Stars to Steer By Presents Ethan Johnson: A Long Journey

Ball State University alum Ethan Johnson discusses his travels after graduation and his future aspirations as he looks to the journey ahead. He graduated from Ball State in 2013 with a BA in English Literature and Classical Cultures. 

In the spring semester of my freshman year at Ball State, I saw Avenue Q at Emens Auditorium. I laughed along with the other audience members at the opening song, wondering “What Do You Do with a BA in English?” thumbnail_ethan-headshotI was laughing at the puppets, but I was also laughing at myself: I knew in three short years I would be in that position myself.

I came into Ball State knowing I wanted to be an English major. I loved books, so why wouldn’t I major in literature? When I told people what I was studying, especially after I added my major in Classical Cultures, they would inevitably ask me, “So what do you plan on doing with that?”

My response would usually entail being the most educated pizza delivery boy, then grinning at my own joke as well as my sense of uncertainty. I never had a real answer because I never knew what I wanted to do. Even as a kid, I don’t remember ever wanting to be any specific thing when I grew up. I studied English Literature and Classical Cultures in undergrad not because they would prepare me for a career, but because I enjoyed them. All the wonderful career prep I received was a bonus.

Senior year found me thinking about life after college. I was asking myself, “What can I do with a BA in English?” My uncertainty came not from a lack of choices, but an overabundance of them. Eventually I narrowed it down to two choices: Teach For America or grad school for Student Affairs. Neither of these were careers I had considered before starting college, but both spoke to fundamental things I learned to value during my time at Ball State.

First, I learned that I wanted to help people. My Honors courses taught me to follow up the “What?” of learning with “So What?” and then “Now What?” This drove me to want to apply my knowledge in a way that would have a real-world impact. My English classes, specifically contemporary literature classes, informed me about current issues facing people. These classes also introduced me to ways in which systems control or limit which narratives mainstream society hears.

Second, I learned I wanted to work with young adults. As much as I learned from my professors and advisers, I realized I was surrounded by wonderful peers who were just as essential for me to better understand the world. Class discussions introduced me to new concepts, perceptions, and experiences that I had never known existed. I met a great friend and mentor (and fellow “Star to Steer By” writer), Michael King, because of his openness and thoughtfulness in discussions. In my involvement with Housing organizations, I had the opportunity to lead and support my fellow students living in their residence halls. I gained an appreciation for the holistic view of education and development, and learned even more about the world in my residence hall communities. Although I was not sure what exactly that would look like, I wanted to continue mentoring, supporting, and educating students after I was no longer a student.

I ultimately choose teaching high school English with Teach For America. It appealed to my interest with helping people, working with young people, and doing socially just work. During the intense training process known as Institute, I learned more about systems of oppression present in our educational system. I was placed in a public high school on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, so my own education involved discussions of education as a tool of assimilation, the effects of poverty on student education and development, my own identity and the historical precedent of white people teaching Native children, and culturally responsive teaching and Native epistemology. We discussed theories by Vine Deloria Jr. and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (which I strongly recommend).

My learning also involved understanding the world of my students: The Reservation. The Rez is both a prison created by a federal government and my students’ ancestral homeland. It is a place of limited educational opportunity as well as the only place many of my students know. It is the world where my students would wake at dawn, do chores, ride the bus for an hour to school, learn all day, ride the hour home, do more chores, and finish their homework (if they had electricity). Education on the Rez has to look significantly different than the education I received in the suburbs of Indianapolis because it was happening in an entirely different world.

Learning about Rez Life (and not the kind I knew working with Housing as an undergrad) did not necessarily prepare me for the reality of living there. Driving through the Rez requires dodging horses in the road as well as Skinwalkers alongside it. I shared my backyard with a goat and two sheep until they were auctioned off. Our gym hosted pow wows, and our concession stand sold mutton and fry bed. My students flipped between Diné and Rez Talk (“Did you do your homework?” “Naaaaay, this class is all cheap.”)

