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In the fall of 2013, I was what you might call “extremely stressed out.” My senior year at Trinity University was coming up with all its standardized tests and final projects, but what came after that was even more dreadful: the job market.
I was terrified of being caught in the vicious loop of needing experience to find a job, but needing a job to gain experience. In my mind, that I was an English major didn’t help, either. I could write, sure, but I had no marketing classes under my belt, no courses in business. What would a potential employer see when he saw my degree? Nothing, I feared, and for good reason.
“When humanities majors move into the workforce, they experience a sort of disconnect,” said Ruben Dupertuis, an assistant professor in Trinity’s Religion Department. “Employers want to hire employees who can communicate well, problem-solve, and perform tasks with accuracy and precision. Humanities students absolutely have these abilities, but when those same employers see an English degree or a religion degree on a resume, they fail to make that connection.”
This was my problem, and I cowered before it. Then, however, I met San Antonio nonprofit consultant John Burnam (pictured above).
Today, Trinity upperclassman Mariah Wahl and recent graduate Jennifer Miller find themselves in my same position, but, by contrast, they are calm and in control. Perhaps it is because they stand as the result of Burnam’s growing Arts, Letters, and Enterprise (ALE) internship, developed through the University and specifically designed to bridge the perceived gap between a humanities-based education and the professional world. I, myself, was one of Burnam’s first interns. Wahl and Miller are the new generation.
“Today, many professionals educate themselves on a pipeline,” said Burnam, the founder of John Burnam Consulting and a Trinity alumnus. “They focus on a particular set of marketable skills. Humanities majors, despite their incredible capacities, are often left out of this paradigm.”
Created alongside Dupertuis and Trinity business professor Jacob Tingle, Burnam’s internship invites humanities students directly into the world of nonprofits, offering projects with organizations like the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation and the San Antonio Christian Dental Clinic (SACDC). Because Burnam also co-organizes the Big Give S.A.—the annual, city-wide online giving day now entering its second year — the internship gives students a view from the epicenter of San Antonio’s thriving nonprofit community.
“I’ve lived in San Antonio for three years while at Trinity, but my internship with John was, for me, an introduction of sorts to the city,” reported Wahl, a junior English major. Wahl had previously volunteered with Any Baby Can and San Antonio Youth Literacy, but the ALE internship offered an opportunity for a new sense of scope.
“There were a lot of new people and places,” Miller agreed. She graduated this past winter with a double major in English and Religion. “John made sure that we were out and about a lot, attending meetings, meeting people, and helping with events.”
Trinity’s ALE interns begin their semesters in a more traditional classroom setting, getting acquainted with the culture and specific issues of the nonprofit sector’s drive for social change through articles and discussions. After that, they’re injected into that very drive, helping Burnam manage his projects before heading up demonstrable, lasting ventures of their own.
And believe me when I say: Such projects can have a ripple effect in opportunities.
After graduating from Vanderbilt University in 2012 with a master’s degree in theological studies, Burnam returned to San Antonio to begin communications and consulting work in the city’s growing nonprofit scene. Once back in town, he met with Dupertuis (an old instructor) to discuss a problem with which they were both familiar: a lack of useful internships for humanities majors. The meeting was not long after the economic crash of 2008, during which the value of “extraneous” humanities programs was questioned and debated.
“There are certainly not as many humanities internships as there could be,” said Tingle, a committee member of the wider ALE program that oversees the internship. “And many of those don’t properly work to make the connection between education and application clear for students.”
Burnam and Dupertuis’ meeting culminated in a goal: a program that created a dual experience for students — putting them head-first into the nonprofit world of fundraising, networking, and social initiatives within a familiar academic framework of written reports. With the approval process completed, Burnam took on his first two interns — one of which was me — in the first half of 2014. That number doubled in the latter half of that same year.
Wahl, one of these four, dedicated her time to creating an informational packet for nonprofits that divulges a list of best marketing practices with an eye toward social media: “I collected information about peak activity times on social media sites, long-term scheduling, and content type,” she said. “I hope it will help nonprofits to know when to post, how often to post, and what to post in order to gain the most readers and potential donors.”
Wahl’s catalog is now included among the many resources (guides, schedules, FAQs) available on the Big Give S.A.’s website. Nonprofit leaders can download these resources to learn and improve their campaigns.
Miller took on a more concentrated project.
“I noticed a lack of university involvement and success in last year’s Big Give S.A.,” she said. “I wondered what I could do to change that.”
Miller contacted several universities who had performed admirably in similar events around the United States, conducting interviews with officials about their marketing methods. One such school was the University of Dallas, which, during the 2014 North Texas Giving Day, raised $136,000 alone.
“I found that schools who approached their giving day campaigns with a sense of fun and enthusiasm were the most successful. An earnest push for student involvement also helped schools.” Recently, Miller compiled some of what she learned about millennial philanthropy in an article for the Rivard Report.
“This internship allows humanities students to lead with their skills and not be bogged down by cultural misconceptions about their expertise,” Burnam said. “Many people are surprised by the things our interns can accomplish. They can’t believe they’re still in college.”
“Humanities students’ skills lie, to put it simply, in the close reading of texts and the ideas within,” Dupertuis said. “They practice this every day in class. John acknowledges this skill and helps them apply it to business cultures and high-impact situations. Really, it’s not that much of a jump.”
“In my view, a humanities student’s greatest asset is his or her ability to tell good data from bad,” Burnam said. “This isn’t an exact skill. You can’t take a class and come out armed with it. Instead, it arises from years of dissecting arguments. It’s truly impressive what someone with that ability can accomplish.”
With students in command of such skills and a professional world in need of them, all that remains is drawing a clear connection, for both employers and students, between humanities programs and their worth.
“Trinity is in the process of a conceptual shift,” Dupertuis said. “In both presentation and practice, we’re focusing on education’s outcomes. We don’t want to create a culture in which our Humanities programs can only be a pipeline to graduate school. Our students have real options to succeed. It’s our job to show them that.”
Overcoming misconceptions about the value of a humanities-based education is an important aspect of Trinity’s new internship. However, for Wahl, Miller, and their fellow interns, the most measurable immediate benefit is some solid, real-world experience.
“Just entering into a conversation politely, in a business setting, was an invaluable thing to learn how to do,” Wahl said.
“John was a fantastic teacher in terms of introducing yourself to people and organizations,” agreed Miller.
Considering my own time with Burnam writing public relations pieces for SACDC and helping the Big Give S.A. through its first year, I can only agree. The internship’s biggest benefit, for me, was a self-realization that I could succeed in a world outside of academia, that my time as a humanities student (despite what my more economically minded relatives say) has made me a well-rounded, capable player in the world.
With the new year starting, Wahl and Miller look ahead. Wahl said she hopes to work more with organizations working to end homelessness in San Antonio before pursuing a doctorate degree in English. Miller, whose interest in development drew her to the internship initially, hopes to find a professional position with a nonprofit organization that works with children. Both young women epitomize the program’s backbone idea: that humanities majors have the ability to excel in any field.
*Featured/top image: Burnam works with two interns during last year’s Big Give S.A. Image courtesy of Trinity University.