If someone would have told me when I graduated from Red Cloud High School in Red Cloud, NE (pop. 1020) in 1998 that the 40 year-old version of me would be working in my hometown, I would have been dismayed.
“What catastrophe could possibly have happened to put me in such a situation?” is what I would have asked. What happened was far from a catastrophe.
Not only did I land a great job with a growing organization (the Willa Cather Foundation). I learned that the skills I had been building over years of teaching English and suffering through the rigorous workload of graduate school were not only transferable to an alternative academic career, they were prized.
Before I explain why, let me provide a little more context for how I went from being A.B.D. in American Literature to being the Director of Tourism & Commerce in Red Cloud, NE.
After receiving my M.A. from Kansas State in 2009, I spent a year in Americorps at a program in Topeka. After that, I started a Ph.D. program in English at the University of Oklahoma. My wife Rachel (M.A. ’08) and I both taught at Oklahoma City Community College, and I also taught at OU. Our daughter Louise was born in 2012. After struggling to juggle the demands of a Ph.D. program, parenthood, and teaching 7 classes a semester in 2014-15, I began to look for something more immediately rewarding and with better career prospects than toiling away in academia.
I knew I wanted to go back home to Lincoln or Omaha or maybe even near family in Denver or Chicago. At one point, I was even a finalist for a great job in the Office of Research Development and another one in the Architecture Department at K-State. At the same time, I had looked into jobs at the Willa Cather Foundation in Red Cloud.
When I was in high school, the Cather Foundation was a mom-and-pop sort of operation but since that time they had renovated the community’s historic Opera House and had Ken Burns as the Honorary Chair of a campaign intended to transform a run-down building next to the Opera House into the state of the art National Willa Cather Center. They posted a few jobs that were interesting but did not pay enough to warrant me abandoning my dreams of being a literature professor. I kept in touch with their Executive Director, however, and through that relationship I eventually found out about the position I have now. Shortly after I defended my comprehensive exams, I applied for and eventually got the job!
While it was a definite sea change moving from the Oklahoma City metro back to my tiny little hometown, I soon discovered that I loved the work I was asked to do. In short order I went from writing papers that no one outside of my committee members were likely to ever read, to being connected to a nationwide network of scholars and leaders in the business and entertainment industry. I get to help rebuild my hometown, too, which while challenging is very rewarding. I’ve gone from grading an obscene amount of freshmen papers to helping secure financing for a boutique hotel in a project that will save a historic building in downtown Red Cloud. I’ve learned that I really enjoy math of all things and analyzing economic data.
I also enjoy getting to learn every little thing about my home state and am figuring out how to build meaningful relationships with leaders in Kansas (which is only 5 miles from Red Cloud). Living in a small town has given my family the chance to be immediately involved in leadership roles, and I spearheaded a successful campaign to raise $300,000 for our local community foundation’s endowment. After a while, I noticed that I did start to miss teaching a little bit though and adjunct now at Central Community College in Hastings, NE. I get to have financial security and still teach and connect with students (I only teach 1, sometimes 2 classes), which is just fantastic.
The common thread between the decade plus I spent in academia and teaching composition classes and the work I am doing now is writing. Being able to write is such a valuable skill, and please do not let anyone ever make you feel like it isn’t. It’s highly sought after, and barely anyone can do it well, let alone with the expertise of an English major. You will write and write and write—even if it’s just a memo or an e-mail.
Writing and thinking well is also fundamental to the continued relevance of non-profit organizations like ours, which depend on capable grant writers to secure funding from state, federal, and organizational sources. Writing is also critical to receiving donations which are often secured through end of the year ask letters. Working in the non-profit sector means you have to be good at multitasking, which means we also spend a lot of time crafting marketing messaging and doing event promotion. Having technical expertise while being able to think critically and being able to craft a compelling narrative is something you will have to be able to do in almost any modern profession, but it’s particularly helpful in the non-profit world.
I’m glad I took a risk and applied for a job that wasn’t a 1:1 match for my degree—it’s been a perfect fit.
— Jarrod McCartney (M.A. ’09)