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Alumni Feature

Laura Saum

"During this time at Oracle, selling cloud-based software products, I used my English degree in ways that often shocked my managers."

When I graduated in 2013 I had been accepted into University of South Carolina's law school, but decided to take some time off before returning to school. I accepted a job with Oracle as an Inside Sales Representative and moved to the West Coast. During this time at Oracle, selling cloud-based software products, I used my English degree in ways that often shocked my managers. In order to get in touch with C-level decision makers at T-Mobile and 21st Century Fox, I wrote haikus. It sounds silly at first, but these business people thoroughly enjoyed the creativity that went into my messaging. This application of my English acumen resulted in the end to a blackout period between T-Mobile and Oracle and, subsequently, the sale of $4m in marketing automation software. After my first year, I decided to defer from law school for another year and continue working.

However, after a year and a half with Oracle, I recently decided to make a career shift and forego law school. I accepted a job with Robert Half International, where I provide San Francisco-based companies with temporary accounting professionals. We work with clients like Uber, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Dropbox. Whether it comes to client communication, posting jobs, or connecting with candidates, I utilize the skills learned in my undergraduate English studies every day. The ability to communicate a message in an intelligent and effective (and sometimes creative) manner has served me well in a professional context. During my free time, I continue to put my English degree to use tutoring students through Pulitzer Prize winner Dave Eggers' charity: 826 Valencia. I have also become involved in the literary community of San Francisco, submitting poetry and short stories to local literary journals like Zyzzyva and McSweeny's

I often reminisce about the time I spent studying English with Professor Levenson and Professor Spearing. There are many days when I am in the office that I wish that I could be back in the classroom learning the intricacies of Dickensian prose, or the meaning of Middle English in the Gawain Poet's text. What I would not give to spend another semester learning about Middlemarch and Tristram Shandy in a class dauntingly titled "The Long Novel." Though, at the time, I had no idea of how this information would translate into my professional life, in retrospect I am incredibly grateful for the hours I spent in Bryan Hall during my time at UVA.

(My picture is from the Movember charity competition that my Oracle coworkers spearheaded -- I actually won the female award of "Miss Movember" in 2013 for my participation with the endeavor.)

Christopher Graffeo

"What the medical education community is slowly realizing, however, is that truly good doctors also need to be able to go beyond that framework and think creatively, manipulate abstract concepts in tandem with hard data, and express their conclusions in clear, thoughtful ways that make sense to our colleagues and patients alike."

I'm a neurosurgery resident at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, which is admittedly not where I thought my English major would get me—though it has certainly helped me along my way. I studied English, American Studies, and Philosophy as an undergraduate, and was not pre-med: the time I didn't spend reading or writing was spent working either for The Declaration or my band Silent Diner. I moved to New York after graduation and worked as the editor of a small arts quarterly called Ins&Outs for a few years before deciding that I wanted to retrain, which involved a post-baccalaureate program at Columbia and medical school at NYU, all of which ultimately brought me here to the Mayo Clinic and neurosurgery. What's more interesting than all that, though, is how my English major experiences armed me for a career that, at first glance, has little to do with literature. There are the obvious advantages—fluidity writing research manuscripts and personal statements, ease articulating complex ideas, perhaps an edge on the verbal and written sections of the MCAT, &c.—but all that matters far less than how studying English shaped the way I think. Medicine is fundamentally an exercise in critical thinking, pattern recognition, and problem solving, which by tradition is taught in a fairly regimented fashion. What the medical education community is slowly realizing, however, is that truly good doctors also need to be able to go beyond that framework and think creatively, manipulate abstract concepts in tandem with hard data, and express their conclusions in clear, thoughtful ways that make sense to our colleagues and patients alike. I'm certainly biased, but I think it's an eloquent (if atypical) application of an English degree, and I'm certain that the critical thinking skills I honed in the UVA English Department bear tremendous responsibility for my approach to neurosurgery.

By far my favorite memory is from English 383, when Michael "The Cat" Levenson shared his affection for The Shins' recently-released "Saint Simon" by leading the entire lecture hall in a sing along. Our chorus was awkward but nonetheless ecstatic, with the full house perhaps sensing the Collegiate Moment-ness of the occasion, to say nothing of perfectly capturing the improvisational, inspired energy that endears Professor Levenson to everyone lucky enough to pass through his classroom. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my second answer is another Levensonian experience, when I was lucky enough a semester later to secure a seat in his Ulysses seminar. It was my first tour through what quickly became (and remains yet) my favorite novel, perhaps culminating on the day when it was my turn to read a prepared passage to the group: I selected the opening pages from "Oxen Of The Sun," and I still remember how energizing and primal it felt to roar through sentences that sounded as though they were giving birth to the English language.

Libby Jones

"I say with confidence that my B.A. in English from UVa has been the greatest asset I have professionally. Without it, I would not have qualified for my teaching fellowship in England, which changed my life…"

After graduating from UVa in 2006, I moved 20 miles north of London, UK to take up my post as a UK teaching fellow (http://www.virginia.edu/cue/ukfellows.html) at Haileybury College, a British boarding school not so far-flung from Harry Potter's Hogwarts. The learning curve was steep: I was an American English major with no teaching experience sent abroad to teach British History, British citizenship, and sex ed! But I adored the experience and ended up extending my one year assignment to two. Upon my return to the US, I made good on my goal of pursuing a journalism career, and after a few internships, including at New York Magazine and O Magazine, I joined the editorial staff at Good Housekeeping. I was surprised to discover how much I missed being a part of a school community, however, and eventually went back to independent education, taking a role as communications manager at a private school in New York City. Two years ago, I crossed the Pond for the second time to follow my British husband (who, as luck would have it, I found on Haileybury's campus six years earlier). I am now in my third year as the alumni director of the American School in London. I say with confidence that my B.A. in English from UVa has been the greatest asset I have professionally. Without it, I would not have qualified for my teaching fellowship in England, which changed my life (and it was a fellow English major pal who told me about the UK Fellows program in the first place). The UVa alumni network was intrinsic to almost every interview I landed in New York and continues to shape my career in alumni relations. I couldn't be more grateful for my undergraduate experience. As an expat, my seminar on Hemingway and Fitzgerald with Sydney Blair holds a special place in my heart, and I think often of the Fitzgerald quote I came across when our class read Fitzgerald's "Echoes of the Jazz Age"--"...and it all seems rosy and romantic to us who were young then, because we will never feel quite so intensely about our surroundings any more."

