For English majors, experiential learning boosts learning, career options
December 6, 2022
Advanced Instructor Netta Baker fretted about the internship gap she observed among students in her first-year writing classes. Physics and engineering students had lined up summer internships. English majors hadn’t. Most English majors didn’t think internships were possible for them.
They are. And for Baker, internship coordinator for the Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, it’s a moral imperative to help English students find experiential learning opportunities that build work experience and real world skills. “The Bridge Experience Program is an opportunity for us to rethink what we expect of our English majors from the very beginning,” she said.
To improve experiential learning offerings, this fall, the English Department began offering new field study classes for students to work on departmental publishing such as like Noemi Press, a Blacksburg-based independent literary publisher, and Philologia, a journal of undergraduate research. A partnership with Virginia Tech’s Network Infrastructure and Services created internships for technical writers.
Baker also encourages students to consider opportunities in unexpected fields, like business. Even if it’s a failure, “you’re not just learning that this isn’t what you want to do, you’re also adding valuable work experience to your resume,” said Baker. “That’s going to make you look really good to a potential employer.”
Four English alumni and students shared how on- and off-campus experiential learning expanded their opportunities.
I organized the Glossolalia Literary Festival
Who: Jayne Ross, 2019 alumna with degrees in creative writing and professional and technical writing.
How it happened: “It was not my idea,” Ross said, laughing. But she was curious to try her hand at something new, so when English Associate Professor Matthew Vollmer approached her about becoming president of the Glossolalia Literary Festival, she said yes.
What she did: Ross handled dozens of nitty-gritty planning details, from securing a budget to arranging travel for authors to ordering food. Luckily, she'd develop a knack for diplomacy from taking creative writing workshops for her major. “You're dealing with your classmates pouring their heart onto a page, and you have to be really tactful with how you deliver feedback,” she said. “They were a master class in communicating with people.”
What came next: After graduating, Ross was hired as a member engagement associate with the Washington, D.C.–based Phi Beta Kappa Society, in no small part because of her Glossolalia experience. Since then she's been promoted to assistant editor of Phi Beta Kappa’s journal The American Scholar, where she writes, edits, and creates social media content. “I feel enormously lucky that the English major led me right to the kind of job I wanted to have,” she said.
I coached students in the Writing Center
Who: Madeline Eberhardt, English pre-education major, graduating in 2023
How it happened: Eberhardt didn’t know the Writing Center existed until she saw a job listing for writing coaches on Handshake in summer 2021. After submitting writing samples, she joined faculty member Jennifer Lawrence’s prerequisite course in fall 2021 and soon was working directly with students.
What she did: At tables in the Newman Library (or in Zoom rooms), Eberhardt helped students fix papers and build confidence in their own abilities. “I have had people come in on the verge of a breakdown, saying, ‘This paper is due tonight,’ and it's always the best feeling knowing that we could turn the paper in right there together.” Eberhardt's own writing improved too. “Being a good writer is all about perspective,” she said, “and I think being a writing center coach gives you the most perspective you can get as a student at Virginia Tech.”
What came next: Eberhardt spent four weeks in the United Kingdom with the London Calling study abroad program in summer 2022. Now she plans to earn a PhD in educational policy.
I helped edit Silhouette literary and art magazine
Who: Riley Vinluan, double major in creative writing and professional and technical writing, graduating in 2025
How it happened: After her First-Year Experience instructor urged her to work with Silhouette, a student-run literary magazine, Vinluan filled out an online application, interviewed with the editor-in-chief, and joined the staff as design editor.
What she did: Vinluan taught herself Adobe Illustrator from YouTube videos, then laid out the journal’s artwork, poems, and prose as part of Silhouette’s four-person design team. A record-breaking number of submissions meant Vinluan’s weekly hours varied from 10 to 20.
What came next: The summer after her first year, Vinluan started a technical writing internship for Virginia Tech’s Network Infrastructure and Services, on top of her existing work for Silhouette and the Collegiate Times, where she’s a copy editor. “I definitely have been piling a lot on my plate recently,” she said, “but I've had great support from faculty and friends.”
I was a field development intern at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital
Who: Chrissy Paschall, a 2020 graduate who majored in English pre-law
How it happened: Having already worked as an editorial intern for the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, Paschall knew she wanted to work with people. The fundraising internship for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis caught her eye on her sorority’s internship page. Out of hundreds of applicants, Paschall got the job.
What she did: As part of a large team of fundraisers working to keep St. Jude free for patients, Paschall offered support to fundraising partners at universities, sharing what worked for her own sorority chapter at Virginia Tech. Because English classes had taught her a facility with language, she came across as “much more professional and much more educated than I felt” as she corresponded with C-suite executives. “Learning how to communicate effectively with people who are thirty years older than me was so crucial.”
What came next: Now a talent attraction specialist in the legal practice of LHH Recruitment Solutions, Paschall connects attorneys and other legal-industry employees to career opportunities. From all the resumes that have crossed her desk, she knows that internships are key for recent college graduates. “If I could have just told myself how helpful these experiences would have been, maybe I would have had four internships in school,” she said.
By Melody Warnick