A Tale of Three Alumni
UM English majors connect the dots between classroom and career
OCTOBER 31, 2019 BY ABIGAIL MEISEL
It is the best of times for English majors.
They are entering a job market that values clear communication in writing and speaking, critical analysis, editing, and sensitivity in understanding differing perspectives—among a host of skills students develop by studying English.
Three English-major alums—attorney Mariah Williams (BA 08), fundraiser Kathryn Dilworth (BA 92) and product manager Kent Jackson (BA 00)—have found success in vastly different fields, but all agree that they draw on their academic backgrounds regularly.
“When I’m explaining a complex problem to a group, I often turn to storytelling,” said Jackson, a senior product manager for CoreLogic, a mortgage services company.
“As an English major, you have to think about things in the abstract and use critical analysis skills,” he said. “Businesses communicate a lot via email, and there are a lot of nuances that people can misread. I have to read between the lines of an email to understand what a person is really trying to say.”
After graduating from the University of Mississippi, he wrote tech manuals about Linux, a widely used operating system and taught himself enough about technology and software to land a job at FNC. Founded by four former University of Mississippi professors, Bill Rayburn, John Johnson, Bob Dorsey, and Dennis Tosh, FNC was a pathbreaker in the use of technology, software analytics and big data to help mortgage companies order, manage, and score appraisals.
At FNC, Jackson rose through the ranks to manage a team of software engineers and business analysts. In 2016, the company was acquired by CoreLogic for $475 million, and Jackson went to work for the buyer and was essential in establishing CoreLogic’s Oxford office.
“I have to communicate with a wide range of people in language they will understand. I definitely use the skills I learned in college,” Jackson said.
Communication skills are also key to Mariah Williams, who attended the University of Arkansas’s William H. Bowen School of Law after graduating from UM with her BA in English.
“One of my favorite law school courses was Research, Writing, & Advocacy,” she said. “In law school, the focus was not on getting the right answer but on defending your answers in writing.
Reading several dozen books and writing papers in my undergrad English classes prepared me.”
Williams knew she wanted to focus on the area of social justice. After a few years of working in Student Affairs at Tennessee State University, she began her current job at Meharry Medical College in Nashville as Director of Program Management in the Center for Health Policy, where she teaches graduate level health sciences students about the policies that affect the health outcomes of entire communities.
“We are trying to eliminate health disparities,” she said. “People who have limited access to quality healthcare and wellness behaviors have higher levels of chronic illnesses and morbidity rates. I’m personally concerned with the inequities in the quality of maternal-child health during pregnancy, delivery, and infancy in this country. Black women have much worse child-maternal outcomes and there is little explanation other than racial discrimination.”
Williams develops and writes grant proposals and drafts marketing content for her program, including social media content—all very different types of writing, requiring skill and flexibility in expressing ideas for different audience and purposes.
Writing compelling cases for fundraising is also the purview of Kathryn Dilworth, Assistant Dean of Advancement and External Relations for the College of Science and Mathematics at Cal Poly, a university in San Luis Obispo, CA. Her career in philanthropy has given her the opportunity to work in many regions of the country and in a variety of areas within the nonprofit sector.
“I have always loved to read,” she said. “Studying literature has developed not only strong writing skills but also empathy. Stories, poetry, biographies and memoirs allow you to live other people’s life experiences. The opportunity to dive deeply into human experiences makes you more empathetic, and empathy is key in fundraising.”
Dilworth subscribes to the idea of emotional intelligence as a basis of successful fundraising. Her PhD dissertation: Social Capital as a Foundation for Fundraising: Leveraging the Academic Library as a Vehicle for Development is underway. She will complete her doctorate in philanthropic studies at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University next spring. Dilworth has already published articles about fundraising for the academic library and has other pieces on fundraising praxis under review and in press.
She is part of a long family tradition at the University of Mississippi. Her father earned both a BA and JD at the University and both her children are alums.
“Another benefit of an English degree for my career was the exposure to critical theory,” she said. “There are complex issues around power that are prevalent in philanthropy, and it’s important to be skilled in nuanced interactions. Awareness and respect for all individuals who are part of the giving and receiving process is integral to providing ethical professional service while meeting the mission of the organization.”
Dilworth, Jackson, and Williams have all lent their time and experience to UM’s Next Chapters program, created by Jason Solinger, an associate professor in the Department of English. The two-day event connects English majors with alumni in diverse fields including finance, medicine, publishing, the entertainment business, corporate law, the software industry, the federal government and a range of public service professions.
“The department has a robust alumni network,” said Solinger. “Our current students walked away from the experience inspired and excited about their own futures.”