Alumni Profile: Steve Haruch, independent journalist and filmmaker

Recently we interviewed Steve Haruch, a writer, journalist and independent filmmaker based in Nashville, TN. He graduated with a B.A. from UIUC in 1996 (English/Rhetoric double major), and went on to earn an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Washington in 2000. After a series of teaching, copywriting and other odd jobs, he landed at the Nashville Scene, where he worked as a staff editor for seven years. Since then, he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, NPR’s Code Switch and The Guardian, among other outlets. He edited People Only Die of Love in Movies: Film Writing by Jim Ridley (Vanderbilt University Press, 2018) and is currently producing a documentary film about the history of college radio. He is particularly interested in talking with students from minority backgrounds. In the interview, Haruch talked about freelancing, a career option that offers freedom of work.

What is your current job? What do you like about it?

I’m a freelancer, so my current job is really a series of jobs, mostly involving writing in some way. These are strung together in a manner that resembles regular work but is more open-ended and irregular.

What I like about my current situation is the freedom to pursue what interests me, and for the most part to operate outside of the kinds of institutional pressures that come with any staff writing or editing position. The down side is that part of the work involves asking for work. (And then asking to be paid for it.) Pitching stories can sometimes feel almost as time-consuming as producing them.

But it’s rarely boring because you’re always seeking out new opportunities and getting to work with new people along the way.

You have a multifarious career. How do you manage so many things together?

Keeping on top of your time is really important. Sometimes you have to be realistic about what you can really accomplish, and other times you don’t have that luxury. You have to just give yourself over to the work until it’s done. Some weeks and months are certainly easier than others, in terms of balancing multiple projects. And the Internet is a constant source of both inspiration and distraction. (Also a great way to meet new people to work with!)

Sometimes just blocking out some time and disconnecting as much as possible can help keep things moving. Other times it’s more like juggling, especially when you’re getting feedback from editors and sending out multiple drafts on multiple pieces.

How has your background in English helped you in your career? What skills that you learned in your college classes do you find yourself using now?

There are a lot of ways. I think first and foremost is having the sense of text as always open to interpretation and always subject to the context in which it is both produced and observed. Studying English taught me to not only ask what a piece of writing means, but why and how it conveys that meaning. It also taught me how to talk about the things a text means that its creator didn’t necessarily intend it to mean — which is different from willfully misunderstanding something!

I think sometimes English majors have a hard time seeing the through line from their education to a career because “reading and writing English” doesn’t seem like a marketable ability in the same way that, say, being able to program in a particular coding language does. But it’s actually a very rich skill set.

What is being communicated? What was intended? How does the form the communication takes affect how it is received? When we look at the proliferation of purposefully misleading texts out in the world, that ability to analyze and really break down the rhetorical structures is unbelievably valuable.

More broadly speaking, I think a liberal arts education has been vital in teaching me to see how knowledge systems are connected to each other, something I think we are beginning to rediscover the value of as a society — the sense that technology is outpacing our ability to understand its effects in part because the companies that are driving the conversation often seem to be operating with a kind of tunnel vision. So having an education that really demands a critical view of human culture and creation is so important.

Would you give some suggestion to our undergrads regarding how to make the transition from college to working life?

As one of my UIUC professors used to say constantly, college life is real life, so my first piece of advice is to value your time in school as much as possible — not just as a means to an end, but as an experience in and of itself, one that is unlike probably any other time in your life.

That said, I think a crucial point is not to get discouraged. You may end up working some awful jobs. Keep your head up and think about your next move. What do you want to do? What can you do to get there? Sure, you may have to process stock dividend notifications at a bank to pay your rent (something I did between college and grad school) or write the most banal press releases imaginable (which I also did). But keep reading. Keep writing.

Travel as much as you can afford. If you find yourself with an opportunity to do something weird and not English major-y but which excites you, go for it. Maybe it becomes the thing you do — and if it’s successful, there will probably be a website and other materials that need to be written well. If it goes up in flames spectacularly, maybe you can write about it someday.

What advice do you have for the students interested in exploring the field you are in now?

Freelance culture writing can be a tough game to break into, but as with any kind of writing, the first and best thing to do is read. A lot. Social media is a great way to find the writers and publications and editors who are covering subjects you care about in interesting ways. Don’t forget about small local publications. Pay attention to what they cover and think about how you could contribute.

There are a lot of fellowships and internship opportunities that I either was not aware of or was not interested in when I was starting out — once upon a time, my biggest goal was to be a published poet, not a journalist — so seek those out. (Again, social media can be great for this.) Try not to write for free if you can avoid it, and if you do, try to limit it to publications where you’re doing them a favor they actually need.

Also: Be prepared to fail. Keep writing anyway — it’s the only way to improve.


