Blog Alumni, College Preparation, The Arts

Don't be afraid of creative degrees

By Jackie Lea Sommers on Monday, March 13, 2017

Bowl of paint with paint brush

by Jackie Lea Sommers '03

When I studied creative writing at Northwestern, well-meaning friends and family often joked about my future "career" as a starving artist.

Ha. Ha ha ha … oh wait.

And now, in my 14th year as an admission counselor for my beloved alma mater, I often run into this same attitude with the parents and families of my artistic students. It breaks my heart to hear parents encouraging their students to choose a "safe" major when it is so clear that God has made their child to write, act, make art, make music.

I graduated from Northwestern in 2003, then worked one other job before I returned to campus to work in the admissions office. In the years since graduation, I re-cultivated my love for literature, wrote my first novel (which never found success—to my great relief now!), wrote my second novel, was offered representation by a literary agent, and was offered a very generous two-book deal with HarperCollins, one of the Big Five publishers in New York City.

Meanwhile, I was gainfully employed in a meaningful job—and never ended up starving.

I have so many thoughts here.

The Value of Liberal Arts

Many jobs simply require that a candidate has a bachelor's degree, and it doesn't matter what it's in. Honestly, humanities-type majors help students learn how to think critically, which is something every employer wants. Many of the arts degrees teach students how to become incredible communicators—again, a highly regarded skill.

Relevant Skills

Some jobs (like mine) don't even align with a particular degree, just a certain skill set. To be a college recruiter, you need to be a strong communicator, have great people skills, and love higher education. My colleagues have degrees in a wide variety of areas: communications, biology, youth and family studies, music, psychology, and exercise science. My supervisor was a PR major; his supervisor studied business.

It's a Marathon

It's important for young artists to remember that their artistic goals may take years to accomplish. In general, most young writers don't get a book deal with an NYC publisher the summer after college graduation. There's so much work to be done: a continual honing of one's skills, reading all the books you wanted to read during college, coming up with a great idea, writing the actual book, most likely not selling that book, starting over again … in the meantime, you will still be employable.

Purpose over Pride

When I talk to senior English majors at Northwestern, I ask them what their ultimate dream is. If their dream is to publish, then I tell them, "Make sure you are writing." Here's what I mean: many writing graduates pursue highly creative careers. There's nothing wrong with this but most of us have a limit to our daily creative output. If you work a very creative job, will you be willing to go home and write all evening too? I tell them to go ahead and take that creative job if they want, but every couple months, they need to ask themselves, "Am I still writing?" If not, then something needs to change.

Redefine Success

I think, for many college graduates, there is a certain pride that comes along with "working in the field." They are more eager to say that they are doing copy editing or freelancing or writing for an organization than to say that they got a job as a bank teller or … well, a college admission counselor. But the two things you need to ask yourself are these:

1) Does it pay the bills and student loans? and

2) Do I still have enough creative energy for my personal artistic projects?

If so, then you are on the right road. If being a Starbucks barista pays the bills and leaves you with enough creative energy to go home and work on your novel, then you are doing it. If working at a publishing house pays the bills and is in your field, but when you go home, you have nothing left to offer creatively, then it's time to rethink things.

Is it scary to be an artist? Yes! Maybe even more so in 2017, when competition is the steepest it has ever been. But is it meaningful? Immeasurably so. I never feel more centered in God's will than when I am being creative—and especially when I am writing. I am grateful every day for parents who encouraged me to stay situated right in the scary, creative place that God asked me to be—and grateful to Northwestern, which gave me the skills and confidence to be successful in two careers!

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