Claire Russ hardly envisioned her degree in poetry from the University of Pittsburgh leading to… Claire Russ hardly envisioned her degree in poetry from the University of Pittsburgh leading to a career in public housing accounting.
“I never in a million years thought that I would work for an accounting firm — basically where I work now. I went from poetry to, ‘What is the bottom line?’” she said.
Like Russ, many college graduates find themselves working in fields downright different from their original undergraduate fields of study. Simply glancing through a major-to-career lens, finding any connection seems impossible. But for many, the diversity of skills gained from their education end up as advantages in the most unlikely places.
In the summer of 2002, following her graduation from Pitt with a degree in English writing, poetry focus, Russ was pouring lattes at Starbucks.
“One day my dad said, ‘You have a degree, why don’t you get a real job?’” Russ said.
After this direct, fatherly encouragement, Russ was influenced by her father’s career in public housing.
“My dad got me an unpaid internship as a leasing clerk for a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia that provided housing to individuals diagnosed with behavioral health illnesses,” Russ said.
The hectic environment and turnover within the organization presented an opportunity for Russ to demonstrate a more serious commitment to the profession.
“Real life happened, and a bunch of managers quit. My boss told me, ‘I need you to buy a car, get your real estate license and manage this program.’ And I did that,” Russ said.
She used her experience with that job to direct her toward the accounting aspect of public housing, which eventually led to her current position as a manager for Asher PHA Finance in Philadelphia. Although she rarely writes poems for her job, Russ applies key ideas from her studies to the presentation skills needed in her new field.
“You have to be engaging. You need to get the most bang for your buck, because you have such a finite amount of time to compress information. That part makes sense to me from studying poetry,” Russ explained.
Because of how much she enjoyed studying poetry, Russ can’t bring herself to regret it as the focus of her undergraduate major.
“It was such a gift to be able to study what I wanted to study. I loved it, but understood I would have to discover something to do once I got to real life. I think most people who study humanities have to level with that. And a positive attitude goes much further than what comes after the comma in your degree,” Russ said.
Russ’s dilemma is not a new phenomenon. Decades prior, Sue Yenchko faced a similar issue when she graduated in 1968 from Susquehanna University with a B.A. in English literature.
“I had no clue what I could do with that major,” Yenchko said. “But I picked my major not because I was looking for a job. I was looking for the learning.”
After she searched the lackluster classifieds, a family friend helped her land an interview and, eventually, a job working on a 1968 political election campaign in Harrisburg, Pa.
“I thought, ‘I guess I could do that for the summer.’ At the time, I was not looking at being connected with politics as a career. But in fact it has been my career for 30 plus years,” Yenchko said.
She credits the relationships built during that summertime campaign as important assets, helping her get hired at a wide spectrum of political jobs. She lists on her resumé political jobs in 10 different issue areas, ranging from criminal justice to mental health to water. Yenchko currently works for Pennsylvania American Water as the director of government affairs.
“If you said connect the dots, you could not do it,” Yenchko joked. “They do not seem at all related but every single subject area taught me things that I never would have known if I did not work in them.”