English alumni carve unexpected paths to meaningful careers

Photo: Soreath Hok. Credit: Tomas Ovalle
Story by Jefferson Beavers, communication specialist, Department of English

In February 2023, the New Yorker magazine published a think piece entitled “The End of the English Major.” The article declared that enrollment in the humanities is in free-fall at colleges around the country.

For thousands of words over multiple pages, the article cites examples to illustrate a decade-long trend away from majors like English and history, in a movement toward more vocational fields. The magazine asks the question: What might it mean to graduate a college generation with less education in the human past than any that has come before?

Fresno State’s Department of English has a long history of alumni successes. These often include local, regional, and national accomplishments in teaching and publishing. They also include accomplishments in a wide and sometimes unexpected range of professional fields, showing that English majors often find unique ways to envision a career.

As a counterpoint to the New Yorker article, and to show that the humanities are alive and well at Fresno State, meet five English alumni who’ve gone on to successful careers outside of teaching or publishing. They include a public radio reporter, a school site librarian, a marketing specialist, an attorney, and a death care worker.

KVPR government affairs reporter Soreath Hok in studio at KVPR with a large mixing board, a microphone and a set of headphones on a table.
KVPR government affairs reporter Soreath Hok in studio at KVPR. Credit: Jefferson Beavers.

Soreath Hok

Degree: B.A. English Literature (2006) from Fresno State

Current job: Government affairs reporter, KVPR

Journalist Soreath Hok believes the English major is alive and thriving, and it can be “a great starting point for where you want to take your life.”

“In all the books we read, in all the poetry we hear, in all the audio you’re listening to, we’re always going to need thinkers and writers and doers,” she said, “and English is the path.”

With money initially on her mind, Hok started as a biology major at Fresno State. Her parents, who immigrated to the United States from Cambodia as refugees, suggested medical school as a career. “But it ended badly,” she said, laughing. “I’ve never been a huge math or science person, and I don’t know why I thought I would become one in college.”

Hok enjoyed reading, and she remembered always writing as a kid. Even though she didn’t know exactly what majoring in English might lead to, she decided to at least try something she enjoyed.

“It wasn’t for any sort of monetary value or promise,” she said. “But it turned out to be one of the most valuable decisions I’ve made. It’s one of those things where you don’t really know the value of it until you do it.”

Hok took a wide range of English courses, from Medieval literature to contemporary global literatures. She loved all the close readings of texts and the constant synthesis of ideas into concise essays. But it was her discovery of the campus radio station, 90.7 KFSR, that started to give shape to her campus experiences. She volunteered as an on-air host and quickly became music director, prompting her to add a minor in Media, Communications and Journalism just before graduation.

“I came into Fresno State as a totally shy and quiet kid,” Hok said. “I had mostly kept to myself. So I was really inspired by all the DJs who volunteered at KFSR. They all had such a style and a presence on air. I remember learning a lot just from listening to them.”

Hok became friends with a fellow student at the station, Frank Delgado, an MCJ major who’d been a DJ for several years and had worked his way up to program director. In hindsight, she said, Delgado turned out to be her most memorable mentor.

“When Frank D would put on a show, he had such a distinct personality and bravado when he was on air,” Hok said. “He was really one of the first people in my life who taught me how to present myself with confidence.”

After earning her English degree, Hok’s radio experience led to a trio of producer jobs in local television that lasted more than a decade. She wrote the evening news and curated newscasts daily for KMPH Fox 26 in Fresno; for KSEE 24, the NBC affiliate in Fresno; and for KCRA 3, the NBC affiliate in Sacramento.

Wanting a change of pace, Hok left TV news and tried advertising. She worked freelance as a copywriter, photo and video producer, and project manager. She started her own social media marketing company, where she created campaigns for small businesses. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, she moved back to Fresno to help her parents run their doughnut shop, Sprinkles Donuts. (The shop’s Instagram is a delectable treat.)

Then, just a few months after returning to Fresno, a reporter position opened up at Valley Public Radio. It soon belonged to Hok.

“My past has been a long, winding scenic route to come back to radio,” she said. “I did the things I was really passionate about, and that was always a prerequisite. I went where my heart told me.”

