I’ll be honest: I spent most of my four years as an English major at Ball State “following my bliss,” as they say, without any certainty of what an English major might actually do outside the world of academia. I followed a lifelong love of words and stories into literature and theatre, and I followed pure fascination into religious studies. (I was a secondary English education major for awhile—following the need for a “real job”—but after a complicated series of events, I decided that teaching wasn’t for me. I couldn’t have told you then what was for me, exactly, so I just immersed myself in my other studies and hoped I’d figure it out, eventually.) I took a couple of forays into interdisciplinary studies at the wonderful Virginia Ball Center for Creative Inquiry, first examining the development of charter schools and then looking at the nature of poverty and the means of addressing it in the Muncie community. And through it all, I loved the learning: the heated discussions in the English, religious studies, and VBC classrooms, the push to think about stories and characters critically and with empathy, and my own developing ability to articulate my thoughts more clearly both verbally and in writing—so much writing.
The closer I came to graduation, however, the less I had any real sense of direction, apart from my general love of learning.
After I graduated in 2008, I spent a year of productive stumbling that included teaching summer swim lessons to little kids; three months volunteering as an artist in Zambia at an economic development center run by missionary friends; interviewing as a finalist for a fellowship at NPR; and a couple of semesters at Ivy Tech Community College as an office assistant, an English tutor, and eventually an accidental adjunct English instructor. I say “accidental” because one week before the fall classes were to begin, the college asked me to take two last-minute composition courses. While I felt relatively unqualified for the position, I took it on as a kind of challenge. It was a chance to find out if I was any good at teaching and if I could enjoy it. And while it was one of the most difficult experiences I’ve ever had, I discovered that I loved teaching writing to working adults, many of whom hadn’t stepped foot in a classroom in three decades, and many of whom had hated writing and reading (and school, for that matter) for most of their lives. It was incredibly satisfying to hear my students discuss different essays, to watch their command of language and their own ideas improve. “This is a class,” I had told them, “Where you have the luxury of time to think, to discuss, to put your own ideas down, and to understand why they matter. How often in your busy lives do you get that?” It was a pleasure to find out, at the end of the semester, that many of them had believed me, that they’d loved the class. Moreover, in the process of teaching the basics of writing, my own writing improved, and my sense of direction finally sharpened: I wanted to see if I could combine words and stories, arts and literacy, and explore their impact on a community.
I taught another class before marrying, moving to central Illinois, and going back to school. I’m now a graduate student in Antioch University Los Angeles’ MFA in Creative Writing program. It’s a two-year low-residency degree, which means I’m only required to be on campus in L.A. for two 10-day “residencies” per year, and the rest of the time, I’m writing from home, wherever that may be. Since my husband and I travel a great deal, “home” has been all over the world. Antioch’s unique focus on the intersection of art and social change means that we’re required to complete field studies as well, so while I don’t automatically get the graduate teaching experience a traditional MFA program might offer, my field study has given me the chance to shape my own unique teaching experiences here in Illinois: when I’m not on the road, I’m a volunteer teacher for our YWCA’s Adult Literacy program, developing and leading creative writing classes for incarcerated women at our local jail and federal prison. And when I’m not studying or writing or teaching, I’m employed at our local library, under the mentorship of the library director, learning what it takes to run a nonprofit.
I say all of this because I’ve come to think that sometimes your direction finds you. Or, in my case, maybe you stumble into it. I happen to have found satisfying work that combines and explores most of my passions, and in the best way possible, I blame my English major for that. As a degree, it has certainly opened up a diverse set of opportunities for me in terms of careers, fellowships, volunteerism, and graduate education. As a learning experience, however, I consider my years as an English student formative because I use the skills I learned in the classroom (the ones I mentioned way back there in the first paragraph) in every one of my activities, often all at once, including:
- creative and critical thinking and the ability to see multiple sides of a problem;
- research and analysis skills;
- clear and passionate communication, both verbal and in writing;
- the skills to facilitate critical conversations among a diverse group of people;
- the ability to empathize with—and so relate to, converse, and work with—other “characters.”
I hope you’ve heard this before, but if so, I don’t mind chiming in: in short, my English major—the excellent professors, the classmates, the reading and writing—helped me learn how to think. I’m not sure I could have acquired a skill more “useful,” in my work and in my life, than that.