MN. I plan to continue focusing on employment law.
Studying literature at Grinnell prepared me well for everything that I have done over the past nine years. The English major gave me exposure to a range of historical and cultural ideas in addition to teaching me about literary technique and style. More generally, but most importantly, the program gave me the ability to think critically, analyze text, write clearly, and communicate effectively. In each role that I have held since college, from admission counselor, to law student, to law clerk, to law firm associate, I have relied heavily on those skills.
Bryan Boyce '10
I’d say my English major has served me well, though it took me being proactive about job planning and no doubt a little luck. After graduating, I taught English in Lesotho for a year and then on the Rosebud Reservation with Teach for America (TFA) for three years. I parlayed that into a couple years’ work as Assistant Director of an education nonprofit called Breakthrough in California. And now I’m in Minnesota, in the process of establishing my own nonprofit (we just finished up our first classes taught by college students — see recent publications!) that is largely based on the MAP I did, and got its foundational funding from Grinnell’s Wall Award.
When I graduated, I knew that both teaching and nonprofit administration were of interest to me, so generally aimed my path as: English major → English educator → education nonprofit → nonprofit administrator.
Have to credit TFA — criticisms notwithstanding — with being really, really strong at training and supporting me with transferable professional and leadership development. The engagement of big moral questions (race, gender, disability, pedagogy) and practice analyzing and articulating them, and just generally learning about the world and developing a worldview, however, are components of my English major that have been directly transferable to the work world (having read postcolonial African lit and theory before moving to Lesotho (or the rez for that matter), being able to write well (grants!), training diverse teachers to lead culturally responsive pedagogy, etc.).
But I also know that if a few key decisions had broken a different way for me, I could be telling a very different story, whereas if I was say, a STEM major who happened to enjoy taking lots of literature classes on the side, I could probably be doing all the things I’ve done and have an easy $60k fallback job if necessary.
Not that I ever really wanted to do that. Just something I’m mindful of when advising my own students and their college decisions.
Johnny Buse '11
In terms of work, my first few years after graduating from Grinnell were similar to the Plinko board on The Price is Right: I dropped down, hitting pegs and bouncing left, right, somehow up, usually down. I had graduated without a real plan, and took on a series of jobs: I tutored, I taught, I pulled espresso shots, and I worked for a local newspaper. In each of those jobs, my experience in the classroom among lit-minded peers and under the guidance of professors were bedrocks --even in the coffee shop, where I got to fulfill the English major cliché . While knowledge of Beowulf was a plus, it was my ability to work with abstract terms and to write that landed me each job, each of which I was under-qualified for on paper. The personal attention I received from professors translated into writing skills that, when push came to shove, helped me churn out a strong, specific cover letter or quickly draft anything and everything for coworkers. And the classroom discussions--both on-track and off-track--segued right into that same quality, as I buffed and shined that holy grail of liberal arts education, my critical thinking. But this critical thinking, the one that the brochures and professors push as applicable in the real world, is actually more than a buzzword. It allows for agility in the workplace, an efficiency and richness to thought that translates from the newsroom to the classroom to the boardroom to the coffee shop. It is invaluable and an hourly boost to whatever it is you’re doing with your days.
James Finley '03
I teach early and nineteenth-century American Literature at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. My interest in this material was in large part sparked by classes with Stephen Andrews at Grinnell. Before teaching at the college level, I taught English at a public high school in Vermont. The English major at Grinnell prepared me to teach literature in a variety of circumstances, as classes provided helpful background and contextual material on a variety of literary eras and movements, illuminative explorations of theoretical and critical topics, and ample opportunities for finding my voice in responding to texts and my peers. In addition to giving me the foundational knowledge necessary to teach literature broadly and American literature specifically, the opportunities afforded by the English major and in particular contact with the faculty and other majors helped me to develop an interest in and commitment to teaching literature and writing.
Chris Gallo '14
I work as a software engineer for a Bay Area startup called 6sense, where I build tools to help large-scale sales organizations identify their potential buyers among the millions of companies they market to. Though the content of my current work is a departure from anything I studied at Grinnell, the methodology--beginning with focused scrutiny as the foundation of analysis and then expanding that focus with the help of technology--is a direct result of my English coursework at Grinnell.