A typical day for Hok could include researching, interviewing, sound gathering, audio mixing, writing, and studio recording. Since KVPR is a small station, she produces her stories from start to finish, from idea creation to the finished news stories and features that appear on air and on the station’s website.

Hok’s coverage of government affairs extends into politics, public policy, education, health care, and the environment. She won a 2022 national Edward R. Murrow Award for reporting on student attendance, engagement, and learning early in the pandemic. And she produced a 5-part series on the multi-generational mental health issues facing Cambodian American refugees and their families after fleeing the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.

The mental health series, which was part of a fellowship with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, pushed Hok into ambitious new territory. For the first time, she struggled with navigating the norms of traditional objectivity that journalists typically use when reporting. She realized her storytelling would this time have to be inspired and driven by her own personal experience and cultural knowledge.

“I had to make that shift,” she said. “I had to consciously break from objectivity, to speak about the subject from a place of authority that I knew other people didn’t have, and the stories came out better for it.”

In all her work, Hok said she leans heavily on the writing and communication skills she first learned reading novels and poems in her English classes. She hopes to someday teach at the college level, and she continues to expand her storytelling skills, including writing more personal narratives in the style of creative nonfiction.

“[The English major] was the foundation,” she said. “Every day, I take in a lot of information, complex ideas and themes, and synthesize that information to make my case or tell a story, sometimes in just a few sentences. It really taught me how to think for myself, and how to present what I see to the world.”

Library technician Matty Hernandez in the library of West Fresno Middle School.
Library technician Matty Hernandez in the library of West Fresno Middle School. Credit: Jefferson Beavers.

Matty Hernandez

Degree: B.A. English Education (2022) from Fresno State

Current job: Library technician, West Fresno Middle School

All her life, Matty Hernandez has felt the societal push to go into science, technology, engineering, or math. Two of her three older sisters work in STEM fields — one is an accountant, and the other is a radiologic technologist and aspiring nurse.

But after finishing her bachelor’s degree in English education and working for a year as a school site library technician, Hernandez now sees a clear path forward: She can imagine herself one day becoming a teacher librarian.

“Everything’s so focused on STEM and computers,” Hernandez said. “But I’ve always felt the humanities are really important. I’ve learned so much just reading and thinking about different perspectives. There’s something for everyone, and I wish that was talked about more as a positive.”

Like many English majors, Hernandez initially chose her major not because of a career plan, but simply because she liked reading. When she got to Fresno State, she was immediately inspired by the teaching of her English professors, and she especially enjoyed all of their fascinating focus areas.

She loved Dr. Ashley Foster’s focus on the digital humanities, and her deep expertise on the life and writings of British author Virginia Woolf.

She loved the late Dr. Steve Adisasmito-Smith’s focus on world literatures, and his breadth of knowledge about little-known authors. “Dr. Steve expanded my mind,” Hernandez said.

And she loved Dr. John Hales’s senior topics class on Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” the epic 400-page American novel that has struck fear into the hearts of even the most dedicated of student readers for generations.

“I still have our class picture and the little certificate Dr. Hales gave us that says we read ‘Moby-Dick,’” Hernandez said. “Just reading that book with him, he made it amazing, he made it fun. Now it’s one of my favorite books of all time.”

Hernandez has always admired her teachers. She has also always admired librarians, especially the librarians she met at a young age at the Selma Branch of the Fresno County Public Library.

Her older sisters and parents would take her into the Selma library to get books. She remembers checking out her favorite book over and over again — “The Stinky Cheese Man,” a collection of postmodern parodies of classic fairy tales, written by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Lane Smith. Hernandez also loved checking out the old-fashioned audio books for kids, and listening to them on the big headphones right there inside the library.

So when she finished her bachelor’s degree at Fresno State and didn’t have enough observation hours yet to apply for the English teaching credential program, Hernandez started looking for non-instructional teaching jobs all over Fresno County. That’s when she found an opening for a library technician in Washington Unified School District in southwest Fresno.

Many English alumni from Fresno State have gone on to successful library careers over the years. And recent studies have shown that California lags far behind other states on librarian-to-student ratio in secondary schools, opening up even more possibilities for those interested in library jobs of all kinds.

