Letters to a Young English Major: Alexandra van Doren ’11

Read more alumni reflections in the English Department’s “Letters to a Young English Major” series.

attachment2 - Letters to a Young English Major: Alexandra van Doren '11Dear LMU English Major:

You are an archeologist of text. That is why you are here sifting through letters, mining the memories of those that know very well the hurdles you face in this line of work. That is, after all, the reason we turn to literature: for advice on a life we are living or wish to live. Although I do not remember all of the times I sought guidance from books, former students, professors, etc., I do remember the times were many and the words of wisdom I was probing for were rarely ever neatly packaged. As an undergraduate studying English, I felt I had more questions about my future than most of the other students at the university and I was frequently hunting for kernels of advice, sometimes practical, sometimes spiritual. I hope these words might offer a little of both.

If you study literature, or any of the liberal arts for that matter, I am certain you have been battered by questions about the “practicality” of your major and the uncertainty of your job prospects after graduation. As a PhD student and teacher, the mantra I encourage my students to consider now is to embrace practicality, but don’t justify yourself. If you consider a book worthy of a life’s work, you have earned the right to walk that path. While adulthood comes with a hefty price tag of responsibility, it does afford you the authority to make your own choice when it comes to your career. Now, here is where the “practicality” part rears its ugly head…it is hard. You will come away from this program with a degree from a highly respected university, but ultimately when it comes to your job search, you will have to do more talking than your diploma. You will have to cater to employers that may have presuppositions about your background or abilities because of the stigmas surrounding the Humanities. However, this is where you will find that the spiritual aspects (and I mean that in an entirely secular sense) of your English degree have prepared you far better than the practical ones.

Despite what those outside of the arts may assume about the nature of your work, being an English major does not entail spending wistful afternoons swooning over the contents of a Jane Austen novel. Well…we do this on occasion, but we also take up our armor and march into encounters with paralyzing fear, acerbic hatred, desperate love, bitter historical truths, profound loss, and war. In essence, we study what it is to be deeply human. Beyond learning to do a proper close reading and write a cogent term paper, you are learning to invent, to inhabit the skins of each character you come upon in the novels, stories, and poetry you read or in your own writing. You are learning the art of empathy. This intuition you develop will speak to the versatility of your character and abilities in any interview you walk into, and the breadth of these interviews may surprise you. Your English degree has most likely prepared you for more jobs than you imagined, and you have the freedom to try them all. Try editing, publishing, freelance writing, teaching, marketing, public relations, journalism, grad school; you have and can build the skill set for any and all of these professions. And if you have to spend a year waiting tables until a worthy opportunity presents itself, your books and pens don’t have to sit idle. Embrace practicality and acknowledge that your path may be riddled with more hills than some of your friends’ and colleagues’, but remember that at the end of the day, you are more aptly prepared than anyone else to navigate what Yeats called “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

All the best,

Alexandra van Doren
Class of 2011

Alexandra graduated from LMU in 2011 with degrees in English and Theatre Arts. Shortly after, she moved to Illinois to pursue an MA at the University of Chicago and is currently a PhD Candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, specializing in Holocaust Literature.

Are you an LMU alumnus/a whose English degree has served you well? Contact Professor Kelly Younger to submit your “Letter to a Young English Major.”