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The surprising success of the English Major Alumni Panel | The Triangle

The surprising success of the English Major Alumni Panel

Photograph by Ben Ahrens for The Triangle.

The Department of English and Philosophy hosted an English Major Alumni Panel this past Tuesday in MacAlister Hall’s SkyView room. The event itself was a bit of an anomaly for myself, as I had never been to an alumni panel of any kind prior to this one. I had a general idea of what to expect though: just some past English majors discussing what their experiences at Drexel were like and how their careers have played out thus far. That was the gist of the event, and I wasn’t expecting anything very profound, but to my surprise, it was actually an experience that I’m very glad I got to have. The atmosphere of the event felt very wholesome to me, and I couldn’t quite understand why until I’d had a day to reflect on it.

The department head, Roger Kurtz, made a statement early in the event that really resonated with me personally. “Love of language and ideas is connected closely to being an English major.” For me, this does accurately encapsulate something that all English majors have in common. It’s part of our nature, and outside of some specific classes, this event was the first time I can recall being in a room with a large number of people who all identify with this idea to some degree.

Disconnection is a very strong feeling that I’ve felt as an English major. Due to the way the major’s curriculum is designed, the students aren’t really kept together throughout the years. I’ve felt more like an English major in my senior year than I have during my previous years of college. However, that may be a direct result of me now putting myself in situations where I can easily find other English majors, such as working at the Drexel Writing Center.

Getting to be in an environment where there were so many English students and professors together was a bit of a novelty for me. I’ve met these people across the past three years in different situations and environments, and, as I said before, it often feels disconnected. Being able to see everyone together in one room reinforces the fact that the English department has its own community. They aren’t just my professors and classmates; these are real people with their own lives outside of classes.

The panelists were Michael B. Harris-Peyton (2010), Julia Perch (2011), Eric Zinskry (2008), Addison Davis (2013), Glenn Reyes (2014) and Meaghan Geatens (2016). They are all former Drexel University English majors who have ended up in very different jobs, and that’s the first thing that really struck me about this panel.

If you’re an English major, you’ve probably been faced with the question, “What are you going to do with that major?”, or at least some variation of this question. This is the greatest insult that someone can throw at an English major, closely followed by the common “Oh, an English major, huh? That’s cool, so you want to be a teacher?” These questions reer their ugly heads everywhere. They can come from literally anyone — our fellow students, faculty members, non-English professors, friends and family —  and when faced with them enough times, we naturally start to question the worth and limit of our major. We doubt the value of it and wonder how much weight does the English major actually hold?

This question is something that I think every English major has had at some point during their college career. Honestly, it’s a defining element of what makes us English majors. The options that are laid before us beyond college are so varied that it’s difficult to nail down a specific path to start pursuing, and that uncertainty can lead to a level of discomfort that is overpowering to some of us.

This panel put some of that discomfort and uncertainty to rest because I was able to see people who have already gone down the part of the path that I am currently traveling. I also got the sense that they all embraced the uncertainty and discomfort as they began their careers after college, and I think that is something that I personally have had difficulty doing.

I’ve been perusing a very small portion of the jobs that are out in the world, and I’ve already encountered jobs that have just rubbed me the wrong way by their title and description. Editor and advisor positions are among the most frequent ones that I’ve seen, and while I love writing and reading, editing isn’t something that I’m really fond of. I am capable of doing it, but it’s not something that I specifically enjoy in the same way I do writing and reading. However, this panel really emphasized taking advantage of the flexibility of the English major and leaning on how adaptable it can be if we choose to make it so.

Eric Zinskry articulated this sentiment on the English major very well when discussing his career. “You need to be willing to be flexible with your skills. There’s really no barrier to what you can do with your English major,” he explained. I think his words were ones that I needed to hear in order for this idea to fully come to fruition for me, because I wasn’t quite there yet.

This same idea was echoed with Glenn Reyes’ comments about his experience with being a teacher in Lindenwold School District. During his time as an English major, he had no interest in being a teacher, partly because of the expectation from the people who assume being a teacher is the only thing an English major can eventually do. Despite this, after testing the waters of teaching, Reyes realized that he loved it and chose to pursue it further.

I don’t have any desire to teach, but the more general idea I received from Zinskry and Reyes of being open to a wide variety of options is where a lot of the power in the English major lies. When talking about his work at Capgemini Invent as a Senior Content Strategist, Addison Davis pointed directly to how building the strength of his writing as an English major aided the work he does. “Knowing how to write is infinitely valuable in the business world,” Davis said. This also caught my attention because I’ve actively neglected many of the jobs that have been associated with any kind of business without even giving them a chance to prove themselves as potentially interesting positions.

The mere title of Business Analyst was enough to turn me away from a number of jobs that I found online, and in retrospect, that was fairly ignorant on my part. I do consider myself to be a creative person who heavily favors the arts over anything else, but that doesn’t mean I should assume that anything related to business and the corporate world are immediately incompatible with the skill set I bring to the table.

And speaking of skill sets, one of the core parts of being an English major and studying the humanities is that you explore and learn about everything in a certain sense. You gain very diverse knowledge, and the skills that you learn about how to understand something are transferrable to everything. Learning how to approach something that you have little or no knowledge about is one of the most significant things I have taken away from studying English. This panel really showed me that I can take that skill and use it to make myself invaluable in the work force in numerous ways.

So, was this event a success? I think the answer for me is obvious based on all the positive things I’ve said thus far about it. If nothing else, this panel really provided me with a template of sorts that I can use going forward, and I wasn’t anticipating that to be the case at all. In addition to that, I’ve been ruminating more and more about what life is going to be like post-college, since I’m nearing graduation, and I know some of my fellow senior English majors feel the same way, so this event really couldn’t have come at a better time.

For me, it was refreshing to see that past English majors were doing good work out in the world and living fulfilling lives. For both students and professors, the classes and the work we do here at Drexel can sometimes feel very frustrating and unnecessarily difficult; I’ve certainly experienced those feelings more often than I’d like to remember. But those frustrations and difficulties are aiding in the development of intelligent and creative individuals who are going out into the world and doing their part to make it a better place.

English major aside, seeing and getting to speak to graduates was a reality check for me personally. After being in college for what feels like an eternity, it can at times seem like this is all there is and that nothing lies beyond it. The panel helped me look at my current situation from a different perspective, one that recognizes that there is in fact a sea of uncertainty before me, and that navigating it is going to have its ups and downs, but keeping an open mind is what will keep me afloat on my journey. For that, I am very grateful to the department of English and Philosophy for hosting this event and inviting the English majors to it, and hopefully I will be able to attend a future panel as an alumni and offer upcoming English majors the same reassurance.