While many school site librarian positions require a master’s degree or a professional certificate in library studies — like the Master of Library and Information Science degree program at San José State, or the online Library Technology Studies certificate program at Fresno City College — the Washington Unified job only listed that qualification as “preferred,” not required.

Hernandez decided to take a shot. She applied. Then, she got an interview. Then, a second interview with the superintendent. Then, she got the job.

“I think it was specifically because of my English education degree from Fresno State,” she said. “I felt prepared, and I love the library. I think they really liked what I had to say.”

From day one, managing her own library space at a small rural middle school, Hernandez has faced challenges. The biggest: old books. She said her school had a lot of empty shelves for months when she arrived, as books from the 1980s and earlier were being cycled out by the library specialists at the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools office.

Then, because orders for new books were slow in arriving, Hernandez did her best to always have “little stuff” ready to keep students engaged — educational board games, comic books, e-books on computers. As shipments of new books began to arrive, she started unpacking boxes and rebuilding and organizing the school’s collection one shelf at a time.

Full classes have now been coming in more often to visit and check out books, and Hernandez is particularly proud of her new and growing section of literary graphic novels.

“I want this to feel like a safe place for students to come in, hang out,” she said. “From what I’ve seen, it feels like not a lot of kids are reading as much these days, and I really hope to change that. Everyone can read, they just need to learn what they like.”

Hernandez will start the English teaching credential program this fall at Fresno State. Once complete, she said she might try teaching in her own classroom for a few years. But she knows that more schooling in library science is likely in her future, to become the teacher librarian she hopes to someday become.

“You know the stereotypes, right? English majors are just going to work at Starbucks,” Hernandez said. “But it’s like, we have to work extra hard to get where we want to go. So for me, if that means a lot of school, then I’ll do it because school is something I enjoy.”

“If you’re an English major, and you already know it’s something you love, you’ll find a way to do it,” she said.

Nou Her, Marketing Specialist for WestCare.
Nou Her, Marketing Specialist for WestCare. Credit: Jefferson Beavers.

Nou Her

Degree: B.A. English Literature (2016) and MFA Creative Writing (2020) from Fresno State

Current job: Marketing specialist, WestCare

Never in Nou Her’s wildest dreams would she have thought she’d have a fledgeling career in marketing. In fact, she feels like she spent her three years of graduate school at Fresno State discovering what she did not want to do — and that was getting a job in teaching or publishing.

“Although I loved my students, the aspect of being in front of a classroom was draining for me,” Her said. “And although I enjoyed talking about writing and the whole workshop atmosphere, I also couldn’t see myself in a career that focused on other people’s writing.”

She finally realized: “I want a job that would actually let me write!”

Her started her studies at Fresno State as a pre-psychology major, hoping it would provide a more vocational path than English. But after completing the core coursework, she discovered she had little desire to continue. She got the feeling she had learned enough about the subject.

“This feeling was never something I experienced with the English major,” she said. “I always felt like there were things I was curious about and wanted to learn more about.”

With the expense of higher education, Her doesn’t fault others for being strategic about their major choices. She said people just don’t know that studying English means much more than grammar critiques, big words, and “classic” books written by white men.

“The moments of my English major that impacted me the most were conversations about feminism, classism, racism,” Her said. “And as more years pass since my graduation date, I also realize how less important my major is compared to the skills I’ve gained during and since. Your major really does just become a drop in the ocean of who you are as a person, and that’s meant to be a relieving thought.”

Her credits two on-campus job experiences with deeply shaping how she viewed her desire to write and herself as a creator: working for three years as a tutor in the Writing Center, and working for two years as an editorial student assistant in the Creative Writing Program office.

Her said her most memorable mentor was Kirk Stone, an English instructor and the Writing Center’s assistant director. They’ve had many conversations over the years about understanding a writer’s goals and seeing the many potentials in a piece of writing.

“Kirk convinced me there’s no one way to achieve something,” she said, “and even in writing, in the genre we write in, the timing, the content, all of it is simply a choice or aspect of a larger picture and goal.”

Her said the Writing Center’s general philosophy is something like: We work with writers, not the writing; so, to change the writing, you change the writer.

