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A Passionate Career

October 10, 2016

When discussing his studies as a cultural studies and comparative literature (CSCL) and religious studies double major, Paul Kramer’s friends would tease him, “They’re hiring for that, right?”

As it turns out, they were.

Kramer (BA ’15) came to the College of Liberal Arts as a 31-year-old transfer student. An 11-year stint as a bartender was followed by coursework on cinema at a community college. Originally intending to continue his studies in cinema and media studies, he took a leap of faith—following intuition rather than thoughts of post-graduation opportunities.

“I just realized that I had been making my major [life] decisions based on fear,” he says. He switched majors on the day he registered for classes.

He-Man and the Jedi Knights

During his time in CLA, Kramer was able to bring together his disparate interests, from film to social justice, to He-Man. Yes, He-Man. And Ghostbusters... and a little Star Wars too.

Kramer joined a consortium of CSCL students that explored new ways to promote their ideas. Enter the Star Wars figurines. “I depicted Foucault's idea of Repression Hypothesis with Star Wars action figures,” he says—all in the effort to make intriguing but murky concepts more accessible to a larger public.

“I feel like the experiences in this department have helped me define and extract and reproduce the meaning of these stories so that they're consumable for other people.”

One of the areas he focused on is how different forms of expression (such as YouTube) are allowing groups to express themselves and are helping minority groups to empower themselves—lessons he has now taken to his career.

Finding His Way

Even while pondering Foucault, Kramer began pondering life after graduation. He was passionate about finding mentors and creating new opportunities for himself, but it was a new process, a daunting one.

“I didn’t know how to do it and someone really had to show me how,” he says. His efforts paid off when he received a Multicultural Summer Research Opportunity Program (MSROP) grant to work in collaboration with CSCL professor Robin Brown. A fellowship followed with the Minnesota Historical Society, where he created proposals for programming, fundraising, and member-retention policies.

Later he was awarded another fellowship, this time with New Sector Alliance, which places early career professionals passionate about having a social impact. His position was at St. Paul’s Sundance Family Foundation, a nonprofit that makes grants to projects that support youth development. This position led to the permanent job he now holds.

Today he is a program manager at Sundance in charge of the Youth Social Entrepreneurship (YSE) program, which provides work-skills training to youth facing challenges such as opportunity gaps and homelessness. His experiences as a student who struggled to define a career path have helped him create inclusive job-training and job-fair programming that is less intimidating for students and more effective for employers.

Fostering Passion and Curiosity in Others

Among his innovations is the Wunderkammer Initiative. Unhappy with the traditional job fair set-up where young people feel nervous and hiring managers do not get a full picture of a job seeker’s capacities, Kramer’s idea involves bringing the youth to visit future employers in non-hierarchical settings where they can try out their technical skills.

Wunderkammer literally means “wonder room” and is the German word for “Cabinet of Curiosities,” collections of objects deemed exotic by their elite owners during the Age of Exploration. Why was he inspired by an item from an era plagued by cultural exploitation?

The wonders in this case are the employers themselves, the products they make, or the skills that they need to make their businesses succeed. In other words, Kramer’s job fair turns the power dynamic on its head and encourages students to be curious, be adventurous, and explore.

“Wunderkammer is straight out of CSCL,” Kramer laughs. “But here we’re creating a place of sharing instead of taking. Instead of looking around and not touching, you’re supposed to touch.”

Ultimately, it’s about making connections and helping students explore their interests, skills, and passions. “I’m trying to help all of these groups see that their interests are aligned,” Kramer says. “I found my passion in liberal arts education,” he says. “And when it comes to work, I learned that I can’t contribute unless I am passionate and excited myself.”