The Wisdom of Avenue Q: What do you do with a BA in English?

Which I’m not actually getting, but makes for a catchy title.

(Look up the song on YouTube—it’s hilarious.)

During my junior and senior years of high school and during my freshman year of college, I really struggled trying to decide what I wanted to study and what I wanted my major to be.

Some people just seem to know from the time they’re young what they want to do.  I once interviewed a veterinarian for a school project, and when I asked her, “When did you know you wanted to be a veterinarian?”  she answered, “When I was old enough to realize I couldn’t grow up to be a horse.”  I thought that was pretty funny.

In some ways I envy those people.  They have a path so early in life.  Sometimes I feel like I have a lot of determination but no direction, like a little car chugging boldly down a narrow, rocky back road, but having no idea if that road will lead to its destination, or even what that destination is.

That’s a frightening feeling, but not all of us are lucky enough to intuitively know from an early age what the right path is for us.

So I was considering many different things.  Math didn’t come naturally to me like it did for some, but I was decent at it.  Science was interesting to me, and both of my parents had backgrounds in science.  I come from a fairly musical family and loved singing in the choir.  I liked to draw and paint.  I loved to read, and I knew I had a way with words—the ability to speak and write just seemed to come naturally to me.

After much agonizing and going back and forth in my mind, I got scared by the job prospects in the liberal arts and more artistic fields, even though I knew those things interested me more than science.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read or heard about how English majors can’t find jobs, or heard people crack jokes (“jokes”) about it.  My sister’s friend’s dad started telling a story once:  “I have this friend who’s a bartender—”  He looked at me, “—She was an English major—”  As I groaned, he laughed and said, “Just joking.”  It made me laugh but it also kind of killed me a little bit inside…

I also had a friend who’s majoring in physics send this to me:

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I’m pretty sure I laughed, but I also sent her a very articulate note back saying, “I hate you.”

Before entering my freshman year, I decided to start as a biology major since I was decent at it and knew there were more career options in science than the arts.  I figured I would at least give it a shot.

It wasn’t long before I knew that by erring on the side of caution and practicality, I had made the wrong decision.  I didn’t enjoy my classes, finding them extremely boring and very difficult, and I knew I would be miserable doing research or practicing medicine for the rest of my life.  When I had made the decision to go into science, I had been ignoring what I already knew, especially after having some wonderful experiences with English later in high school:  that what I was good at, what I really loved, was reading and writing.

Preparing for “The Real World” with a Liberal-Artsy Major like English or Writing

Now after having two years of college classes under my belt, I decided that English wasn’t quite right for me either, and opted to get a double major in Creative and Professional writing.  (The former being focused on reading and literature analysis, and the latter being focused on writing with a mixture of creativity and practicality that I enjoy.)  I feel much more comfortable with what I’m doing now.

But unlike in fields such as computer science or engineering in which graduates know what their careers will be, writing doesn’t have a set job afterwards:  you have to sell yourself.  I’ve realized that it’s important to develop as many skills as possible, and not just stick exclusively to writing like it’s isolated in a little bubble.  These are some of the tips I’m giving myself as I learn more about what I need to know and what I should know how to do:

  • Learn how to analyze and write for a particular audience.
  • Learn how to market an idea or product or organization to the right people.
  • Learn how to promote and how to form partnerships with other organizations with whom you could mutually benefit.
  • Learn about computers and websites.
  • Learn about graphic design and presentation.
  • Hone your editing skills.
  • Learn to judge what kind of writing will appeal to people (if you’re in a more creative endeavor like editing and publishing.  Even if it’s not “great literature,” it might still be very successful.)  *coughcoughTWILIGHT*  Or if you’re running a theater and your target audience is families and well-to-do, middle-aged/older people, book shows they’re going to want to see!
  • In other words, learn skills that employers are seeking in an employee, and learn what will sell.

Art for its own sake and appreciating the literary merit of a piece of work is important too, of course, (like I said, I love reading!) …but it would be nice to have food and a place to live someday.

That’s why I feel like this internship is a very important step for me as I am learning and developing these skills, and as I’m learning more about what I do and don’t want to do someday.  That’s another piece of advice I’d give:

  • Get as much experience as you can as early as you can.
  • Participate in activities relevant to your chosen career path so you won’t have a “desert island” resume (as my Intro to Professional and Technical Writing professor, Professor Wynn, calls it) when it’s time to find a job.
  • Participate in things that will give you some writing samples.
  • Seek out summer opportunities, even if they’re unpaid internships, because those are the things that will get you paid jobs someday.

And look early.  Start looking at the beginning of the school year.  I got help from the career center at the beginning of the year and then applied for my internship in early spring.

The Hillman Center for Performing Arts

The internship I found is with The Hillman Center for Performing Arts (www.thehillman.org), as I said in my last entry.  It’s a non-profit professional performing space located at Shady Side Academy that brings in internationally acclaimed performers throughout the year, and has various groups use the theater throughout the summer.  The shows from the 2011-2012 season were Illusionist Stephen Knight’s The Magic of the Night, Animal Exploration with Jarod Miller, The Platters and the Marvelettes in concert, Carnegie Mellon Chamber Orchestra, Elements of Humor comedy tour with Kristen Schaal (Flight of the Conchords, The Daily Show), Hannibal Buress (Saturday Night Live, Thirty Rock), Faye Lane (Faye Lane’s Beauty Shop Stories), and Ted Alexandro (Comedy Central Presents), and last but not least, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.  I was able to see the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre as they danced to songs by Bruce Springsteen and George and Ira Gershwin, and it was incredible:

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This summer there have been many different groups who have used the theater space, and lucky me, I get to see and hear them all running around backstage as I’m working.  Some of these groups include Michele’s Dance Center, Dance Moms, the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh for its Summerfest, Bagpipers, and Camp Jam (a rock n roll camp for kids), all of which are REALLY. FUN. to hear backstage.  Especially the rehearsing opera singers/students, rehearsing bagpipers, and a bunch of kids trying to sing rock songs…  (Key word is “trying,” poor things.  And my poor ears…) There may have been some earplugs involved when the bagpipers were rehearsing.  And I think that was the same day a toilet exploded and started gushing water like a geyser.  My boss, Sarah, ran headlong into the spewing water to flush the toilet and attempted to stop the flow.  It ebbed a little and she raised her arms in triumph, shouting, “I am victorious!!”  But then it kind of started again so we called maintenance.  But it was still a brave gesture that I will probably never forget.  I hope I’ve repaid that by all the spiders I’ve taken out of the office.

But in all seriousness, it really is a fun place to work, and it’s super cool to see all the people who come through there.  I even got to see one of the operas, Candide, which I enjoyed a lot, especially since I read it in AP English in high school.

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The three main people standing directly behind the sheep are Candide, the Old Woman, and Paquette.  The old woman is actually played by a man named Andrey Nemzer who is a countertenor, meaning his singing voice is high enough that it sounds almost like a woman’s.

I’ve also been helping to set up partnerships and promotions for shows in the 2012-2013 season, and I’m really looking forward to them:

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(http://www.shadysideacademy.org/page.cfm?p=7070)

I’m so glad that I’m interning here this summer.  Not only am I doing some writing for a place that appeals to my interest in the arts, but I’m also learning about marketing, promotion, setting up partnerships with other organizations, analyzing audiences, putting together mailing lists depending on the type of population you want to target, the language that should be used to promote a group and grab people’s interest, designing posters and flyers, and more.  And I’m also meeting some really nice people, including some of the other interns.  I feel like I’m on the right track in my studies and career path (for now), and I feel very lucky.

More soon,

Thank you to my dear readers,

Laura

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