“On some days, this felt really frustrating because it meant there wasn’t really a ‘correct’ way to write,” she said. “But in hindsight, I believe it has shaped me in how I approach many of my creative works, whether personally or professionally.”

Her’s time in the Creative Writing Program office, managing the day-to-day operations of The Normal School magazine and helping produce English Department communications and events, also gave her insight into the behind-the-scenes efforts and various aspects of project management. She even had the freedom to create and produce her own interview series and podcast series, neither of which she’d imagined doing before.

“Working in the creative writing office gave me a comprehensive breadth and understanding of all the pieces that go into [a project] as it comes to fruition,” she said.

Her graduated in May 2020 at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and she struggled to find work. As unemployment soared and workers shifted jobs, she found entry-level positions either eliminated or taken by someone with more work experience.

Her first landed a copywriter job with the nonprofit Valley Animal Center. During her year and a half there, she said social media marketing and content marketing opened up to her, and she was immersed in producing a high volume of podcasts, videos, blog posts, email campaigns, and more.

“Everything tapped into the writer in me that enjoyed curating and sharing things with an audience,” she said. “The creative and storytelling aspects of video projects and campaigns gave me just enough excitement without feeling overwhelmed.”

During this time, Her began exercising her English major skills daily. She produced a ton of imperfect writing, just like the Writing Center taught her, and then returned to it for revision and editing. Her level of audience awareness heightened, as did her organizational skills.

“It’s kind of basic, but always thinking ‘Who is this for?’ really grounds a lot of my thoughts and creative choices,” Her said. “Marketing itself is a lot of being people-centric and understanding and identifying what moves someone, while also being aware that what works for one audience may not necessarily work for another audience.”

In December 2022, Her got a new job with WestCare, a nonprofit foundation that offers programs across the continuum of health and human services. She currently serves as the organization’s marketing specialist for all of California and Nevada, on a communications team of three that’s based in the Fresno office.

Many of Her’s day-to-day tasks are similar to her previous job, but on a much larger scale. She said it has been challenging and exciting to learn how to manage such a wealth of projects and stories from across two states.

“I didn’t think I would ever end up in marketing,” she said. “I’m still not quite sure how I’d like to continue to grow in this field, but I’m enjoying the journey so far.”

Supervising attorney Rosalina Nuñez using her English literature degree for Senior Legal Services.
Supervising attorney Rosalina Nuñez using her English literature degree for Senior Legal Services. Credit: Jefferson Beavers.

Rosalina Nuñez

Degree: B.A. English Literature (2004) from Fresno State

Current job: Supervising attorney, Senior Legal Services

Attorney Rosalina Nuñez believes every English major is a storyteller, and telling stories will never die.

“It’s not just punctuation, grammar, and linguistics,” she said. “It’s reading, critical thinking, and interpretation. You can travel with an English major, travel without leaving your house. You learn culture, you learn traditions, and that’s how we pass things on. My English degree works for me every single day.”

Studying literature and telling stories was admittedly the furthest thing from Nuñez’s mind after she graduated from high school. She decided to go to trade school for dental assisting. She was wearing scrubs to work and initially felt like an important part of the medical field.

“Three months later I thought, there’s no way I can do this for the rest of my life,” Nuñez said, laughing at the memory. “Then for a minute I thought, maybe I don’t want to be the dental assistant, I want to be the dentist?”

She enrolled at Fresno State as a health science major. She joined the pre-dental club. But she struggled in her science classes from the start. Extra time with instructors helped, and she loved being on campus, but she still felt like she was barely surviving the courses after several years.

All along, Nuñez had been taking English classes she “didn’t need” because she enjoyed reading. One day she met with a guidance counselor who looked closely at her class credits and they made an unexpected discovery.

“The counselor said, ‘why are you taking all these English classes?’ And I said, ‘because I love them,’” Nuñez said. “I loved the interaction. I loved hearing everyone else’s opinions, how they interpreted what we were reading, and how it was so different from my interpretation.”

The counselor counted up all Nuñez’s English credits and told her: You’re pretty close to graduating. So it turned out Nuñez was majoring in English before she knew she was majoring in English.