Jonathan Yagel

"All of those papers and essays prepared me to do everything from business development to branding to marketing to PR to social media. All of those fields fundamentally rely on connecting with people, particularly through writing, so I was ready."

I loved studying English because I'm very interested in how we utilize narrative to relate to each other and to the world around us. I loved studying English at UVa because I've always sought to surround myself with individuals who enjoy what they do and passionately seek the things that matter to them. Although I didn't know it at the time, this nexus was a perfect preparation for what I've been doing since leaving the sublime grounds of Mr. Jefferson's University.

After leaving Charlottesville, I spent some time in Brazil, building a trade school and teaching English to children from favela communities. When my visa renewal was rejected (that's a longer story), I came back to the States and began a very hurried job search. I ended up writing a choose-your-own-adventure style cover letter, asking some friends of friends to let me join the technology business they'd recently started. It worked. I didn't know much about business or technology, but I was able to develop the narrative of the company's founding and mission. All of those papers and essays prepared me to do everything from business development to branding to marketing to PR to social media. All of those fields fundamentally rely on connecting with people, particularly through writing, so I was ready.

Now, as the company is growing and we're starting to hire more, I am coming to appreciate even more how rare it is to find people who can clearly and concisely communicate a message. Good writers are hard to find, but I believe in UVa English, so if you're looking for a job, give me a shout at jonathan@spire.me!

(I have a lot of favorite books from UVa classes, but my favorite is probably TS Eliot's Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950. I have my annotated copy on the shelf next to my bed so that, in case of a fire or other disaster, I can grab it before running out of the house.)

Esther Lim

"What they needed was someone who could read and write well, whose forte was effective communication geared toward coordinating efforts between various combinations of people relevant to each project."

I am a grant coordinator for an international ophthalmology NGO based in South Africa. We have multiple ongoing projects in ten different African countries, funded through high-profile organizations like USAID, WHO, and private foundations. We work closely with the ministries of health in each country to formulate targeted eye care plans for rural populations, providing screening and treatment for patients as well as training for local medical staff. My job involves drafting and editing proposals for funding, managing the implementation of ongoing programs, and helping disseminate research through reports and manuscripts.

Back when I first applied for this job I didn't know a thing about ophthalmology. In fact, I can hardly stand the idea of surgery, let alone eye surgery. But they already had the experts in place: the doctors, the researchers, the government officials. What they needed was someone who could read and write well, whose forte was effective communication geared toward coordinating efforts between various combinations of people relevant to each project. My studies in the UVA English department gave me this edge and enabled me to pursue a job I otherwise would have thought beyond my scope.

I also do some food reviewing as a freelancer, since Cape Town is a booming tourist destination. I get to eat a lot—from full-course meals at acclaimed winery restaurants to small bites at the trendy bars downtown—then write about the experience. It's definitely not for the faint of heart (literally speaking, nor for anyone with high cholesterol), but I absolutely love it.

One of the long-standing memories I have of my time at UVA was my very first class with Professor Caroline Rody. For 20th Century Women's Literature, she began the semester by reading Grace Paley's “The Loudest Voice” out loud in the classroom. I still remember the resonating warmth of her voice, calm and tender and powerful. Her reading, and the story, changed the face of modern fiction as I know it. I went on to get an MFA in creative writing and hope to teach that very same class someday when I return to the U.S.

Also, did I mention how many times during Professor Clare Kinney's classes I had to fight the urge to give a standing ovation at the end of her lecture? She always does finish with a brilliant flourish, don't you think?

Sarah Misailidis

"With eight years of overall press experience in both the private sector and in government, I have provided guidance, with regard to messaging opportunities, for attorneys as well as members of Congress."

I currently work as a PR manager at Dickstein Shapiro LLP, where I am responsible for developing strategies to garner publicity that promotes the firm, its attorneys, and practices. This includes, but is not limited to, pitching article topics to editors, communicating writing opportunities to attorneys on an ongoing basis, overseeing the writing, editing, and publication of byline articles, writing press releases, and researching media outlets for future publicity efforts, including monitoring editorial calendars of relevant national, local, and trade publications. I am also actively involved with the firm's social media procedures and guide its presence on Twitter.  Before joining the firm's Marketing and Business Development team at the firm, I worked as a Public Affairs Specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Prior to that position, I served as Deputy Press Secretary for California Senator Barbara Boxer and Press Secretary for Maryland Congressman Albert Wynn. I began my career in 2005 as a press intern for New York Senator Charles Schumer soon after graduating from UVA with an English degree. With eight years of overall press experience in both the private sector and in government, I have provided guidance, with regard to messaging opportunities, for attorneys as well as members of Congress.

At UVA, one of my favorite courses was Studies in Poetry: Contemporary Poetry with Jahan Ramazani. I was able to fine tune my writing skills while exploring modern poetry, one of my favorite hobbies.