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Why English? Counting the Ways

Testimonies from alums, corporate leaders, & English Advisory Board members
May 29, 2018

So many reasons to earn a degree in English! Check out the below, and then send us your success story.

"Every employer needs people who can figure things out and explain them": Alumni

"My dad was not entirely excited when I elected to be an English major. In my dad's country, children have two career options: doctor or engineer. However, now he frequently says, 'I told you it was a good idea to get that English major!' He has recognized that many of the skills I learned as an English major helped me to succeed as an attorney. Day in and day out I engage in textual interpretation and analysis, which was actually one of the classes I took as an English major and is very representative of what you do as a lawyer." — Nadia Hasan (BA 2002), Associate General Counsel, UnitedHealth Group

"The rich understanding
of the humanities and the
arts I gained in college
has nourished me far
beyond just career
preparation, enabling me
to live a full, rewarding
life both in my work and
in my personal pursuits."
— Alum Wayne Gisslen

"I’ve met with numerous alumni of the program, every one of whom speaks about their time in the English department with pride. Not only, they say, does the major prepare a student to read critically and write clearly, but it forces students to relate to people in situations unlike their own.” — Henry Zurn (BA 2017), Law Student at the University of Michigan

"I frequently begin presentations by claiming I have two degrees that have been especially valuable during my business career. When I flash the words 'English literature' and 'comparative literature' on the screen, the audience bursts out laughing. But . . . those years studying literature have been invaluable. When I ask people in the nonprofit and social enterprise sectors why they do what they do, it always comes down to values . . . the same subtext that ripples through Death of a Salesman, An Essay on Man, Antigone, and No Exit. Using business strategies to address social needs—merging the profit motive with moral imperatives—has turned out to be my life's work.” — Jerr Boschee (BA 1966), Social Enterprise Innovator and Author

"Whether it be between physicians or from physician to patients, I find that being able to tell a story—or see one in many different lights—helps us understand one another." — Michelle Mattson (BA 2017, pre-med)

"Fiction writing at the novel level taught me how to sniff out the trite and the pedestrian, how to craft a voice somebody actually cares about, and how to embrace emotional truths. Those are all very helpful in advertising, especially these days when brands are dying to be 'authentic.'" — Scott Muskin (MFA 1998), Olson Creative Director

"I enjoy relating to people and understanding their motivations. What better way to understand people than to study characters in literature?" — Olympic swimming bronze medal winner David Plummer (BA 2008), Leadership and Performance Consultant

"You never realize how intertwined history and literature are until you look at the big picture." — Mica Standing Soldier (BA 2017), attended the 2016 Clinton Global Initiative University Program and South by South Lawn Festival at the White House, Paralegal

"I wanted to get an English degree on the way to a law degree. But I was delighted to be exposed to so many different genres and texts, from Shakespeare to Chaucer to feminist prose. It all opened my eyes to other ways of thinking and writing. English is applicable in any field. No matter what you do, you must be able to communicate clearly. And it teaches you to learn how to learn." — Teri Popp (BA English), attorney, Board Member, Fairview Southdale Hospital and Fairview Foundation, and English alumna

"My English courses helped me be a better problem solver by teaching me how to closely read text and craft complex theses. Every employer needs people who can figure things out and explain them to others." — Brian Lieb (BA 1991, MA 1996), Hennepin County Public Affairs Officer

"We have this amazing campus in a really amazing city. Not all colleges are like that. The U of M really is part of an urban ecosystem. And being on the staff of the English undergraduate magazine, The Tower, helped me to see the literary community as part of that ecosystem. I could start to see this path into publishing, after I graduated." — Jamie Millard (BA 2009), Executive Director of Pollen and Co-Founder of Paper Darts Magazine

"Majoring in English influenced my ability to think deeply about how people, motive, and context are connected. It trained my brain to look beyond the obvious and to consider other possible scenarios or points of view. Learning how to interpret meaning—dual-meaning, hidden meaning, symbolism, intent—gave me the skills to navigate employee relations and difficult discussions." — Diane Richard (BA 1985), Minnetronix Director of Human Resources

"Really what you’re doing often as a trial lawyer is you’re taking a lot of information in, you’re distilling it, and then you’re telling a story. And if you’ve got a jury, you’ve got to tell a compelling story in an interesting way. Those are things that a poet needs to do also." — Tim Nolan (BA 1978), Attorney and Author

