Jobs, especially good freelance writing jobs, weren’t necessarily easy to find in the 1990s. I decided I was up to the challenge of writing application stories and white papers for an EDA software company (for those not in the Silicon Valley, electronic design automation software helps engineers design and test computer chips–very geeky). My interview with Val, the PR manager, was going OK but not great. During a brief pause I noticed a picture of Virginia Woolf tacked to the wall of Val’s cube. I commented, “Gee, I haven’t see that particular photo of Virginia Woolf before.” Val looked at me and her eyes filled with tears. She replied, “You know, you are the first person in the three years I’ve been here who knew who that was.” I got the job.
The best college for you is the one that wants you to be there. ... choose the "wrong" major if it resonates with you.
I cite this little story because I’ve always felt that my English major, and even more, my education, has served me well, no matter how far-fetched the connection to career might have seemed. Sure, over the years I’ve been kidded about my major, and especially my near second major in art history (remember the Car Talk jokes?).
Given the recent college admissions scandal, the pressure students feel, the terrible toll of student debt, and short-term thinking about careers, a reset is in order. We need to be very thoughtful about the difference between job training and education. Training is situational (you can learn Excel on YouTube), education is long term and ongoing. Jobs that I have held, such as technical writing, did not yet exist when I was in college, but I learned how to learn, so I could do them.
If a student knows that they want to go into a certain profession (law, medicine), certain majors are a reasonable and natural choice. I feel fortunate that expectations, especially for women in the early 1970s, were not as demanding as now, and I could explore a broad series of courses in college. Here is how my major and other courses, not currently popular, informed my career.
As an English major, I wrote an estimated 100 pages worth of papers per semester. Excellent practice for an aspiring writer. And, I could use those writing skills to teach others. A pharma company vice president hired me to teach technical professionals moving into marketing how to organize and write business plans (if they couldn’t do it, they wouldn’t be promoted).
Numerous art history courses helped me learn how to look, notice, and analyze–a great benefit for understanding graphic design principles and working with artists.
Anthropology courses helped me understand human culture and behavior so that I could write newsletters for multinational companies.
Linguistics helped me understand the structure of different languages so that I could anticipate the writing issues that non-native English speakers would have, so that I’d be a better editor.
French literature courses built my language skills and allowed me to proofread translations. (I’ve even used my rudimentary Hebrew to help out a translation agency in a pinch.)
A six-week summer session course in Russian literature tested me in reading and absorbing a lot of new information in a short time.
A Japanese history course helped me understand that country’s culture and helped me be more effective for my Japanese clients.
You get the picture …
So, if I were to give a high school graduation speech, I’d have a couple of recommendations:
It’s great to go to a strong academic college, but remember that the best college for you is the one that wants you to be there. Where will you learn and be supported? That might or might not be the one with the highest US News ranking.
Majors wax and wane in popularity. Don’t be afraid to choose the “wrong” major if it resonates with you. Try at least one course per year that interests you because you’ll learn more if you enjoy it, and you never know when that knowledge will be useful.
Finally, never stop learning.
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.