Public and professional writing program major-ly expands


Sara Davidson

Professor Libertz talks with Kristyna Finikiotis in class Wednesday. (Photo by Thomas Yang | Staff Photographer)

By Janine Faust | Assistant News Editor

Jonathan Frye knew he wanted to write when he came to Pitt, but he also wanted to leave with skills to find a job.

“I always wanted to be an English major, but the ones at Pitt seemed to be more education or storytelling focused,” he said. “I didn’t see how I could apply that to the career I wanted to get.”

Frye, an undecided sophomore, planned on working in nonprofit, marketing or copywriting. He decided he’d start working toward a Public and Professional Writing certificate while figuring out his major. Turns out he didn’t have to wait long.

“I was secretly thinking it would be cool if the PPW certificate had a major to go along with it, and when a friend of mine also taking writing classes told me last spring one was being created, I was really happy,” he said.

The PPW program recently announced the creation of Pitt’s newest major, which allows students to gain writing skills specific to the career path they plan on following.

The PPW program has been at Pitt since 2003, offering an 18-credit certificate and a spread of English composition classes to satisfy general education requirement seekers and simply curious people. The founder and director of the program, Jean Grace, said the idea of a major was discussed within the program for a while.

“We had a very successful certificate program, and people would often come to me and say, ‘why isn’t this a major?’” she said. “People really appreciated what they were learning through the program.”

Students gravitated toward the certificate the moment it was offered at Pitt, according to Grace.

“Most students who get the certificate leave with very compelling writing samples, and we offer everything from classes on using social media in a professional context to courses focus on teaching,” she said.  “It really helps them when they leave the University.”

She also said it was not until last year that the department gained enough support and had the time to draft a proposal for a PPW major. It was finally approved by the Provost’s Advisory Committee on Undergraduate Programs last spring “with plenty of support and positive feedback.”

Students pursuing the 33-credit PPW major will be required to take an internship their junior or senior year. The program will establish these internships with companies and agencies on the condition that the student spend at least 50 percent of their time on the job writing.

“We want to make sure that at least half their time is spent writing, not just making phone calls and shredding papers,” Grace said.

PPW majors will also be able to specialize their major by pursuing a “cluster” of related courses in a specific area. Available course clusters include advertising and public relations writing, writing for government and preparing for graduate school.

Grace said professors in the PPW program have already created new courses for the major, including Writing for the Sciences and Languages in Medicine. A course cluster specifically for people interested in medical writing is also being drawn up.

“We get people who also study and want to work in English writing, literature, communications, political science, psychology and prelaw,” she said. “We even get the occasional engineer, so we know people in diverse areas of study are interested in this.”

According to Grace, when the major was created, the people involved tried to make the major as simple as possible so that it could appeal to people in other fields.

“We wanted to keep it compact at only 33 credits,” she said. “We wanted to make sure that people could pair it with other majors, since this seems like a good major to double up with something else.”

Frye said he plans on declaring as a PPW major with a specialization in either government writing or advertising and public relations. He also wishes to pair it with a major in digital media.

“I think that the kind of writing PPW prepares you for is more business-oriented, and since I’m interested in marketing, I think anybody looking for creative writing abilities is most likely also looking for visual creativity as well,” he said.  

According to Frye, the PPW major will be able to satisfy both his creative needs and his worries about finding a career after college.

“A lot of people who are English majors are afraid, I think, wondering if they can get a job with what they’re studying,” he said. “[PPW] lets students study skills that are applicable to a job market and appeal to a wide array of employers.”

Grace said Pitt alumni who graduated with a PPW certificate were able to get positions in law, medicine, communications and other fields. Grads were able to obtain careers such as press secretary at the office of Governor Tom Wolf, health unit coordinator at UPMC and events manager at the National Aviary.

“We have plenty of alumni who got jobs because this certificate enables them to present themselves better when applying for jobs, and because employers like the skills that comes with it,” she said.

Edyn Herbert, a senior communications and rhetoric major and intern for the PPW program, said she wishes that she had been able to make a major out of the PPW certificate she pursued.

“I was actually talking to some people I work with at the writing center recently, and a lot of us wish it was a thing when we had started out,” she said.

Herbert works as a tutor as the writing center, and it’s where she discovered more about the PPW certificate earlier in her academic career.

“Initially my adviser warned me against it because they didn’t think it was worth pursuing, but I learned more about it when I started tutoring,” she said. “I figured it’d be valuable for me to get it to support my nonfiction writing degree.”

Herbert said her PPW certificate taught her valuable skills such as how to write grant applications, design professional documents and market herself to an employer. When Jean Grace asked her to get involved with helping create and promote the major, she jumped at the chance.

“I talked with her and others about the major, how it should be able to be customized especially towards different fields,” she said. “Right now I’m just trying to get the word out, get more people to hear about this major and improve its visibility. Force freshmen to see it.”

Plenty of students have come to her asking about the major as the word gets out, and people not even at the University yet have shown interest, according to Grace.

“Just last week I talked to a father whose daughter is excited about the major and he wanted to know more about it,” she said.

Frye said with the announcement of the PPW major, he won’t be undecided anymore come spring.

“Oh, I’ll definitely be declaring as soon as I’m able to,” he said.

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