I arrived at software engineering by way of my coursework in John Milton and James Joyce, where I was introduced to the Digital Humanities as a way of studying literature. Upon completion of these courses' initial writing assignments--which relied heavily on a close-reading of a single stanza or passage to carry its argument--my professors then introduced me to digital tools that allowed me to expand my focus from a single passage to an entire book, or even an entire corpus, in a matter of minutes. I was interested not only by the technology itself, but also by how its distant perspective inflected my previous conclusions about the original text. And I soon found myself grappling with the opposing forces of the insight gained from this previously unattainable vantage point versus the nuance lost as the original content slowly shifts out of focus. With this trade-off in mind, I eventually worked on Mentor Advanced Projects to build my own tools that sought to strike a balance between the two, which is what ultimately led me to the work I do now. Rather than start with an argument derived from a passage of text, I now start with what constitutes a buying signal in a set of data and then leverage technology to extend that insight across millions of other companies. However, I've found that data, in its fine distinctions, doesn't incite in me the same joy as the nuances of writing, so I've found myself, bit-by-bit, gravitating back toward English.
Andrew Greenlee '04
After I left Grinnell with majors in English and Sociology, I went on to complete a Master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning at University of Iowa and a Ph.D. in Urban Planning and Policy at University of Illinois at Chicago. I am now an Assistant Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While it would seem that I have departed substantially from my roots as a student of English literature, I draw from those principles constantly. As a field, urban planning is often incorrectly viewed by outsiders as being primarily a technical exercise rooted in zoning ordinances, building codes, and land use law. My planning practice, research, and teaching views planning as a form of persuasive storytelling that involves navigating often conflicting narratives regarding the past, present, and future visions for a place. A big portion of my job involves finding ways to curate and translate these narratives into advice for actions that balances the voices of powerful stakeholders with those who may have less power but an equal (and oftentimes greater) stake in how a place will change. My research focuses specifically on the experience of moving for low-income households and other households who face residential displacement due to urban renewal processes and foreclosures. Collecting, curating, and retelling these narratives is for me something that I could not do without a broader appreciation for the power of narrative which comes directly from my English degree. Teaching others to use data-driven narratives for good (never evil!) is another incredibly gratifying part of my job - and one that is rooted in my English and Sociology majors at Grinnell.
A little secret that I share with many of my students is this - the capability to read critically and write clearly has consistently done more for me and my career than any other qualifications or technical expertise that I have gained. Employers (even in technically oriented fields) crave good communicators - they are few and far between! Technical skills can be learned and honed on a job, but critical thinking and communication skills are what will get you the job! My English degree gave me a framework for approaching the world with an appreciation for good communication and for the art of narrative - and I use that knowledge daily in both my research and teaching.
Emily Guenther '07
I think my job is probably more directly related to my experiences in the Grinnell English Department than many alums — but I also never left the college, so I’m not sure how applicable or comforting my experiences would be to other folks.
But I can certainly say that my experiences completing the English major while organizing the prison program have helped me in my career. Of course, it set me up to be able to argue that the prison program should become a bigger part of the college and therefore get a job for myself. I was hired as the college’s first staff person for the Liberal Arts in Prison Program a couple months after I graduated, and I have held the position for eight years now. I have created and sustained a college program in a prison, which I’m very proud of.
In general, the practice I had with careful, precise writing has served me extremely well in communicating with the very different people I interact with regularly at my job (prison administrators, prison inmates, college administrators, college students). I also think that studying creative writing and literary analysis helped me carefully, thoroughly, and honestly engage ethical issues. I have to do that every day, and I’m very glad I got practice with that as a student when the stakes were a bit lower.
Laura Harrington '06
I graduated from Grinnell in 2006 with my BA in English and with all but one course under my belt from the Biological Chemistry major. Since graduation, I’ve studied and worked in the field of public health, which nicely melds my interests in creative and scientific thinking. In addition to earning my Masters in Public Health in Epidemiology from the University of Michigan and my PhD in Epidemiology from the University of Washington, I’ve had the pleasure of working as a Research Assistant at a state-level healthcare policy institute, as a master’s level health services researcher in academia, and as a doctorate-level researcher in the field of Cardiovascular Epidemiology. The skills that I practiced as an English major serve me daily in my work as a scientist. In academic scientific research, much of our work includes the writing of grants and manuscripts, and this work depends on critical thinking, clear communication, and the argument of our ideas. I enjoy thinking in an interdisciplinary manner, and am happy that my career has allowed me to continue this combination of creative and scientific thinking that I practiced while an English major and student of Biological Chemistry at Grinnell.