My background in English helped me as a teacher, and not just with the content I was teaching. Each day I was communicating ideas to students, which required the ability to explain myself clearly and to understand how my students were interpreting my message. Outside of the traditional curriculum pieces of five-paragraph essays and understanding symbols, I could engage my students in conversations about how the words we use reflect and shape the world around us, which drew on my linguistic and literature courses. I also was able to share some of my favorite books, poems, and YouTube videos with them (admittedly, there was not much educational content in “What Does the Fox Say?”).

Teaching turned out to be much more difficult than I anticipated for a variety of reasons. After much reflection, I decided that I did not want to return to the classroom after my first year. With a heavy heart, I left New Mexico and returned to Indiana, living with a college roommate. I knew I wanted to apply to graduate school for Student Affairs programs, but the timeline of that required waiting until the spring. In the meantime, I was looking for work that would feel meaningful, but would not be as emotionally exhausting as teaching. I was hired at Starbucks and felt like I had achieved Peak English Major.

And the truth was that being an English major helped me be a better barista. Starbucks’ unusual sizing system, not to mention the complexity of different teas and espresso drinks, can be confusing to new customers, and my ability to clearly explain this to customers drew on skills I gained in classes at Ball State. The books I read for classes gave me a broad body of knowledge I could use to connect with customers and coworkers. I was a barista during Starbucks’ #RaceTogether initiative, and I was able to reference the diverse voices I experienced in my literature classes to advocate for more inclusive spaces and systems. I had wonderful conversations with my coworkers about Harry Potter and the Gay Headmaster, and the ways in which J. K. Rowling does or does not promote diversity at Hogwarts (my opinion: it’s good and important that she said Dumbledore is gay, but it would be better if that was explicit in the text). Plus, I got to use my teacher voice when I called out drinks.

I mention my short stint at Starbucks because it fulfills the jokey prophecy of English majors becoming baristas. What is missing from the joke, I think, is how fulfilling that work can be. My career plans went horribly awry, and I had to scramble to find the next right thing. I knew Starbucks would not be a Forever Job, and it turned out to be exactly what I needed at that time. I know I experienced the fear of being underemployed, both in the abstract as an undergrad thinking about the future and as the very real immediacy of leaving teaching. What I learned from that year between “careers” is that careers (and life) do not always go according to plan. I imagine my professors, advisers, and mentors told me this in some way, but it was not a message I internalize. Now in my capacity working with college students, I tell my career story—including my time working as a barista—to prepare them for the reality that plans and careers will change, and that is okay. English majors can have wonderful careers, and they can also have wonderful jobs as they are finding those wonderful careers.

In the fall of 2015, I started graduate school at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, IL. I am in the College Student Personnel program, which gives individuals the knowledge and skills for careers in the field of Student Affairs. As the courses require large amounts of reading and writing—both analytical and reflective—I feel very prepared from my background as an English major. Additionally, the content I learned in my English classes is useful. Higher education, like literature, reflects and influences the context in which it exists. The ideas of post-WWII society present in Slaughterhouse-Five are also present in the GI Bill and its effects on campuses.

In addition to the coursework, I also have an assistantship in University Housing, working in Academic Initiatives. In this position, I supervise Academic Peer Advocates, a student staff position which supports the academic success of our residents through programming, resource recommendations, and interventions. This position allows me to combine my teaching and Housing experiences. As academic struggle can often stem from more underlying issues—homesickness, financial stress, family troubles—a large part of preparing my APAs for their job is teaching them skills of listening to understand the residents, to pick up on subtle cues of larger issues, and support them appropriately. While they are working with people rather than texts, this is a direct application of the close reading skills honed in literature classes.

As the end of my graduate school career approaches in May, I am once again thinking about what is the next step in my career path. In a lot of ways, working in Housing is similar to being an English major: these are areas that do provide specific skills and knowledge, but the generalist nature of their scope allows these experiences to support a broad range of possibilities. Student Affairs is a limited field in that it is restricted to colleges and universities, but it is also very broad in that it encompasses various functional areas under its umbrella. At this point, I am not sure if my professional work will continue in Housing or explore a different area. I do know, however, that the skills I have developed along the way will prepare me for what’s next. These skills, whether directly or not, have their roots in my time as an English major at Ball State.



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