Interview with Alumni: Erin Stevens and Clare Koopmans answer questions

Last Thursday, English Festival put on ‘“What Are You Going to Do with That”: A Q&A with Working English Graduates’. The six panelists introduced themselves and for almost two hours answered numerous questions about their journey to current employment. Alumni panelists ranged from recent English graduates to those who graduated over a decade ago. After the panel I got the chance to sit down with Erin Stevens and Clare Koopmans, two English graduates from last year, and they answered some additional questions for the Foreword.

Alumni Interview

Erin Stevens [left] is a Marketing Communications Assistant at a law firm. Clare Koopmans [right] is a Program Assistant Confidential at UW-Madison.

Do you feel that your English degree prepared you for your current job? How?

Erin: I definitely think it did. Everything that I do uses my English and communication skills. I have to draft attorney bios when they start at the law firm, so it’s taking the resumes and trying to find the most relevant information. Analyzing the information, which we learned in most of our English classes. Also, important is the ability to critically think. I use my writing and editing skills for news releases and organization skills for project management.

Clare: Absolutely. In our classes we have tons of writing and editing experience[s] that we get and we’re good at managing those hard deadlines. With multiple classes, I find that during my job I have work that piles up on certain days and other days it’s not as busy. I know how to handle it so as far as those organizational skills, I think people overlook all the writing [as an English student] we have to do and all the projects we have to do. I understand other students have that too, but writing just takes longer…or maybe we’re all perfectionists or something but I’ve noticed that I’m able to organize my day to get my tasks done. I’ve also noticed as a linguistics major that you need to have extreme attention to detail and I think in my job now I have to have that same skill. “One error can throw off the entire day.”

Did you have any specific career goals in mind when you were a UWEC student and do you feel that you have reached or will eventually reach them?

Clare: I did not honestly think about my career as an English major until second…hmm…winter break of senior year probably [both laugh]. That’s me being honest I guess, but I feel like I have reached a point where I’m in a position that I understand will lead me to a next one and that’s something I’m totally okay with as a twenty-two year old woman. I can view my job as a stepping stone to something else.

Erin: Yeah, I think that’s definitely the same for me because I was a creative writing major…I primarily found myself drawn to the English department. However, as much as I love writing and it was something I’m passionate about, I always knew I wasn’t going to find a creative writing job. So it was about getting “creative”, knowing that I can do web content writing. I’m not getting to do much of that at the law firm, but I’m gaining the skills of how to work with people of all ages and learning to be on a nine to five schedule. [Erin is also interested in writing on the web, she has her own blog at http://www.writtenwithflair.wordpress.com]

This is a question from the panel, but I wanted to repeat it. What classes (or skills from certain classes) in college do you feel really helped to prepare you for the job world?

Clare: For all classes that I took you have to have top of the line, polished writing and that’s something you need to have when you are writing a cover letter; creating a concise, readable resume. So, that really helped me of course by having those four years of backlogged [writing and editing] skill.

Erin: Same with the writing. “You don’t realize how crucial it is to have a perfect piece of writing until you have attorneys staring at it who are trained to look at something and find errors in it.” That goes with grammar and something as simple as having a certain amount of spaces in between sentences. Another class that helped me was a CJ [Communication and Journalism] class that was all about creating resumes and cover letters.

There seems to be a stigma against majoring in English because job opportunities are supposedly limited. Do you think employers are less likely to hire English graduates?

Clare: Oh, yeah. I can confirm. I told my supervisor that I was coming to this event tonight and I told her what it’s about, so she said ‘Oh, yeah that would be good because, you know, what would you do with an English degree? Teach? Or write a book?’. I think some people, when they hear ‘English’, they think English class in high school or just the language. If you already speak it, why study it? They just don’t understand all that an English degree encompasses.

Erin: I think my experience has been a bit mixed and I don’t know if that’s because I double majored [in Communications], but I’d probably list my creative writing major first [on a resume]. To me, that was my most important major. I talked to one of my managers about this event and she listed attributes like synthesizing information and organization, so it sounded like she felt English majors had value if they had gained those skills. I think there is a sigma for sure, but if you participate in student organizations or if you were involved in extracurriculars [sic]…I think that is almost more important than the major because it shows how you are applying yourself in other ways.

Clare: Yes, I think the key to having an English degree is the way that you supplement your degree. I always think, ‘yes, I could just go to class, do all my assignments, pass everything and when I graduate I could read an article for you and offer an efficient summery’. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the fact that you choose to go into these organizations outside of the program you gain a different type of experience. For example, English Festival gives you valuable event planning experience. It’s all about what you can bring to the table.

We all know how important it is for students to receive a proper UW education. In what ways do you think English education can grow and progress?

Clare: Something I’ve found is that this English department seems so unique. There doesn’t seem to be any politics going on with co-workers or anything, just a really supportive group of professors there. If you see one faculty member is doing a reading at a local coffee shop or if someone is presenting research, a lot of their fellow professors go. I think that reflects to students the importance of being supportive of one another and also that professors aren’t just supportive of one another but also supportive of students.

Erin: I think the answer of moving forward would be providing more support to those extra things that English majors can do. Not letting English Fest die. For instance, Dr. Erica Benson stepped in when it seemed like English Festival would fade away. She turned it into something new, not just a week of events but events throughout the year, and it turned out to be a very fruitful tool for majors. Since the events are throughout the year it primarily brings students together.

Clare: Also to possibly have an English class…easier said than done…to focus on post grad careers. I think it would be good to have a class devoted to interviewing and creating cover letters or resumes. How to market your English skills. A common theme at the event tonight is that English majors do not think they have transferable skills from what they’ve done in four years to the real world. That is not true, but it’s easy to buy into that. So if there were some additional ways that the English department could keep encouraging students that they have these valuable skills.

Now for my final, not at all serious, question. If you had one superpower, what would it be?

Clare: Invisibility.

Erin: [ponders time travel] To read minds.

If you had to use your powers selflessly, what would you do?

Clare: I would listen in on meetings and events that are confidential or harmful to the public. Then try to get the word out about it. Leaking secrets…is this interview tapped? [laughs]

No. 🙂

Erin: Probably something similar. If I thought someone was up to no good, in a serious way. Like if I heard in their thoughts that someone was going to harm another person.

If you could be more indulgent with your powers, what would you do?

Clare: Hmm. I would sneak into events that I want to go to. Sneak onto airlines for free travel! Also, maybe, creep on celebrities.

Erin: I would start talking about things that they were thinking about and they’d say, “Yeah, I was just thinking that”. I would just keep doing that and really annoy them.