Liz Hereford '11
I write this to express how impactful the English major at Grinnell College was on my Grinnell experience, my career, and my life. Entering college, I loved writing and literary analysis and knew that I wanted to major in English. I didn’t know how this particular major would benefit my career plans, but I was optimistic that it would open doors in one way or another. My experience as an English major was top-notch. I had outstanding professors who challenged and encouraged me, and still do to this day. After graduating, I joined Teach for America in Chicago and taught in early childhood. I discovered that one major focus in early childhood education is emergent literacy. I became very passionate about teaching reading to young learners and found that I was able to incorporate my love for children’s books and poetry through teaching. After three years of teaching, I wrote my first children’s book (Know It All Nori). Today, I am currently in my fifth year of teaching, am completing a Master’s in Education with a Reading Specialist Endorsement, and am working with a publishing company on my second children’s book (Know It All Nori: A Bedtime Story). I never would have thought that I could publish a book, and I credit the craft of fiction and craft of poetry courses at Grinnell for inspiring me to write professionally. My future as both a teacher and writer is constantly evolving as I realize how many doors are actually available for me to open as a result of the skills that I acquired at Grinnell. From personal experience, I can confidently assure you that the pursuit of an English major can lead to a rewarding college experience, followed by an abundance of opportunities in the years to come.
Jess Issacharoff '09
After graduating from Grinnell in 2009 as a double English and History major, I worked as a paralegal for a year in New York while applying to English PhD programs. My decision to apply was influenced highly by courses in the English department, particularly courses on postcolonial lit and theory with Shuchi Kapila, the British Novel with Heather Lobban-Viravong, and American Lit with Ralph Savarese (as well as history courses with Victoria Brown and film course with Theresa Geller) and an informal Ulysses reading group organized by English faculty and students my senior year. In my first year at the University of Iowa’s English PhD program I realized that my interests were veering more towards interdisciplinary work and with the further mentoring of Professor Geller I applied to several programs in critical theory and cultural studies. I am currently in my 4th year in Duke’s program in Literature, working on a dissertation on domesticity and the women’s prison in the US. As a graduate student in a program that centers critical theory, my coursework in English, particularly those courses that utilized theoretical frameworks, have been crucial to preparing me for my graduate work. I would add that my participation in the Liberal Arts in Prison Program, which was organized by a fellow English major (Emily Guenther), was crucial both in developing my teaching skills and my interest in prison as a site of political and academic concern.
Emily Johnson '14
My decision to be an English major was based entirely on my love of books and on dreams of being a famous author. At times, especially immediately after graduating from Grinnell, I questioned my choice to immerse myself in joyful literary analysis instead of training to be a petroleum engineer or an actuary. People don't become English majors because they care only about lucrative careers.
That said, I am employed full-time as a Grant and Project Coordinator at Yamhill Community Care Organization in Mcminnville, Oregon. I love my job, and I use the tools I gained from my English major, from my English professors and classmates, every day. These skills are really, truly applicable, and I promise you, worried English major, you can market them.
Grinnell especially has some fabulous programs for its English majors. My Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) on The Grinnell Beowulf taught me how to collaborate. Academia can be so solitary, but I work closely with my colleagues and our community partners every day on projects, problem-solving and brainstorming. The Peer Mentoring program taught me to be a liaison, communicating between groups and making myself an expert on whatever I could, while also learning to admit when I didn't know something, which is a feature I've come to deeply respect in professionals. And being in English classes taught me about deadlines. My work involves a lot of "please write this Letter of Agreement for an organization you've never heard of by tomorrow. Okay thanks." Because this feels so familiar, those kinds of tasks aren't as daunting to me. And if I may also plug the linguistics department, linguistics taught me to not be afraid of the analytical side of my brain. I use spreadsheets all the time now, and English majors too can adopt logic skills.