As an added bonus, while she finished her bachelor’s degree in English, Nuñez continued working as a dental assistant, which she could now see as a temporary job that paid her rent, provided health insurance, and kept her self-sufficient.

Nuñez’s most memorable mentor was Dr. Suzanne Kehde, a literature instructor and attorney who made her feel like she belonged and that her writing was important.

“No pun intended, but she could read me,” Nuñez said. “She was really excited to hear what I was going to say.”

She remembers an assignment in one of Dr. Kehde’s classes to write a 10-minute play and perform it. The topic was happiness, and students could interpret the topic in any way.

Nuñez wrote a short play inspired by the Rupert Holmes song “Escape,” better known as the piña colada song. It focused on an old married couple who were bored with their lives, but who reconnect during an extended dance scene that included flashbacks, apple juice as a stand-in for beer, and lots and lots of glitter.

“All the plays were so creative and different,” Nuñez said. “It was so much fun doing that play, and I’ve never done anything like it since.” 

Despite doing well in her English classes, Nuñez sensed that teaching might not be for her. She liked working as a tutor in the Writing Center for the community it provided, but she said she was bad at the actual tutoring. And she sensed that her fellow tutors — especially the graduate students — were struggling with envisioning what they were going to do for jobs after college.

“I thought, I can’t do a master’s degree and not know where it’s going to take me,” Nuñez said. 

So she considered studying law, like Dr. Kehde. Nuñez attended a forum at San Joaquin College of Law in Clovis, and she immediately felt dazzled. The suits, the briefcases, the law students and their internship stories — she started to imagine herself on this path.

For a year, Nuñez worked a desk job answering phones and running errands for an immigration attorney. Even though it was not part of her job, she spent a lot of time reading and studying the legal briefs, tracking the stories as they unfolded. She knew she wouldn’t be answering phones for long.

A year later, she enrolled in law school. One of her first internships was for a criminal defense attorney. Nuñez was assigned to scour pages and pages of text messages between parties in a sexual assault trial. “I felt like Matlock,” she said, sleuthing for clues. She discovered a crucial piece of evidence deep in the transcripts, and her attorney printed big poster boards of the text conversation to use at trial. The jury found their client not guilty.

“It was just me, reading, snooping, thinking,” Nuñez said. “It was research, and I loved it. I could not get enough of it.”

Nuñez went on to open her own practice in Fresno and Madera, which she’s run for more than a decade. She practiced bankruptcy, disability, and family law, which all included digging for details that helped her clients, carefully annotating her discoveries at every step and writing up a plan. Then she had to decide: Is this enough evidence to bring a case to court? Is this enough to win? How will I argue?

“It’s really exciting to be able to research and write and present your case,” she said. “It’s all written, and you need an English degree for that.”

Recently, Nuñez decided to wind down her Fresno practice. She started working as one of two supervising attorneys for Senior Legal Services in Santa Cruz. The legal nonprofit helps seniors with issues such as landlord-tenant disputes, elder abuse, consumer debt, and fraud. The work includes conversations with clients, collaboration with the nonprofit’s team, and of course lots of writing and court time.

“I want to help people,” Nuñez said. “Now, I get a client in the office, and I don’t have to worry about how they are going to pay the fees. I can take cases I would never have been able to as a solo practitioner. The cases happen very quickly, and we get lots of wins. There are lots of good stories every single week.”

Laura Musselman, outreach and engagement manager for the Humane Prison Hospice project.
Laura Musselman, outreach and engagement manager for the Humane Prison Hospice project. Credit: Jefferson Beavers.

Laura Musselman

Degree: B.A. Philosophy (2007) and MFA Creative Writing (2010) from Fresno State

Current job: Outreach and engagement manager, Humane Prison Hospice Project

Laura Musselman works in death care. She believes the humanities are vital to who we are, even when the capitalistic world of hustle culture doesn’t.

“Things have value when we give them value,” she said. “I certainly hope there are English majors out there who feel the same, who understand the importance of the written word, the value of passing down stories, of communicating the complexities of the human experience. Perhaps it’s more important now than ever.”

