Why Choose an English Major
"An English Major?
What are you going to do with THAT?"
By Kimberly Brown
I was an English major, and this is my story.
Like so many students who have been exposed to very few careers, I decided when I was in high school that I wanted to be a teacher. After all, it was a job I knew well, having spent more time in the company of my teachers than my parents for the better part of my young life. So, I graduated from college in 1985 certified to teach English in grades 7-12.
Instead, my first job out of college turned out to be working as a technical editor for Electronic Data Systems in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. At that time, EDS was a megaforce in the data processing industry. My job was to massage the writing of software engineers into something resembling simple English to help EDS win a large government contract. As an English major, I had learned how to write well, so that particular ability served me well in my job at EDS. During this time, I also developed and taught a course in effective writing for EDS employees and developed a test lab to help write training guides for the new programs being created as part of the proposal effort. I was with EDS for about a year and a half, and then I decided to relocate to Chicago, Illinois. (Oh, and yes, EDS won that big contract.)
My first job in the Chicago area was as a communications specialist for the Illinois State Medical Society. In this position, I wrote newsletters, planned meetings, and provided other communications/administrative support for 11 statewide specialty societies. I continued to use the writing skills I had developed as an English major, but needed to rely on some other areas of my education as well, especially speaking and listening as I was responsible to taking minutes at meetings and interacting with people at all levels of the organization both informally and formally (making presentations, etc.) I basked in the glamour of working on Michigan Avenue for a few months, until I discovered that the pleasant, eight-block walk from Union Station to my building turned into a trial of endurance the likes of which one who has never experienced a Chicago winter cannot even begin to understand. Plus, I stumbled across a dream job: Membership Services Manager for Preferred Hotels Worldwide.
I was a lucky 25-year-old indeed when I landed the job with Preferred Hotels. My job was to produce a monthly newsletter for 80 exclusive luxury hotels that belonged to this trade association. In addition, I was the initial point of contact for the general managers who were interested in applying for membership, and I coordinated all phases of the application process. I also served as liaison to the Membership and Standards Committee and the Board of Directors, which meant that I planned, attended, and took minutes at all of their meetings. I also planned the annual meeting for all of the member hotels, which was quite the gala affair. Eventually, I was promoted to Director of Marketing, which required me to work closely to oversee the activities of our advertising agency, as well as to represent Preferred Hotels at trade shows around the country. I broadened my skills in this position, using not only my ability in written and oral communications, but also the skill of taking a complex situation and breaking it down into its component parts to build a new whole. English majors will recognize this paradigm as a traditional approach to analyzing a piece of literature; however, the mental process lends itself to so many other applications. For example, I used this approach to plan meetings, design information and promotional campaigns, and generally manage the many details needed to fulfill the overall responsibilities of my position. My job with Preferred Hotels was exciting, requiring monthly travel to spectacular destinations, and I was sad to have to leave it, but my husband and I decided to return to the east coast to be closer to our families before starting one of our own.
My husband got a job with The Hershey Company, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do at first. I worked as a “Kelly Temp” for a while, but then began networking with professionals in the Harrisburg area. That effort yielded some great contacts and some interesting job prospects, and the one I accepted was Director of Grant Administration and Communications for The Whitaker Foundation, which funded biomedical engineering research programs. My job was to process and prepare grant requests for review by the Foundation Board. I also tracked each grant to ensure that the researchers were in compliance with the reports they were required to submit.
Meanwhile, however, one of my prior networking contacts was keeping in regular contact with me because she wanted to recruit me for her staff at Rite Aid Corporation. Eventually, I accepted her offer and went to work for the drug store giant as manager of internal communications. In this role, I produced a monthly employee newsletter, wrote training video scripts, and planned a huge annual meeting and trade show with more than 3,000 attendees. Then, I was promoted to public relations manager, and my responsibilities included writing press releases, pitching stories to the media, coordinating publicity for new store openings, producing television commercials, writing and overseeing production of the company’s annual report, and many other activities! By this point, I had built on my English major with my professional experiences so that I was well-versed in many areas of business and marketing communications, advertising and public relations.
It was an exciting job, but my biological clock was ticking, and I began to toy with the idea of going freelance so I could stay at home and start a family. To my surprise, out of the blue one day, my old boss from Preferred Hotels called and asked me if I would be interested in writing a history of the organization as part of its 25th anniversary celebration. It would be a big job, he said, probably requiring eight months to a year. I decided to take the opportunity and relative security that a long-term project like this provided and start Brown Communications, my own marketing communications company.
I worked from home for about the next 10 years and grew my business to include about 150 local clients for whom I provided services ranging from brochure writing and design, advertising copywriting and design, media relations (including developing press lists and writing/distributing press releases), event planning, video script writing (everything from a physician recruitment video for a local hospital to a septic tank installation training video for the state government!), annual report writing, freelance writing for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, and a host of other marketing communications activities.
One of my clients during this time was a real estate developer. He and his partner had just opened a movie theater and a coffee house, and he asked me to oversee and market both operations for him. At that point, my business had grown to the point that I was working until midnight most nights, and I really needed to hire someone and move out of my house into an office; however, my children were still young, and I wanted to have more flexibility. So, I went to work for my client because I could retain the flexibility I needed and would be able to work mostly part time. In my new job, I handled everything from human resources to marketing, and it was great fun! But on a beautiful September morning as I listened to the radio on my way to work, I heard a puzzled deejay say something about a plane crashing into a building in New York City. It was September 11, 2001.
That morning awoke in me the desire to find a more meaningful way to use my talents and abilities than in helping other people make money. I made the decision to bring my career full circle and return to the classroom. So today, 27 years later than I originally intended, I am a high school English teacher. My English degree led to more opportunities than I had ever imagined, and each one enriched me in a different way. So my story ends ironically where it almost began, with me as a teacher. The job is challenging and requires me to use every single skill I developed in my college education and professional career every single day. In that respect and in hindsight, I suppose it is the career I have been preparing for all along. I took a longer and more circuitous road to get here, but that choice has made all the difference.
The best thing about having an English degree is that it provides a solid foundation in critical thinking and powerful communication, which are the fundamental skills necessary to accomplish anything. We are not specialists in one particular area. Instead, we are well-prepared for any number of life’s challenges and opportunities. So, to continue the vague allusion I have made to Robert Frost throughout this article, the roads we face are “worn really about the same,” in terms of our preparation for them. In other words, whenever we English majors face a fork in the road, we are equally prepared for either choice.