Teaching English Abroad

Do you love teaching? Are you interested in teaching English abroad? There are plenty of opportunities in East and Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.

Every year China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and some other countries in Asia and the Middle East, recruit a number of English teachers with a preference given to native speakers of English. Searching the keyword “English” in Handshake will bring up any number of these opportunities.Many offer good packages in terms of remuneration, health coverage, and accommodation. With a bachelor’s degree in English, anyone who is a native of an English speaking country can apply for these positions.

Is Teaching English the Right Path for You?

The best way to find out if you enjoy teaching second language learners, before you renew your passport and invest in a plane ticket, is to give it a try — which can also help you get experience that will help you land a position. Champaign-Urbana offers many opportunities to get some experience of working with non-native speakers of English.

  • The Intensive English Institute. Each semester the Intensive English Institute hires a number of undergraduate students for internships, and these positions are paid.  You can also volunteer to be convopartners of international students at the institute, which will require you to spend one hour each week with ESL students. This will give you the opportunity to exchange culture and experience the world from another perspective.
  • Illinois International Hospitality Committee. You can also volunteer for English classes through the University of Illinois International Hospitality Committee.
  • Project READ, Parkland College. Volunteering at Parkland College can give you exposure to adult language learning. Project READ, a not-for-profit literacy service in Parkland College, provides free tutoring to adult learners seeking to improve their reading, writing, and/or English as a Second Language skills. Volunteers are needed throughout the Parkland College district. All Project READ tutors attend 12 hours of formal training to earn certification in tutoring adults. Tutor Certification Training is offered on a monthly basis at various locations. For more information about finding a tutor or to become a volunteer tutor, call 217/353-2662

Formal Certification in TESL?

Some programs for teaching English abroad require certification in teaching English as a second language. This credential can be obtained from the Department of Linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The Department of Linguistics offers a Certificate in TESL for undergraduate students. Undergraduate students may pursue the Certificate in TESL as a stand-alone certificate, through a Minor in ESL, or Teacher Education Minor in ESL. For the certificate, undergrads need to take six courses three of which are compulsory and the rest are elective. Those pursuing the Certificate in TESL via a Minor in ESL must declare a Minor in ESL at the beginning of course work for the minor.


Kelly McEathron, Management Trainee at Cintas

Recently we had a chance to talk to Kelly McEathron, an English graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana -Champaign, who works as a Management Trainee at Cintas. Kelly is currently in her 1st rotation out of 4 for Direct Sale and Strategic Market.  With every day being different and exciting at work, Kelly likes to unwind by hanging out with friends and family, exploring the city, and walking the dogs. She said many great things about jobs, careers, and qualities expected from a candidate.

What is your current job? What do you like about it? Where do you hope to go from here?

I am a Management Trainee at Cintas and absolutely love working here.  I love how every day is different and presents new challenges.  Though I just started in July and still have a year and a half before I graduate the program, as of now I hope to eventually work my way up to a senior account manager.  With this Management Trainee program, I do four rotations in each department so that I learn more about the other departments. In these rotations I will get a better understanding of where I would like to go in the company.

How has your background in English helped you in your career? What skills that you learned in your college classes do you find yourself using now?

My English degree has helped me in my career in many different ways.  One of the most important thing that I have learned from my English studies is how to write a concise email while still including details.  There is nothing more annoying than long emails that don’t have specific points.  I guess that is another way my degree has helped- picking the main points of an email.  As for skills that I have brought with me from college, I would say that time management is a huge one, being able to communicate effectively, and networking.  I know it may not seem like college kids network in class but making friends in class who you can count on for notes or similar situations definitely transfer over to a work environment because knowing people help get situations resolved quickly.

From your experience, could you tell us what qualities employers seek in a candidate and how English studies prepares students to attain them?

I think employers seek a person who can communicate effectively, who is driven and organized.  I think that English degree can help with the communication and organization; however, being competitively driven while still being a part of a team is almost as important.  Companies look for someone who is willing to prove themselves and work hard- driven by a goal to be the best but who is still working towards a team goal.

Would you give some suggestion to our undergrads regarding how to make the transition from college to working life?

Some suggestions that I recommend on how to make the transition from college to real life is to not rush the transition.  You don’t need to move out of your parents’ house right away, get a new car, and be wasteful with money.  Give yourself time to adjust to working full time, understand that you can’t go out on a Tuesday anymore because you have to be up early for work, and just be real with yourself.  While you may miss the fun times of college trust me in the fact that getting a paycheck every week or every other week is way better.

What advice do you have for the students interested in exploring the field you are in now?

My advice for people interested in exploring Management Trainee programs is to take an alternate route.  I know English majors are almost pigeon-holed to teaching, publishing, editing etc., but honestly the environment that I am working in is awesome.  I get to work with my manager to see where my next rotation would be as if I am tailoring the program to myself and where I see myself going in the future.  Take the chance to do something that we are not really pushed to in college because it was probably one of the best choices I made!