"What I got at the University of Minnesota was a great liberal arts education: to have that set of eyes that look at the world in a much broader way than I would have had I gone to business school." — Mark Mishek (BA 1974; JD 1977), CEO and President of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation

"Good writing is valuable in
virtually any career, and it
is surprisingly rare out
there in the 'real' world."
— Alum Tina Karelson

"I believe that stories connect us. Books force us to make moral choices; they challenge our convictions and build our empathy. I have also always believed that teaching students how to write and communicate provides them with a valuable lifelong skill. We are teaching young people how to read the world, recognize facts, and articulate their thoughts." — Corey Bulman (BA 1999; CEHD MEd 2006), 2017 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, Mounds Westonka High School Language Arts Teacher

"English is the cultural campfire of language we all gather around, the centerpiece of the liberal arts." — University of Minnesota Regents Professor Patricia Hampl (BA English), Memoirist, MacArthur Fellow

"I've had my perspectives widened and my writing improved. I’ve honed lifelong skills in analysis, communication, and organization, skills that have secured me internships and jobs during and after my education." — Catherine Dang (BA 2017), Legal Assistant

"I earned an MA in English from Minnesota on my way to a 30-year career in international business law (at Medtronic and the Faegre law firm in Minneapolis). In retirement, I've been teaching a course on The Law in Literature at the University of St. Thomas Law School. In preparing this course, I came across an article noting former US Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens' opinion that the best preparation for the study of law is the study of poetry. What can be said of the study of poetry can be extended to the study of literature in general: it teaches the student to analyze texts, appreciate layers of meaning, explain ideas orally and in writing. This is just what lawyers do for a living. It's what I continue to do in retirement. I also credit my literary education with my lifelong enjoyment of reading, the theater, and writing poetry." — Michael E. Murphy (MA English), Attorney (retired), Author

"Difficult topics are like the sun, and art functions like the sunglasses that provide a filter." — Yuko Taniguchi (MFA 2002), 2016 Bush Fellow, Writer with Mayo Clinic Arts at the Bedside Program

"The University of Minnesota is committed to educating a prepared workforce for the 21st century. In this age of constant communication, English skills have never been more critical." — Laura Schott (BA 2016), Mackin Educational Resources

"The ability to properly utilize written skills is a requirement for leadership": Community and Corporate Leaders

"A liberal arts education teaches people how to think, speak and write clearly, evaluate their own and other people’s ideas and acquire new knowledge. It trains students to thrive in subjectivity and ambiguity, a necessary skill in today's world where few things are constant and cut-and-dried. Acquiring specific knowledge to succeed in business is important, but that mostly comes from work experience. The thinking skills that a liberal arts education develops are the key to applying your business knowledge effectively and remaining relevant as the pace of change accelerates." — Doug M. Baker, Jr., CEO, Ecolab

"Given my background as a senior human resources officer for three local major firms, plus several years as an executive search consultant, coupled with 15 years teaching leadership at local colleges, I came to strongly believe that a solid background in English, including written and verbal skills, provides a strong base for success in communicating ones’ views both verbally and written. These skills are increasingly required for higher level positions to help persuade potential customers and to lead strong partners in the enterprise. The ability to properly utilize written skills is a requirement for middle and upper levels of leadership especially in larger organizations. Executives usually have more impact on larger audiences through written materials that any other." — Doug M. Baker, Sr., Senior Human Resources executive, American Express Financial Services, retired

"My father often asks me how much of my high-priced education I use in sales. I tell him that as an English major I was taught to read, interpret, and feedback. Good memorization, presentation, and speaking skills learned in the classroom have resulted in a very successful career. My ability to tell a story, to relate to the customer, is at the core of my success." — David Hartman, Director of Business Development, Luther Westside VW

"Occasionally, the leader needs to ask each team member if he or she would like to try various tasks. An unacceptable answer to that question is 'but I've never tried that before.' Over my life I have noticed more English majors doing work that seems so unrelated to their field of study. I have found English majors doing excellent work as computer systems specialists, telecommunications experts, and even a go-to expert in vacuum cleaner repair. To me this is an excellent demonstration of not pigeonholing people. My bias would be to ask English majors to proofread documents, by my experience encourages me to ask them to try any challenge." — Robert Kierlin, Founder and Chairman of the Board of Fastenal

