Alumni Speakers Series — Writing in the Digital Age

In Fall 2015, the English department’s second annual Alumni Speakers Series commenced with a panel of English alumni who spoke about writing in digital contexts. Alicia Cohn ‘09, Amanda Mahnke ‘10, Rebecca Larson ‘98, and Scott Miraldi ’95 shared their stories of becoming writers in the digital world.

“I think of English as an applied skill, and I think you have to apply it to something,” began Cohn, Communications Coordinator at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and freelance journalist for Christianity Today.

Cohn is a digital media strategist who has applied her writing skills to everything from high-pressure political reporting to savvy marketing to movie reviews. As a new graduate looking for a job, she had expected a more linear vocational journey but instead found many twists and turns in her career path.

“I thought I just had to get on the train, and just go,” she said. “But it’s not like that. You jump trains, and it’s exciting. It’s an adventure.”

As a successful writer in several different fields, Cohn demonstrated the versatility of the English major, challenging students to consider the wide field of job possibilities.

Amanda Mahnke, a social media and media relations manager at a private K-12 school, has also applied her degree in unexpected ways. An English and sociology major who wrote for the Wheaton Record for four years, Mahnke used her journalism experience to work at several newspapers and startup companies, where she learned the tangible skills necessary for her current position.

“Diversify your skillset,” she said, encouraging students to learn skills like photography and graphic design, both of which she learned on-the-job at the Record. The digital world, she explained, offers the most opportunities for good writers who have also mastered a companion skill like videography, business management, or social media marketing.

“Writing is an evergreen skill,” said Rebecca Larson, the Director of Web Communications at Wheaton College. “The skills that you are acquiring will allow you to navigate whatever new technology comes along.”

After graduating from Wheaton, Larson worked in her hometown’s department of Parks and Recreation and then spent thirteen years in various roles at InterVarsity Press. While at InterVarsity, she taught herself computer coding and brought a literary perspective to InterVarsity’s social media platforms.

“A tweet is like a haiku—concise, constrained, packed with layers of meaning,” she said, adding that storytelling is vital to the marketing and publicity she now supervises for Wheaton College. Like Mahnke, Larson urged students to learn more skills on their own, like marketing theory, blogging, and coding.

Scott Miraldi, Vice President of Account and Client Services at marketing firm Mediassociates, placed a high value on his English degree.

“It taught me how to craft a narrative, how to connect with and understand people,” he said, also mentioning the essential business skills of concision and time-management. Miraldi also gave students advice on how to write cover letters and prepare for job interviews.

“Practice your story,” he concluded. “Be able to build the narrative of what you’ve done and where you want to go.”

When an audience member asked why students should major in English instead of marketing, the panelists emphasized that the English major teaches one how to tell a story, how to play with words, and how to write effectively in different genres, while many marketing skills can be learned on the job.