Sara Colombo, Director of Business Development, Jellyvision

Md. Alamgir Hossain, a graduate student in the department of English, recently interviewed Sara Colombo who graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2009. Sara majored in English and minored in Secondary Education. From an early age, Sara wanted to be an English teacher, and she got her first teaching job in 2009. After five years of teaching English in the Chicago Suburbs, she decided to change careers and utilize her skills in sales. She is now the Director of Business Development at Jellyvision, a technology company in Chicago. In the interview, Sara recounts her journey from being a student to being an executive and gives valuable advice to English undergraduate students.

What is your current job?

Currently, I am the Director of Business Development at Jellyvision. Jellyvision is a technology company in Chicago with around 400 employees. I manage a team of about 20 Inside Sales Representatives that are responsible for reaching out to potential clients and getting them interested in our products.

What challenges did you face to get there? What do you like about it? Where do you hope to go from here?

My career actually started in education. My degree from U of I is in English, but I was in the college of education for Secondary Ed. So my first job was teaching high school English. I taught English in two different high schools. I learned after five years that teaching wasn’t the career for me.

I loved the students and teaching English, but I no longer loved the content I was required by the state to teach. There were also leadership changes every year in both districts, and I just wanted to do something different. So from there I knew I needed to start over at an entry level job.

I searched for a job for a few months. I probably applied to about 50 positions throughout Chicago. I finally got an entry level sales job at a media company called Guerrero Howe. My English degree came in handy here as we were required to have super strong communication skills for this role. This is where I learned to make phone calls and sell. After a year at Guerrero Howe, I got the job at Jellyvision. Again, it was an entry level position, and I was 27 years old.

I worked extremely hard, learned everything about the company and got promoted every year which got me to where I am now as the director.

I LOVE my job, the company, and the people I manage. I hope to stay here for a long time and really become an expert and outstanding manager.

How has your background in English helped you in your career?

I am SO thankful for my English degree. It has helped me so much throughout my career. Obviously in my first jobs as a teacher it was extremely helpful. But throughout my last two companies, it has helped me grow. During my job search I had to write tons of cover letters and introductory emails. I have to communicate with high level prospects via phone and email, and I have to communicate with my VP and CEO every day. My English degree allows me to be confident in my emails and communication skills as a whole.

What skills that you learned in your college classes do you find yourself using now?

Definitely organization and time-management. Even though those are “soft” skills, I learned how to perfect them at U of I, and I constantly lean on that today.

Writing with purpose and using a consistent tone is very important as well. I also do my best to be concise in my emails and writing, and proofread everything before sending.

From your experience, could you tell us what qualities employers seek in a candidate?

In every interview I have been in or conducted, employers appreciate a candidate who has done their research. Even if the candidate has a non-traditional background or work history, research is way more important. Coming to an interview or phone screen with your “homework” done is the best advice I can give. Come prepared with LOTS of questions about the company and the role. Come prepared with insight about how your background can relate to the job. Be diligent, thoughtful, and prepared, and it won’t matter what your degree is in. Be willing to work hard, and learn and grow, and you can start a career anywhere.

Would you give some suggestion to our undergrads regarding how to make the transition from college to working life?

I would suggest you apply to any and every job you can. Get your name and resume out there and practice, practice, practice with phone screens. No interview is a waste of time. You will get better each time, and you will find something you really enjoy. You must also be willing to start at the bottom. If you find a company you really like, you may not get the exact role you want, but you can get a foot in the door and start your career. Then you have to be willing to work the hardest and stand out from the crowd in order to move up. Do your best to stand out of the crowd on your resume and cover letter. Add style points that will allow the recruiters to remember you. Be yourself. Be genuine. Be kind, and be hungry.

What are some of your future professional goals?

My goals currently are to grow my team to one of the best business development teams in the city. We are getting really really good, but I want us to be great. I’d also love to use what I have learned about sales and teach again either in a college setting, or as a speaker at technology events. I have truly found a job I love in sales management, and I plan on staying as long as I can to become better and grow within a company that is doing really exciting things in the benefits communication space.

What advice do you have for students interested in exploring the field you are in now?

My advice is for students to do their research on SaaS (Software as a service) sales. It is a growing field with a ton of potential. Even if sales sounds scary, or they may not want to make phone calls, it is really an exciting space to start a career. Do research, see if you can set up job shadows, talk to friends and family who have had jobs in sales, and see if it is something that would be interesting to you! Within technology companies, there are also jobs in project management and implementation. This roles are great for English majors, as they also require organization and communication skills. The important thing is to find something you like and that you can do well, and run with it!