English majors know how to argue a point in writing and do extensive, thoughtful research to prove it. English majors can engage in thoughtful discussion around contentious topics, and they know how to switch lenses and criticisms smoothly. English majors can give presentations and are unafraid of being creative or innovative. English majors can give constructive, tactful critiques and accept criticism gracefully. English majors can use anaphora ad nauseam.
Scared senior year Emily reading this passage would, at this point, be desperately wondering how this rare employed English major got her job. Grinnell's influence, again, was invaluable. That social justice lens got me invested in AmeriCorps, and my first position was as a lowly volunteer in a public health organization. Once there, I enthusiastically and shamelessly professed my desire to stay, and stay I did. My fairly unremarkable writing talent enabled me to send professional emails, write summaries of projects, and impress my peers and supervisors without any additional job training. Writing skills are surprisingly rare in the workforce, and English majors are sought after. Last year I wrote the opening and closing speech for a conference my organization held. That wasn't a part of my job description, but my writing got me noticed, and I got additional responsibilities because of that. To be fair, being the resident office proofreader isn't in my job description either, but it's a hazard of knowing the difference between "their," "they're," and "there," and I'm pretty okay with that. My current crusade is making the Oxford comma the standard in our office style guide. Once an English major, always.
Amelia Koford '07
I am an academic librarian and assistant professor at Texas Lutheran University. I love my job and feel lucky to do a wide variety of interesting and meaningful things. As a librarian, I help students find scholarly information and integrate it into their own work. I’m a tenure-track faculty member at a small university, so I work closely with interesting colleagues from across campus. I publish in scholarly journals and present at conferences, and I teach full-semester classes in Freshman Experience, Honors, and Women’s Studies.
I started this job after getting an MS in Information Studies and an MA in Women’s and Gender Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. My first job after leaving Grinnell with a double major in English and French was as an AmeriCorps*VISTA member at College Forward, a nonprofit college access organization.
My education as an English major at Grinnell has opened many doors. In almost any job, advancement and recognition come to people who are able to write clearly and with consideration for their audience. My introduction to the specialized search tools of library databases, which I now use daily, came from writing a paper on Jane Eyre and colonialism for Shuchi Kapila’s class. Poring over poems with Emily Guenther ’07 and Kathryne Sparks ’07, for Elizabeth Dobbs’s class, showed me the rewards of shared intellectual experience in college. I try to create that space for joyful discovery for my students now. I still have Grinnell syllabi stuffed into file folders, and I have consulted them in constructing my own syllabi – packrat tendencies vindicated!
Beyond the professional sphere, the study of English has brought richness to my life. I’ve hosted a Burns Night supper with friends who work in the technology sector but love reading poetry. No matter what your career, having a foundation in words and stories makes for a rewarding life.
Leigh Kunkel '09
My English degree has undoubtedly helped me in my career as a professional writer; since graduating, I’ve been a legal proofreader in Prague, a copywriter at some of the biggest ad agencies in the world, and a freelance journalist. But even more than my career, the skills I learned in my English and film classes at Grinnell fundamentally changed the way I think about and evaluate absolutely everything. There’s not a day that goes by (usually not an hour) that I don’t apply the critical thinking and analytical processes that I developed at Grinnell to the world around me, whether it’s an episode of television or noticing the lens through which a news item is being presented. When you’re in the middle of it, it can be hard to see where an English major might take you outside of academia, but in my own experience, it’s been vital to everything I’ve done since leaving college.
Victor Kyerematen '14
I graduated from Grinnell in 2014 with a BA in English. While I spent the largest portion of my collegiate career taking English courses, I also made sure to take a number of courses in different subject areas including: film studies, economics and history. I strongly believe that this variety allowed me to get the best out of my Liberal Arts education and equipped me with a wide range of skills that have been essential to my personal and professional development. After Grinnell I worked as an assistant editor at medium-sized news agency in Washington, DC that focused on Africa and the diaspora. It is often very difficult for international students who major in the humanities to find employment in the U.S.A. after graduation, so I was extremely lucky to find a position that coincided with my interests as well as my skills. My critical thinking, writing and communication skills, which had been immensely enhanced by dedicated Grinnell Professors and rigorous English courses, allowed me to succeed in this position. Furthermore I was able to fully appreciate the nuanced ways in which race, gender, economics and global politics intersected with news broadcasting, because of my training in Grinnell. Without a background in humanities (particularly Grinnell Humanities which are grounded in socio-cultural critique) I would have not have contributed as much as I did nor gained as much as I did from this editing position.
