From the time she first successfully navigated the passages of her kindergarten text, Carmen McCain was passionate about reading. It was not very long before she realized that she wanted to be a writer herself, so her decision to major in English with an emphasis in writing was fairly uncomplicated.
|Carmen with Hausa author Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino, whose novel she is translating
"My time at Messiah was formative," Carmen affirms, explaining, "I had not been a straight A student in high school . . . All my friends in high school were in the National Honor Society, but I wasn't. I felt left out and too average to reveal to anyone that deep down I am actually fiercely competitive. My time at Messiah allowed me to focus on what I loved, and I flourished." Carmen channeled her talents and interests into a variety of co-curricular activities: along with three greatly-valued years working at Messiah's Writing Centre, she was a copywriter for the Clarion, Messiah's yearbook, and eventually became the editor of the literary journal, the Minnemingo Review. Through Sigma Tau Delta (the English Honor Society), she participated in a summer publishing internship, and she also studied abroad in England through the Oxford Honors Program. In addition, Carmen discovered the importance of integrating service with her education, putting her international experience to work for Amnesty International. From her self-described entrance as an "average high school student," Carmen utilized her desire to achieve and took advantage of the mentoring and encouragement she received from the Messiah community to graduate as an honors student and Boyer Scholar.
While Carmen did her part to develop her skills and amass an impressive list of valuable work experiences, she adds, "The Career Center was very helpful in looking over my resume my senior year as I began to apply for jobs."
Carmen asserts, "I use skills and knowledge from my major every day. As an English major I learned to analyze texts and to write papers; that is what I do as a graduate student in African languages and literature." Through the encouragement of English professor Peter Powers, Carmen presented some of her writings at conferences her senior year, an experience that has proven greatly beneficial: "Because I started presenting papers while I was still an undergraduate, I haven't been nearly as intimidated, as some of my colleagues are, to submit papers to conferences now that I am in graduate school." Carmen also finds that the skills she developed through her internship and work study experiences paved the way for her post-graduate path and continue to benefit her today. "Although I no longer edit for a living," she explains, "the skill of helping people with their writing is invaluable when I give comments on student papers and comment on colleagues' work."
• "If you are interested in graduate school, take some time off after you graduate from Messiah to do something interesting, whether moving to a big city, going abroad, volunteer work, etc."
• "The most satisfying job or career is not necessarily one that will make you a lot of money (although it may) but one that will allow you to use your intellect and your imagination—one that you can be passionate about."
• "Don’t think that your career has to be some straight and glorious progression up the ladder of success; your ideal career might involve a lot of little steps and discoveries, multiple vocations that allow you to use a variety of talents, rather than just one."
Like many students approaching graduation without a definite career plan, Carmen felt anxious about the future and was disappointed not to receive the job for which she applied before she graduated. Looking back, however, she says, "I am now relieved that God guided me in a different direction." A friend offered her the opportunity to move to New York, so Carmen began sending resumes to companies in the city. Despite not hearing back from any of them by the end of the summer, she moved to Brooklyn, where "my friend and I were so poor that we slept in sleeping bags on the floor for our first three months." Through a temp agency she found various short-term job stints-including a memorable one as a receptionist for fashion designer Oscar de la Renta-before securing an editorial position at educational children's publisher Silver Moon Press.
Carmen acknowledges that "there definitely was a specific time after college when I questioned my field of study, my degree, everything. I think probably most recent college graduates go through this stage while in the middle of the hunt for a first 'real job.'" In the early months after graduating, Carmen felt the pressure of her money running out; she still had not heard back from the editing and publishing companies with which she had applied, and the temp agency had stopped calling. "I felt like my degree and my skills were worthless in this real world," she explains, "I desperately started calling through the list of publishing companies in the Photographer's Market [resource book that compiles all possible avenues in the photography publishing business] and asking if they had any positions they needed to have filled. I'm not sure if this is considered to be a smart way to get a job, but I actually got two interviews using this method. One of them was at Silver Moon Press."
Instead of a sequential career trajectory through a particular industry, Carmen calls her vocational path "horizontal." She explains, "I've had a lot of different positions and a lot of different experiences," and to sum up the dynamic process of her career journey: "I tend to just apply for a lot of things, get rejected from a lot of things, and follow the paths opened up by those things I get accepted for." Carmen worked as a managing editor at Silver Moon Press for two years before receiving a prestigious Fulbright scholarship to study in Nigeria, where she assisted in the instruction of writing classes at a local university. Upon returning, Carmen accepted her current fellowship at the University of Wisconsin, with a concentration in foreign language study.
For any student who has contemplated the notion of going to graduate school full time, Carmen explains, "I am fortunate enough to have a fellowship, the Foreign Language Area Studies Fellowship, that pays my tuition and a stipend for this academic year. The conditions for this position are that I remain enrolled and make good progress in my Advanced Hausa course and at least one other African Studies course." Along with her own coursework, Carmen has been a teaching assistant for various undergraduate courses, and nest semester she will TA for an introductory African Studies class.
While the life of a professional student may seem laidback and trouble-free, Carmen adds that the self-initiated workload and deadlines can be stressful. "It is gratifying to be able to think and process information and learn about things you love for a living," she says, but "it can also be exhausting."
Although constant, focused study can be mentally daunting, "those occasional moments of delight make all the hard parts worth it." Rewarding experiences for Carmen include those moments of inspiration when she says "I want to get up and dance because I am so excited about what I am writing," and she adds that academic recognition and awards are "very affirming, although sometimes they also make you feel like you are under a lot of pressure to do 'great things' and 'keep up the image' when you feel like you're just trying to get through another day without falling flat on your face." Although she appreciates her time for scholarship, she explains, "I feel the most alive when I am back in Nigeria doing 'research' for my dissertation, which is mostly just living and getting to hang out and talk with fascinating people."
Carmen has channeled her talents into various volunteer initiatives, including a Christian fellowship group and an ESL ministry for international students at her grad school. She also attests, however, that the notion of service can extend beyond its more tangible manifestations. "I have felt more and more called to challenge misconceptions various communities have about Christianity," she explains. "Unfortunately, especially in academic circles, Christians are often stereotyped as narrow-minded.. . . I like to challenge these misconceptions by being a hardworking and open-minded scholar, as passionately concerned about social justice and international relations as I am about the pro-life movement." Carmen is currently considering ways to address this notion of service through writing.
While Carmen imagines that eventually she will take a professorship at a university, she remains open to whatever opportunities are presented to her. Her vocational journey is a reminder that "there is no limit to the number of doors that will swing open in life. There is no sense in being so fixated on one ideal career-and some strict idea of what that career involves-that I close my mind to other possibilities. We'll see what comes along."
Profile by Tiffany DeRewal, May 2007