"I had great teachers in high school. They spoke eloquently and knowledgeably about the liberal arts and the humanities, and they insisted that the study thereof was fundamental to understanding the world and one's place in it. Even back then, they explained that these sorts of studies were separate from but complementary to applied arts and sciences. The study of language is at the heart of the liberal arts. If I hadn't believed in that assertion with all my heart, I would have never been visited by those occasional glimmers that words open doors, provide spiritual sustenance, and instruct us in moral duties and obligations. Even in the internet age, the word is still the beginning. Keats, I think, said truth is beauty and beauty is truth, and that about says it all. Words again. Because of my education in the liberal arts, I have a dim sense of what that means. How lucky can a guy get." — Charles Neerland, Communications and Public Affairs Consultant; Board Member of MedNetWorld

"Shareholders are more engaged, and more likely to vote in favor of a matter, if you tell a story": English Advisory Board members

"A study conducted several years ago of a class of Harvard Law School law graduates on their graduation and on their 10th, 25th, and 40th anniversaries of graduation posed the question of what undergraduate majors predicted the greatest success for these graduates in their law school and professional careers. The working hypothesis at the time the study was initiated was that technical education in undergraduate school, such as accounting and business courses, would predict the greatest success in legal education and in practice. In fact, at each juncture of the study, it turned out that the graduates who had the broadest undergraduate humanities majors, particularly English, were most successful.
      People conducting recruiting for job positions look for candidates who are able to make their views known in clear and persuasive language. This makes sense when one considers the reality that, unless a person can communicate skillfully and precisely, his or her thoughts are never really received by their intended recipient(s), whether in a business conference, board meeting or courtroom. In my experience as a hiring partner in a large law firm, the insight one can gain in a series of interviews is governed by the degree of communication skill of the applicants. After determining that the applicant meets the threshold academic and professional standards, one is left with the important question all of us answer every day: how effective will we be in representing our beliefs or enterprise?" — Patrick Delaney, Partner, Minneapolis Lindquist & Vennum (retired), Writer, Law School Alumnus

"As a technology manager,
I always found it easier to
train staff in programming
than in communication
and analytical skills."
— Alum Sara Zuk

"Why did I major in English? The teachers I admired most in high school taught English. I liked to write. I hung around with a bunch of guys who happened to like to read. Thoughts of what might come after college were murky—maybe a job in journalism, maybe get into teaching. Who knew—maybe write the next great American novel. With that major in English came a minor in Philosophy and a minor in education: Liberal Arts with a touch of vocationalism.
     I did teach English for a year after graduating, at an all-boys high school. I call it my 'sweet-bitter' year. So many good moments. So many times of dismay. Then I landed my first job in the public relations department of a corporation. I wrote for the company employee magazine, learned to use a camera, learned how to do layouts. Next came jobs as an editor for industrial publications, and then back to the corporate world and P.R. Along the line came other assignments—in marketing and then in administration. By the time I was ready to leave the corporate world, I was a company officer, a vice president in charge of communications and human resources.
     I could say that major in English served me well. It's true, but the treasure for me is in the memory of those English teachers, both in high school and in college, who encouraged me and challenged me to think clearly and to express myself clearly." — Robert Gaertner (MA English), Public Relations Consultant (retired)

"My first job interview after graduation was for a management position for a manufacturing firm. I was interviewed by the president of the company. During the interview, I said something apologetic about not having taken business courses. He shook his head. 'You can learn that here,' he said. 'What I want to know is: Can you think? Can you communicate? Can you analyze? Looking at your grades as an English major, I’m guessing you can do those things.' I got the job.
     Subsequently, my career path took a turn into the restaurant industry, first as a cook, and later as a kitchen manager and consultant. The books I have written have been the leading professional textbooks in the field for more than 35 years, not because I know more about the field than anyone else, but because I can organize and explain and write about the material more clearly and more effectively than others can. For this success, I am indebted to my studies in the liberal arts, especially English literature.
     Finally, I believe it is important to acknowledge that my college background in English prepared me not just for career but for life. The rich understanding of the humanities and the arts I gained in college has nourished me far beyond just career preparation, enabling me to live a full, rewarding life both in my work and in my personal pursuits." — Wayne Gisslen (BA English), Writer, Musician