After almost a year working in D.C., I had to return to Ghana as I needed work-visa sponsorship to continue working in the U.S. For me this was an almost inevitable turn of events (something I had been thinking about from the day I dropped Economics as my second major). I daresay that a fundamental challenge faced by many international students when deciding a major is the potential for sponsored employment after graduation. This might explain the relatively few number of humanities majors among international students. In spite of this, I believe that international students can have a successful post college career as long as they receive effective and timely career guidance and advice. In my case I had the confidence to stick with English and the humanities (rather than a STEM major) because I decided to go to graduate school immediately after Graduating from Grinnell. While things didn’t go as planned, I was still able to use my training successfully in Ghana. I currently work as a junior consultant for a small management consulting firm in Accra. While the position and its requirements seemed to be different from what I was accustomed to, I was able to quickly adapt the important skills I had gained in Grinnell. Effective communication skills, critical thinking, great inter-personal skills as well as high level research experience are all things that my training in the English department allowed me to build and will always benefit me.
Grace Mendel '13
I graduated from Grinnell three years ago and have never once questioned my decision to major in English. Toward the end of my senior year, I accepted a job as a Match Corps tutor at a public charter school in Jamaica Plain, MA. That year challenged me beyond anything I imagined while sequestered at Grinnell. It tested every notion I had of my own competence and ability to think critically. Confronted with the volatile emotions of middle school children, I regularly faced escalating situations and leaned on dialogue and communication to engage students. After Match Corps, I jumped blindly into the deep end of e-commerce and website merchandising in pursuit of a “real” job. After swearing off math in high school, I dealt with vast spreadsheets containing important data every day. I was the only person on my team of 40 people to have majored in the humanities. I wondered daily how abstract numbers and large-scale company milestones motivated my coworkers. My ability to communicate effectively made me appear both content and competent, but it was not the job for me.
I was lucky enough to take a trip to Italy, where the course of my life and career altered irrevocably. It was love by immersion. With every bite of fresh pasta, every peal of musical language, and every sip of wine I became increasingly aware of an innate longing to write about food. What started as a vacation daydream has turned into a career. I am now the managing editor for Word of Mouth, a triweekly food newsletter with an audience of 40K readers. I also write and edit for a travel company called Journey, that curates personalized, food-based itineraries all over the world. In addition, I run my own food blog.
Who knows where I’ll be three years from now, but at this moment it feels like I took a circuitous route from the classrooms of ARH all the way back to where I belong: typing at my laptop with a pile of books and a cup of tea by my side.
Anna Murphey '06
As an English major at Grinnell, I was inspired by many teachers and mentors to connect my love of literature and writing to the urgent need for social transformation. I volunteered with the student-led Prison Writers Project (now Liberal Arts in Prison Program) to co-teach a poetry class for inmates at Newton Correctional Facility, and with support from the Rosenfield summer internship program, taught English and arts enrichment classes to children at an urban community center in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. I saw first-hand how literacy and access to the creative arts can help transform the lives of people living in challenging circumstances, and I was moved to continue this work after graduation.
I relocated to Philadelphia in 2006, and began working in nonprofit organizations serving people struggling with homelessness, poverty, mental illness, and domestic violence. In 2011, I completed a Master of Social Work degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and continued my career in the field through advocacy, program evaluation, and consulting. Several years later, I found that I missed the direct rewards of working in education, and shifted my focus again. Now I work as a teacher, counselor, and librarian at a small, independent school for young people with learning differences. I absolutely love my work, and take pride in the opportunity to encourage my students to think critically, be creative, and cultivate empathy - all values honed and strengthened by my time in college. I believe an English degree from Grinnell is excellent preparation for a passionate, engaged, and meaningful life.
Danny Penny '13
After graduating from Grinnell with a BA in English, I went to straight into an MFA creative writing program at Columbia. I’d started publishing my senior year, and continued to do a little freelance work while pursuing my master’s, but mostly, I tutored to pay the bills. Standardized test-prep made up the bulk of my work, but I also handled college essays, humanities homework, and the occasional Shakespeare project.
