"How Did You Get That Job?!" is a series of interviews with professionals who have parlayed their university degrees and unique skill sets into successful careers.
Each featured guest will explain, in his or her own words, how they chose a course of study, how their professional interests evolved over time, and provide informed advice for students still trying to discern their academic and professional paths.
Writer And COurt Appointed Special Advocate
"Remember you are lucky to have a brain that works. Use it. Read. Write. Think. Reach out to others. Be fervently curious. Then you will have stories to tell."
When I graduated from high school, I hoped to go to college, get my undergraduate degree, and then study veterinary medicine. The summer before my senior year of high school, I attended a weeklong conference designed to attract women and minorities so I had an opportunity to visit the Washington State University campus. They had an excellent pre-vet program and I applied there. However, my parents would not provide the required information for me to receive financial aid, so I could not attend.
I moved to Edmonds, Washington, got a job at Stevens Memorial Hospital cleaning the labs and morgue, and lived there for a couple years. My high school friends were attending West Point, Thomas Aquinas, University of Washington, Seattle University and Western Washington University, so I felt lost and untethered. I spent the next several years imbibing in various substances, learning about relationships, and moving from place to place.
When I was twenty, I moved to Vancouver, Washington and enrolled in Clark College. I was hired for a half-time student position at the Bonneville Power Administration. I qualified for financial aid and between that, student housing, and my earnings, I could support myself. I had given up my dreams of being a veterinarian—eight to ten years of school seemed impossible—and was not sure what I would study. Without a goal, the classes had less meaning, and my preoccupation with dating and fun usurped school. I dropped out, lost the student job at Bonneville and student housing, and ended up working fast food. Then I got pregnant.
About 20 years later—when my twin sons were in college themselves—I decided to start taking classes again. By then, my husband and I had a houseful of foster and adopted children that we were raising. We had begun foster parenting in 1992, had many come and go, but always had seven or eight children until 2001 when we finally said we were going to finish raising the children we had but wouldn’t be taking any more.
I hated not having my degree, especially when I went to meetings about children with special needs and everyone else around the table had what I called “little letters” after their name. I had never really forgiven my parents or myself for my lack of education. I learned to read prolifically about whatever issues my foster children had, and to write letters advocating for their needs, and these efforts helped me stay engaged in learning on a day-to-day basis.
I focused on taking one class at a time until I had enough credits to apply for an adult degree program. I had been a full time mom and community volunteer for two decades, but I started working for the school district in 2005, used their tuition assistance to help pay for school, and took out loans for the rest.
By then, two interests had become overwhelmingly clear: social justice and writing. Prescott College offered a distance program for a liberal arts degree. In summer 2007, I attended orientation on site, and began my distance classes that September.
2. Did you know what you wanted to be when you were in college / grad school? If so, did this change over time? If not, did you take any measures to discern what career you wanted to pursue?
Part of what was great about Prescott’s program was the initial coursework called Critical and Applications in Human Development. I knew I was working toward a Humanities degree but not much more than that. During that term, I was required to identify my focus areas (similar to a major and minor) and what study areas were relevant in those competency areas. In addition, I had to develop a personal vision statement, create an outline of possible coursework, identify mentors and teachers for the coursework, generate questions I would need to answer to become a practitioner in that field, identify ways the natural world related to those areas of study, and create a two-year action plan to complete coursework and graduation requirements.
By the end of that term, I had identified that my area of competence (or major) would be “Motivating Sustainable Change” and my area of breadth (minor) would be “Writing.” Over the course of the next two years, I changed the competence area slightly to reflect not only what I had studied but also what I had learned through my years as a foster parent and advocate. My capstone project was in Human Development: Engaging Disenfranchised Youth. I graduated in 2009 (at the age of 49) with a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities: Motivating Social Change.
3. How did you find your way to your current career?
Although I worked for several years at a local school district and as a supervisor for child advocates, I became weary of my inability to effect systemic change while working within a bureaucracy. My head is full of stories about children and families that inform and affect my point of view. I am not always patient with a bureaucracy's systemic process when its policies adversely affect individuals.
One of my courses called “Writing to Invoke Change” involved writing a comprehensive report detailing philosophical approaches and pragmatic applications for written language to effect social change. I used my personal vision statement: “to live with intent in the world / balance action with purpose / write with insight and humor / to motivate self and others / in creative, sustainable change” to illustrate how tension between internal and external motivation could create stories with which we could influence people’s ideas.
It was by evidencing my own experiences in writing that I came to understand that I wanted to be a writer. It took me another couple of years, but in December 2011, I quit my job and began writing full time.
4. What do you attribute to your success (can be a personal characteristic, supportive person(s), tool or skill set, etc.)?
Learning was never difficult for me, although I have not always applied myself well. As I aged, I realized how much some people struggle. I grew to appreciate and utilize my own abilities. I’m tenacious. I’m steadfast. I seem to have gotten my wiggly irresponsible tendencies out of the way in my late teens and early twenties. I’ve spent 25 years parenting children whose parents couldn’t manage their own substance use, mental health issues, or other barriers, so I feel gratitude that I didn’t get stuck there. When I had my two young sons, I made a decision to put their needs first, and it gave me a clear sense of purpose. I met a responsible, loyal man who supported my decision to be a full time mom. Each step of the way, he supported my choice to fill up our home with foster children, complete my B.A., start working, and most recently, to quit working to write full time.
5. What do you suggest for students interested in pursuing a career in your field?
If you are a young student, prepare while you’re in high school, but don’t forget to be in the world too. Many schools seek students with a range of experiences. If you have grades or experiences that could pose barriers, spend some time finding positive aspects about them so that you can demonstrate you have the capacity for reflection, growth, and perspective.
For those of any age, if you know you want to be a writer, write. There is no shortcut. Read widely: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, newspapers, magazines, anything in print. Observe the ways print language exists in the world. If you can afford college, go, even if it is one class at a time. One class at a time will earn you a degree, and in the meantime, your ideas will be challenged, your patience tested, and your maturity developed. If you can’t go to college, find classes in your community or online. Many colleges (MIT, for example) and companies (Canvas.net, for example) offer extensive free coursework online. The reading assignments, lectures, notes, videos are all there, and you are in charge of what you learn.
Engage in free learning opportunities, and engage in social media. One of the recent changes for career writers is the expectation that one has developed a large audience and ready-made market before one’s first book is published. Cultivate authentic relationships with other writers by attending readings, connecting with them on Facebook and Twitter, and engaging in dialogues about writing. Click on and read book reviews in major newspapers. Take time every day to let your mind wander. Ask other people for a little help. Not a handout or a leg up, but a piece of advice. Thank them. Not just by saying it. Tweet it. Post it. Put a stamp on it and mail it.
You can find out more about Deb's work and reach her at: