What can you do with a degree in English? Nervous English majors want to know! At a recent event for Berkeley Connect English students, three alumni on very different professional paths reminisced about their time within the English department and described how their careers took shape following graduation. Each of these alumni demonstrated how the study of English, in combination with other experiences they had at UC Berkeley, contributed to their success.
The discussion featured Brenna Fallon (2013), a UX Program Manager at Google; Michelle Robertson (2016), a journalist and a producer for the San Francisco Chronicle and SF Gate; and Angel-Max Guerrero (1991), who works in student affairs at UC Berkeley.
Brenna Fallon focused specifically on children’s literature and Shakespeare during her time in Berkeley; her senior thesis was about Harry Potter. She was active on campus, serving as the President of the Berkeley Student Housing Co-op system. She found that the skills she learned in her English classes were applicable to other classes and activities –– she knew how to digest information and present it in a concise, effective manner. After working as a tour guide in Europe for two years, Fallon wished for more stability. After submitting a job application to Google, she contacted an acquaintance she knew who worked there, which led to an interview. This demonstrates the importance of networking and connections. Although you may be a hard worker with a 4.0 GPA, it’s still important to be a well-rounded individual and make friends who you can connect with later in life. Now, Fallon is a project manager, working with engineers and designers. The skills she attained analyzing Shakespeare are applicable in her current role; in both Shakespeare’s work and Google’s work, there are many layers and levels that require analysis. In addition, Fallon’s experience with a huge campus like UC Berkeley enabled her to develop close relationships with others even amongst the hubbub of a large organization like Google. She hasn’t lost her love of literature; in the future, she wants to write a children’s picture book.
As a UC Berkeley student, Michelle Robertson focused her studies on sexuality and modern literature. She realized the scope of English scholarship during a class about critical theory, where she got her first exposure to Foucault and Chomsky. She realized that English isn’t just about reading, it’s also about analysis. Now, as a professional writer, she sees the parallels between being an English student and being a journalist –– in both, you build a narrative, make an argument, and support it with research. These are skills she developed at Cal. Initially, Robertson never wanted to be a journalist, stereotyping them all as stern, serious writers who only covered political events. However, she’s since realized the nuance of journalism and now writes about lifestyle for the San Francisco Chronicle and the SF Gate website. Her future goals include writing a nonfiction book.
Angel Max-Guerrero focused on the Victorian novel during his time at Cal, before continuing on to pursue his Master’s degree at UC San Francisco. As someone whose first language was Spanish, he laughed aloud as he realized he has dedicated much of his educational life to pursuing the study of English. Max-Guerrero has always been involved in areas of public service, doing volunteer work since a young age as he realized he had the agency to help. As a student, he was a leader with Cal Student Orientation (CalSo), the precursor to today’s Golden Bear Orientation (GBO). Participating in this leadership role convinced him to work for college access, which he then continued to do for 26 years. He purposely diversified his career in college preparation so as to gain more perspective. While speaking, Max-Guerrero encouraged students to take care of their reputation; he was offered several jobs solely because of the reputation he carefully protected. Now, he works at Berkeley, focusing on providing opportunities for underrepresented students. He dreams of someday writing a one-man play.
During the question and answer session, several Berkeley Connect students voiced their fear of unemployment. Max-Guerrero reassured a student who asked about the preconception that there is a lack of job opportunities for English majors. He admitted that yes, at first, those with English degrees are underemployed compared to students in other disciplines. However, after a few years, the employment rate for English majors actually exceeds those of other disciplines. Robertson seconded that notion, saying that at first she too was frightened of potential unemployment. Yet, she had no reason to fear, as she got a job at a photojournalism startup as a lead writer not long after graduating. Fallon also argued against needless fear; even though students may feel limited by having an English degree, she was able to expand her occupational prospects by not limiting her search to jobs directly related to writing. She still uses the skills she developed at Cal, but in a less traditional manner.
These three alumni demonstrate the diverse opportunities that await English majors. Although it’s natural to feel trepidation post-graduation, the flexibility of English allows graduates to explore many different professional avenues. In this sense, an English major is kind of like Play-doh — it’s flexible and can be shifted to fit whatever box you want to fit yourself into at the time.
Written by Melody Niv, Berkeley Connect blogger