As an undergraduate at Fresno State, Musselman initially gravitated toward teaching. She remembers a philosophy class with Dr. Michael Wolf, where he delivered passionate and humorous lectures on incredibly complex topics. And she remembers a creative writing workshop with Dr. Lillian Faderman, who trusted her as a reader and believed in her writing.

“This was really the first time I thought, ‘Maybe teaching is something I would enjoy’” she said.

Immersing herself in the Master of Fine Arts graduate program, Musselman found a supportive network of mutual mentoring and creativity. One instructor would say: “You can’t just write an essay about a brick wall.” While the next would imagine the response: “Well, why not?”

She discovered the beauty of poetry, learning that her own writing lives somewhere between an essay and a poem. Her privilege was challenged in essential ways, opening her mind to writers and perspectives that she “desperately needed to shut up and listen to.” And she made dear friends who remain, to this day, her most trusted readers and some of her favorite people.

Not long after she finished her MFA degree, Musselman’s parents died. She said she found herself in a surreal and isolating moment — in her 20s, parentless, and not knowing as much about death and dying as she felt she should.

“The truth is, death has always captivated me, even from a young age,” she said. “It’s the biggest mystery to me. I was fascinated that it was a question no one could answer, and that’s partially how I wound up with a philosophy degree in the first place.”

Musselman was teaching English as an adjunct faculty at Fresno City College, but then a colleague invited her to teach philosophy as well. While teaching an ethics course, she learned about the Humane Prison Hospice Project, a Bay Area-based organization whose mission is to transform the way incarcerated people die through education, advocacy, and training that supports fellow incarcerated persons as caregivers and grief companions.

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, they’re really putting their values into action,’” she said, “and suddenly that’s what I wanted to do.”

Musselman trained as an end-of-life doula and devoted a lot of time to volunteering her time with hospice patients. She said she wanted to soak up every lesson she possibly could sitting at the bedside, trying to learn more about death and dying while making important connections.

Death care is a burgeoning field, Musselman learned. She began thinking a lot about the idea of a “good death” and how coveted that is.

“It’s a privilege to die well, to have access to compassionate care given by people you feel you can trust,” she said. “But dying well shouldn’t be a privilege; it’s an essential human right. We will all go through it. So then, how do we make a ‘good death’ equitable? How do we ensure access to comfort, autonomy, and community at what is perhaps the most vulnerable time in a human life?”

In her outreach manager job for the Humane Prison Hospice Project, Musselman mostly works remotely. While traveling across California for her work, she uses her English major skills daily for tasks such as copy editing grant proposals, drafting newsletters, and communicating with a wide variety of people such as advocates, death care workers, and correctional staff. While on the road, she also conducts needs assessments at various sites and facilitates end-of-life care training sessions inside correctional facilities.

Locally, Musselman also facilitates training sessions for patient care and vigil volunteers at Hinds Hospice. And with a colleague, she also provides end-of-life care training and grief support to a compassionate, dedicated group of “comfort care” volunteers at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla.

Musselman has discovered that crafting narratives for the people she works with has become the trickiest part of her job.

“Most people I come across in my work are, understandably, suffering from some degree or another of death anxiety or existential suffering,” she said. “Composing the story of a life helps make meaning, and this is incredibly valuable.”

The process of composing the story of a life reminds Musselman a little of a peer workshop in an English class — sometimes it’s helpful to have other eyes on the page, to help catch something you might not have seen on your own.

“It’s dismally easy, I think, to sit in the driver’s seat of your life and feel like, ‘Well, so what?’” she said. “To be able to tell the story of who you are, who you’ve been, who you hoped to become, though, sheds a light on corners of our lives we may have forgotten, or previously thought unimportant.”

Musselman still thinks a lot about teaching English and philosophy, and she misses it. She knows that careers in academia and publishing are as hard as ever to break into. She has also realized a new truth: She still teaches, just a very different subject and in slightly different ways.

“It’s hard to survive on these paths,” Musselman said. “I don’t blame anyone for seeking a different course of study, even if their passion lies elsewhere. If you’re an English major, you’re already one of the creative ones, and that’s the good news. That creativity will spawn any number of professional paths if you’re open to them. There are endless stories begging to be told.”

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