"Growing up, to my eternal chagrin and irritation, my father, a voracious reader, professional speaker, and man who seemingly fancied himself a grammarian, constantly corrected my sisters and me. All too often we heard, 'You split your infinitive!' or 'You do not LAY down, you LIE down, unless you're going to lay an egg!' My friends heard these exchanges, and I truly knew I would be scarred for life from such horrific parental abuse. But then I grew up and went to college, where I majored within the liberal arts. Post college, I took a job with a large corporation and also volunteered as a docent at MIA, both of which required a great deal of research, public speaking, and writing. Business letters were a piece of cake. Presentations came easy, because I knew how to research my subject and present it coherently and effectively. The company for whom I worked thought me skilled enough to make me a national training facilitator, all because I knew how to research, write, and speak. And our two now-grown sons have told me how grateful they are to have been instilled with a love of reading, an appreciation for the arts, and skills they could carry forward into their careers." — Stephanie Groth (BA Art History), Former Healthcare Consultant

"As English majors, we are taught to use language in ways that can be adapted as times change or as occupations change. My professional career began as a teacher, but I have been privileged to manage and build many organizations as chief executive of a public interest lobby group, and the founding director of an association of charitable foundations. I have held major executive positions in every type of grantmaking foundation: corporate (General Mills Foundation), private (Northwest Area Foundation), and community (the St. Paul and Minnesota Foundations.)
     Eventually my interest switched to psychology, and at 50 I earned a Master of Arts degree in Human Development/Jungian Psychology and studied briefly in Zurich. I began to work in my field in a new way, assisting family foundations in planning and family dynamics. My interest in psychology continues and now, 20 years later, I am in my fifth year of study in the post-graduate analyst training seminar sponsored by the Minnesota Jungian Analyst group. My first novel, historical fiction, was published by Harper Collins when I was over 60, with a second novel following. The Minnesota Historical Society published my biography of 19th-century German immigrant Frederick Weyerhaeuser. An English degree opened me up to the possibilities of an interesting life.
     What does an English degree provide to the undergraduate student? Nothing less than a model for a life of learning and flexibility, and the capacity to undertake any endeavor or sign up for almost any job! These two factors—lifelong learning and flexibility—are key to survival in the 21st century." — Judith Koll Healey (BA English), Principal, JKH Executive Counsulting, Writer

"Studying English taught me how to think analytically about creative work, which is what I do every day as a copywriter and creative director. Good writing is valuable in virtually any career, and it is surprisingly rare out there in the 'real' world." — Tina Karelson (MA and BA English), Executive Creative Director, Risdall Marketing Group

"Minnesota is recognized as the second most important publishing area in the country (after New York/Boston). The English department at the U plays a crucial economic role in this publishing ecosystem by supplying a well-educated, motivated workforce that respects and understands the power of the written word." — Adam Lerner (Art History), Publisher & CEO Lerner Publishing Group

"Majoring in English trained my
brain to look beyond the obvious."
— Alum Diane Richard

"The ability I gained as an English major to first think clearly and then write has been invaluable to me as an attorney practicing in the areas of securities and mergers and acquisitions law. For example, many may feel that drafting an agreement in M&A is not a matter of persuasion so much as clarity—just get the deal right. However, in my experience, a well-written agreement that is clear, written in the active voice, and avoids clunky words and phrases (use 'if,' not 'in the event that') is much more persuasive, and more readily accepted, than an agreement that omits articles ('Purchaser wants to acquire from Seller') and relies on the passive voice. Also, in drafting documents for shareholders to read, the shareholders are more engaged, and more likely to vote in favor of a matter, if you tell a story. English majors generally are good at telling stories." — Michele Vaillancourt (BA English), Attorney, Winthrop & Weinstine, Minnesota Super Lawyers®, 2008, 2011-2017; and The Best Lawyers in America®, Corporate Law 2016-2018 and Mergers and Acquisitions Law 2018

"As a technology manager, I always found it easier to train staff in programming than in communication and analytical skills. All of our programmers and analysts had to communicate with our business customers both orally and in writing, and graduates with broader backgrounds than technology tended to be more successful. As an English graduate myself, I knew that those abilities were very applicable in business and technology for a variety of career paths." — Sara Zuk (BA English), Senior Vice President, Wells Fargo (retired)

What's your 'Why English?' story? Email us at sutt0063@umn.edu