However, during my second year of graduate school, I got a part-time job doing communications for an educational technology startup. At Grinnell, a visiting professor of poetry called advertising "the dark arts," and it is — but at least it’s an art. The amount of content companies, nonprofits, and government agencies need to produce for their online platforms is mind-boggling, and I see this as a huge area of growth for English majors entering the workforce. The types of writing you’re required to do are different from seminar papers, but they draw on similar skills: namely, the ability to write effective and persuasive prose. You have to focus less on airtight argument and more on how to craft a concise and compelling sentence, or sentence fragment. Blog posts, e-blasts, and calls to action are all pathos and ethos.
I’m adjunct teaching and pursuing a freelance writing career in New York, which are both incredibly unpredictable — so this type of work has been necessary to pay rent, and will probably remain so for the immediate future. My biggest piece of advice to seniors is: market your ability to write well. In the real world, most people are middling writers at best, and they’ll pay you to do this work for them.
Katie Queen '11
The summer I graduated I began working at a small production company, helping with everything from social media, to studio management, to production assisting. It was not what I thought I’d get into immediately following graduation, especially considering that it wasn’t directly related to my major. But, I was exposed to a variety of production projects, and got a lot of exposure since the company was exceptionally small, and I wound up doing a lot more than I initially thought i would. I worked there for a year, and moved on to The Jones Group, where I began producing photoshoots for a number of brands the company represented. I now work at Kenneth Cole, and I am responsible for all of the ecommerce, lookbook, wholesale, and licensee partner’s photoshoots, working on both On Figure and Still life shoots.
Although it is not directly related to my major, I’ve found that my role requires me to communicate with a wide variety of people, from agents to photographers, etc., and my English studies helped prepare me to express myself clearly, and concisely and to speak professionally with others. My job also requires a lot of creative problem solving, negotiating contracts, and people management, and I definitely attribute a lot of the skills I use of a daily basis to my education.
I don’t know if it is what I’ll do forever, I still read books for pleasure almost every day, and I try to keep up with writing, but I think that the skills I learned gave me a strong foundation to begin my career.
David Reda '14
Without a doubt, the skills gained through my English major have had a vital impact on my life. Before enrolling in Grinnell’s Literary Analysis class, I thought it inconceivable that English, my second language, could one day prove an entry to a fulfilling and prosperous career. Indeed, the English courses I completed at Grinnell dramatically increased my confidence and facility in the language, thus giving me a considerable edge as a strong writer capable of producing effective cover letters. Even more directly, the experience has enabled me to become a thriving EFL teacher and an essay editor in Hanoi, Vietnam, going on two years now and counting. Whether teaching kindergarteners, delivering an SAT lecture, or editing college application essays, my English education remains pivotal every day.
Spencer Richardson-Jones '03
I graduated from Grinnell with an English degree and a strong desire to get into publishing—somehow. After a couple of odd turns I ended up at Norton, the publisher of the anthologies we English majors know so well. After stints in sales and marketing, as well as tangents through economics, music, philosophy, and film, I’ve been able to focus my work on disciplines I love; first literature, and lately, political science. Publishing is far from an unusual choice for an English major, but it’s not some clichéd love of books (alone) that gets us there.
I think an English major is good for understanding, taking apart, and putting together again the complexities that make up a story, a statement, and even society—or just one person’s life. I don’t see what I learned as an English major as skills to be listed on a resume, but a sensibility: to be able to size up how a thing relates to the world in general and its nuance, and to do so with a clear, unbiased lens. Economists see supply and demand animating our lives, neuroscientists the brain structures that govern our behavior. Hammers see nails. These are all valuable perspectives—I married a scientist! But I think English majors see the story, and everything has its own story, on its own terms. And if you can tell that story well, you can do a lot.
Kelsey Roebuck '14
What I'm Doing
I develop grant strategies and write compelling proposals for nonprofit organizations in the arts, education, and social service sectors. My company, Elevate, is a consulting firm that builds and maintains nonprofits' grant programs by making grant writing expertise affordable. I work on client teams to manage a caseload of 6-7 nonprofit clients.
