Quill Against Macalester Shield: The Macalester English Logo

Harrison Runnels ’20

Graduating in May, applying for jobs, and wondering how I would be able to use my English and Computer Science Majors together were taking up a good amount of my time. Luckily for me, it wasn’t long before a solution fell into my lap. 

I was interviewing for a software development position in the Twin Cities. I made it to the final round and it turns out that the interviewer, a manager of a software team, has a degree in English Literature. His wife is a Creative Writing professor. For the majority of the interview, he didn’t ask me any Computer Science questions, but instead asked what kind of stories I like to write, how creative writing and coding are so alike, and how studying English helped me be more organized, creative, and focused. It was the most enjoyable interview I’ve had yet. And I got the job, too. Never would I have thought an English degree would pay off so quickly in a STEM field. 

This made me curious about how other English majors have fared. How does an English degree help professionals in fields outside of the humanities? I asked a few alumni for stories where their English degree helped them in a way they didn’t expect. 

I got a lot of great responses.

Bethany Catlin ’19 said:

These days, I work at an immigration law firm, so the language I work in most these days is actually Spanish! I’ve found my English major helps in my legal writing, but more significantly in my ability to get through a rough day. The hardest part of my position is compassion fatigue. All of our clients are impoverished, nearly all have indefinite or no status, and most have been the victims of at least one crime, some so egregious that it feels inappropriate to relate to them even in the context of fighting misinformation about the reality of migrant experiences. However, when trauma is often the key to getting into the country and the attorney general keeps raising the bar, I find myself and my colleagues losing patience with some clients because they are uneducated, confused, unable to self-advocate in the highly specific parameters of the immigration system and scared.

Every caller has a story and that story has to be stripped down to definitive “yes” or “no” checked boxes on an I-589 asylum application form. The temptation to allow my frustration with this process to bleed into our clients’ inability to help us break their trauma down into something coherent and inoffensive is surprisingly strong. To remind myself constantly that our clients are fully human (despite their legal status—migrants do not always have civil rights), I have leaned on the Black Feminist Theory course I took with [Professor] Daylanne [English]. Although that class was primarily about Black women’s experiences in the U.S., the specific method of digging through overlapping layers of systemic disadvantage taught me how to look for more complete pictures of marginalized folks that come from themselves. Especially for those of our clients who are illiterate and those of our clients who express their legitimate anger and anxiety at us (having no human contact at USCIS to appeal to), I actively remind myself that even though my time and resources are limited, I need to create space for clients to be more than what is legally relevant to their petition or application. They still deserve the same rigor as a Toni Morrison or an Angela Davis, in their lives and at least in the time, I can offer to hear them out.

Avery Cordingley ’19 said:

When a friend from my hockey league here in Madison approached me asking for help planning the Madison version of the Team Trans Friendship series, I readily agreed, knowing my love of organization could be put to good use in this effort. Our goal: extend to more transgender hockey players the opportunity to play with others who shared their background. The result, however? National attention.

Madison has the biggest gay hockey league in the world. This location made sense. But when we sent out signups, we didn’t expect the interest we got. Within two weeks, over 50 trans athletes registered to play, and the momentum is only growing.

The opportunity this platform presents is unique. There has never been anything like this before, not in scale or scope. This started as a group of hockey players who merely wanted to play with others like them, and it has exploded into a cacophony of anticipation and excitement as media outlets and journalists express interest in telling our story.

Now, we have the chance to make waves and be visible. Now that we’ve committed to taking the advocacy route, we need to maintain the momentum and bring other groups in. I never thought I would put my degree to use in advocacy, but what better way to be an advocate than to combine my passion and my identity? The ability to confidently put ideas into words and send those words out into the world is one I value deeply.

Austin Burrows ’17 said:

In my first year at Macalester, I rationalized registering for creative writing and literature
classes because they would compliment the mechanistic sciences of my Biology major. In
reality, I took them because I loved to read. Looking back, my love of reading opened the biggest
door in my young career.

The English major matured my ability to communicate, both orally and in writing, and
proved incredibly useful while applying to medical schools. To humanize the quantitative
metrics, the application process requires a personal statement and school-specific essays called
“secondaries” — why do you want to come to this school, etc. Though mentioned frequently in
my 30 short essays, my English major carried me furthest in an essay for UCLA. The prompt:
tell us about a creative pursuit in 700 characters or less. My answer: Writing a novella for my
Senior Capstone transformed my ability to write.

At my in-person interview, an ophthalmologist specializing in parasitic eye infections
eschewed the standardized question list, instead asking me to describe my novella writing
process, what I learned from the experience, if he could read it. Only if I get in, I told him. I
explained how I assumed a character’s place to empathize with situational emotions, a skill
essential to caring for a patient, and obsessed over word choice to more effectively tell the story.
This, I came to realize, is where the English major may underpin my take on the field of
medicine: perspective-taking enables understanding and nuanced language effectively
communicates that understanding.

I am excited to start medical school at UCLA this fall, and I wouldn’t be moving home to
California without everything my English professors taught me.

Jamie Salmonson ’13 said: 

I continue a book club with friends and it reminds me of discussions in Macalester lit classes. Giving feedback and edits in creative writing [classes] was a way to practice the work I do now as a mentor, I am a part of performance reviews, documentation audits, and ongoing supervision (where positive and critical feedback are constantly happening).

I am also so grateful for the professional experience I got working in the English office for work-study. I’m always willing to refill communal coffee or wash a forgotten dish in my current office! And I practiced leading, interviewing, editing and lots of office soft skills that were really important.

Beenish Riaz ’17 said:

After Macalester, I went to law school to become a human rights lawyer and I very much thought my life as a creative writer and as a human rights lawyer would remain siloed and separate. Legal writing is known to be clear and not creative even if it deals with narratives. A report published by Human Rights Watch on illegal evictions, for instance, seemed far from the dystopian novella I wrote as part of my Honors project at Macalester. I quickly found out how important non-legal writing is for a lawyer though. In my second year, I was part of a law school human rights clinic and we discussed ways to document and profile a number of immigration organizations in the United States, in particular their innovative use of ‘legal empowerment strategies.’ Legal empowerment as a concept looks to shift power away from elite attorneys and into the hands of affected individuals. It teaches people to know, use, and shape the law so that they can demand their rights. Up until then, no one had considered applying a legal empowerment frame in this context or even thought of creating words to define what legal empowerment strategies are. The team decided to create a website and they relied on me to use my creative writing skills to make it accessible and to draft content and language for it. Without my background in creative writing, I would not have been able to translate legal theories and concepts into readable, approachable material. You can find the website here: https://justicepower.org/.

The Words extends a huge thank you to alums Bethany Catlin, Avery Cordingley, Austin Burrows, Jamie Salmonson, and Beenish Riaz for sharing their wisdom and experiences.