How I Got Here
In my first year at Grinnell, I heard a lot about the importance of internships. In my first year, I researched where other Grinnell students had interned and discovered a writing nonprofit in my hometown that I had never heard of before. I successfully applied for an internship and spent my first summer learning to write grants, facilitate a writing conference, and plan a children's literacy festival. I liked it so much that I went back to work at the same nonprofit every summer until I graduated. By that time, I knew I liked nonprofit work, particularly when it meant I could write all day. I applied to nonprofit jobs all over the country until I found Elevate, a two-year old grant writing firm that was pioneering a new model of consulting that helps nonprofits identify, write, and submit grant proposals. I was the company's eighth hire. Two years later, we have 35 employees and more than 60 clients across the country. I was promoted quickly and now oversee the hiring, training, and advancement of other grant writers. I am also the primary grant strategist on six clients.
How my English Degree Helped
I work in an office full of writers and my writing still stands out from my colleagues' writing. Grant Writing is very persuasive and nonprofits can miss out on serious money if their proposals are not concise and clear. My English degree from Grinnell trained me to cut out unnecessary language, write active sentences, and, most importantly, craft compelling arguments. Now, I teach other staff how to make their writing stronger and more compelling.
I also cannot underestimate the experience I gained from participating in so many discussion classes. As a consultant, I have to ask the right questions and present my ideas clearly for clients every day. My experience at Grinnell taught me to listen to the other people in the room and to respond in-the-moment to the ideas they present.
Gregory Schneider '06
After graduating in 2006, I started working for a fine dining restaurant in a hotel. I learned a lot about French wine and was on the path to becoming a sommelier. But life intervened. I met my wife (the chef of the restaurant) and we had our first child together. I decided to leverage my degree more. So I applied to law school, which I started in 2009 and completed in 2012. After law school, I clerked for an appellate judge for two years, and am now working at the Phoenix office of one of the largest law firms in the world, Squire Patton Boggs.
My English major certainly helped me develop critical thinking and analytical thinking skills that have paid and will continue to pay dividends. I think that would be true in any career path. That said, the immediately available career paths for English majors are limited to positions in sales (I turned down positions with GEICO and Enterprise) or the service industry. If companies were once willing to take a risk on smart but untrained employees, my experience shows they no longer have the patience for this approach. They want employees with skills. Aside from superb communication skills, English majors do not possess technical skills that open doors. Nevertheless, an English major still remains phenomenal training for graduate school in a variety of areas, including law. (Law schools, incidentally, are also being met with increasing pressure to produce graduates who are practice ready in addition to being able to think.)
My English major has given me a significant edge over others in terms of communication and critical thinking skills that are highly prized in the legal field. But I think people considering a degree in English should be warned that the degree’s highest and best uses are often not realized until after graduate school, or deep into a career without it. For many, a double major (or informal emphasis in English) may be the most strategic option. That’s a tough conversation to have with 18–21 year olds. All I wanted to do was write poetry, world be damned. I will again one day, once I reach financial independence. But that’s another subject.
Jermaine Stewart-Webb '16
I graduated from Grinnell in 2016 as an English and French double major. In the fall of 2016, I will serve as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Senegal, Africa through the Fulbright US Student program. The literature courses I took as an English major, and the language skills I developed as a French major, prepared me to convey my thoughts, ideas, and love for literary texts in more than one language. The professors at Grinnell College pushed me to really analyze the texts that we read and the world that we live in. Serving as a Fulbright ETA will allow me to be a cultural ambassador for the United States as I help Senegalese students improve their communication skills in English. We inhabit a constantly changing and complex world and being an English major gave me the expressive tools to change our world for the better.
Jazmyn Taylor '15
After graduating with an English degree in 2015, I served with the AmeriCorps program ProjectYES! in Chicago, where I worked as a teacher’s aide in pre-school and 3rd grade classrooms. During my appointment, I made it my goal to promote literary-based projects for the kids and took ownership of both classroom library organization and getting the kids excited about library time. The enthusiasm and dedication of my English professors at Grinnell not only got me excited for individual classes, but showed me how one’s enthusiasm influences another; this is so valuable when it comes to promoting literacy and learning in young students.
Along with my service work, I also began freelance work editing for essays and short fiction in my spare time. In this, I’ve been lucky to hone in on one of my foci at Grinnell: African American Literature. With editing work I constantly hear in my mind a favored phrase of my old English professors, “writing is re-writing.” That was an admittedly irritating reality back when all I wanted was to be done with a paper, but I now appreciate the discipline of the writing process so much more.
I’m currently working with my neighborhood’s YMCA while I plan for graduate work in information studies and creative writing. My time at Grinnell and my English coursework there have definitely influenced my goals and cemented the constant loves of my life. The latter is important because at Grinnell we are constantly encouraged to take initiative and to blaze the path we want for our education and our lives, and those skills I can better utilize knowing what I want out of my careers.
Kate Thomas '03
I feel that my English major has served me well (especially in tandem with my math major — but that’s perhaps the topic for another paragraph). After graduating, I spent three years working as a paraprofessional in the Grinnell public school system. Once I was sure that teaching was something I could do, wanted to do, and could see myself doing for years and years, I applied to graduate school. Over the next two years I earned a M. Ed. in general education for grades 1–6 and a M. Ed in special education for students with moderate disabilities PreK–8. For the last six years I have been a general education teacher in a 4th grade classroom in a rural Maryland school. While most of the reading I teach is more of the Wrinkle in Time/Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing/Chocolate Fever variety, my depth of knowledge of literary genres has allowed me to bring higher level English content into my classroom. Through my comfort with the material, my students have heard excerpts from Beowolf (I used Seamus Heaney’s line "God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping" as an example of alliteration and rhythm) and have been given an off-the-cuff rundown of countless classics (explaining Moby Dick in two sentences was . . . interesting). That comfort is contagious, and when a student turns to you while taking a standardized test and says "Hey look! They’re talking about Sisyphus!", I feel particularly glad that I have such a solid foundation in which to ground my instruction. On another professional side of things, I feel that I was given critical skills in written communication, critical analysis, and argumentative writing that has served me well through various grant proposals, curriculum scrolling, and professional presentations. The English majors I knew from Grinnell are all doing varied and wonderful things. Some of us use our degree more directly (the writers or teachers), while others seem to use those same writing, reading, and analytical skills that I’ve so relied on. Never underestimate the power of the ability to read, understand, analyze, and communicate.
Grace Tipps '14
After graduating from Grinnell in 2014 with a degree in English, I began working in a molecular neuroscience lab at Vanderbilt University with the aim of going to medical school. I’ve gained substantial responsibilities in the lab over the last two years, and I was recently admitted to medical school in Tennessee. The analytical competence and communication skills I developed as an English major have certainly aided me in my post-grad journey. The technical aspects of my work in the lab — designing, implementing, and troubleshooting experiments — require critical thinking, organization skills, and attention to detail, all of which I exercised in my English classes as I endeavored to craft complex theses and gather textual evidence for papers or piece together short stories. My ability — which I honed as an English major — to evaluate, synthesize, and organize ideas and information was crucial when I was given the opportunity to co-author a published scientific review paper with a graduate student. Effective oral and written communication skills, also important for my work in the lab, have been absolutely essential throughout the medical school application process. I am confident that my acceptance was in part due to my ability to write and speak in a clear and compelling way about my personal experiences and motivations as well as problems in healthcare. I am grateful for the education I received as an English major, and I believe the English major will continue to serve me well as I begin my medical training.
Dilara Yarbrough '06
Majoring in English at Grinnell taught me how to read historical, political and economic context through individual lives. Reading novels, short stories, and poems in my classes at Grinnell helped me to look for the collective in individual stories. This is a habit I carried with me in the years after I graduated from Grinnell. It helped me make sense of my work as a service provider for homeless youth, and eventually made me decide to go back to school to get a Ph.D. in sociology and become a professor. As a sociologist, I still practice the ways of reading and writing that I learned as an English major. In my qualitative research, I analyze patterns in my research participants’ life experiences and explore connections to broader social processes. Right now, I’m working on a manuscript about three different governmental responses to poverty, told through the life and work histories of people who have been homeless and worked in the sex trade in San Francisco.
Beyond how my English major influenced my work and career, a lot of what I remember about college is that it was really fun to read a bunch of novels and then talk about them with smart, insightful people. My classmates and I were lucky to have professors who encouraged us to develop and express our ideas. I think of our English seminars at Grinnell often when I’m teaching, always hoping that my students feel as excited about reading and thinking and talking with each other as we did.