Using an English Degree to Lead to Philanthropy [Q&A]

This is a Q&A with Jonathan Schill. 

You graduated with an English degree, why did you choose to major in English?

Throughout most of High School, I was sure I wanted to be an English Professor and a creative writer on the side. Talking about books and how different people find different meaning in them continues to fascinate me so I thought that a job talking about books with undergrads sounded like the coolest thing ever. My freshman roommate and I may have been the first two students to formally declare our majors that year (he was similarly set on a degree in Chemistry).

As I moved through the Hamline English Major, I discovered a love for Literary Theory, in large part because of my developing sense of racial identity and a simultaneously growing sense of frustration that “I” was not reflected in the texts we were studying. Lit Theory (specifically Jermaine Singleton’s Lit Theory class) gave me a way in and kept me engaged in the work.

What did you gain having an English degree?

The Hamline English degree helped me hone my critical thinking skills and to read for more than the obvious signifiers presented in a text. It also helped me learn to express the meaning I found in a coherent, more or less accessible way.

In general, I think Liberal Arts schools do a good job of helping students develop their whole selves. While I had the most fun in English classes that revolved around Literary Theory, having some formal writing training has helped me a lot in the business world—no one cares what you think about Charlotte Bronte’s social subversion if you take 400 words of superfluous language to explain it.

How have you used said degree?

One of my high school teachers liked to tell us “college is not a trade school” and that we should go to study what we want to learn more about. I’ve always loved the approach that education is a means of bettering ourselves. Then I graduated during a recession and saw some of my friends get hit hard with student debt. Some of the idealism around my college degree faded and any job that paid a living wage looked good.

My first job was in Financial Aid at a college and I used the practical communication skills of my English degree a lot. Primarily, it was in explaining unfamiliar concepts clearly and concisely and, often, re-explaining them to better suit my “audience” in order to achieve understanding. This certainly isn’t a skill specific to an English Degree.

In my personal life, I get much more out of books and media than I otherwise might. Reading for narrative patterns and literary references, known or unknown, is really fun to me.

Have you faced any issues/obstacles having an English degree? Because sometimes people claim an English degree isn’t conducive to finding work.

I am a believer that talented, driven people will succeed in life and a degree of any kind neither fully prepares a person for their dream job nor entitles them to it. I was sought out for my last two jobs because I worked on building a skill set to make myself valuable and I continually look for ways to challenge myself. Without trying to generalize (because everyone’s experience is valid within their context and people are made of intersecting identities), I would say that anyone who blames a Hamline English degree for their difficulty in finding work needs to re-evaluate what both their obstacles and expectations are.

Without turning this into a rant, we get out of a Liberal Arts education what we put into it. I should also make clear that I am not touting the tired line that “anyone can succeed if they just work hard enough.” A lot of people have (and have always had) considerable obstacles that can really hinder academic performance and/or just the energy available to put into college, no matter how hard they work and positions of  privilege beget privilege. I’m guilty of complaining about my degree making it hard to find work from time to time but I also recognize, now, that the Major is only one piece of a college experience. Courses outside the major, extra-curriculars, and life experience make someone a value-add to any space. I’m not pointing fingers—I’ve definitely lamented my degree not teaching me how to change my own oil or really confidently complete a tax return. But that isn’t what it is there for.

What are you currently doing?

Currently, I am the Development Manager at Headwaters Foundation for Justice. I’ve gone from my dream being to talk with students about books to talking with members of the community about social justice Philanthropy and movement building.

Before this, I worked at InFaith Community Foundation as a Donor Services Administrator. I drafted charitable fund agreements and did charity research for donors on a national level. Half-jokingly, I referred to this job as the ideal use of my English Major and Religion Minor.

Outside of my day job, I am the co-chair for the Minnesota chapter of Asian-Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, I serve on the board of AK Connection, which provides programming for adult Korean-Adoptees in the Twin Cities, and am on the Core Team for the Giving Project through Headwaters Foundation.

How has your educational background helped you with what you’re doing now?

Apart from the communication skills gained from the Hamline English Major, my student leadership gave me a very solid foundation in event planning and organizing to draw from. Additionally, and this isn’t specific to the Hamline English program or a skill I developed, when you meet a new person and tell them you were an English Major, they often have something to say about that. Whether it’s good or bad, it is a conversation starter and, if not exchanging ideas with each other, what are we doing?

How did your background at Hamline help you in your career path? What do you wish you would have done additionally or differently?

I was pretty heavily involved with the MISA Office (now the Hedgeman Center) and the Fulcrum Journal as an undergrad. The coursework gave me the formal skills and the degree required for the jobs I have had and the outside work helped me apply those skills (organization, critical thinking) in a hands-on way in a more or less safe environment. That background and the Hamline ethic of participating in extra-curricular activities have helped me a great deal.

My list of things I wish I had done differently is going to take the form of a mildly preachy list of advice:

  1. Study abroad. I had more time and energy in college than I thought I did.
  2. Be nicer to support staff. Shamefully, I went through most of undergrad thinking I was destined for greatness and everyone around me was a supporting player. I was a bright enough student but not nearly to the point of having that much attitude—no one is. I like to think I am pretty awesome now and much of who I am today is the result of some very patient folks willing to put up with my bullshit.
  3. Take General Chemistry. I took one of the science classes for non-science majors and it was great but I wish I had challenged myself more.
  4. Take better advantage of a Liberal Arts environment in general. I had and continue to have a lot of privilege which included the option and ability to take coursework outside my focus area and fail hard at it. I didn’t take those opportunities. This was less pragmatism and more cowardice, I think.
  5. Do all the reading. See reasoning for #1.

What advice do you have for current students wanting to pursue similar work to yourself?

Think about what your passions are and where you get your energy from. Social Justice/Systems Change Philanthropy is not glamorous and, done right, requires a lot of introspection and willingness to challenge (and change) oneself. I find it incredibly rewarding but there are rough days.

Grow your community. This is different from networking. If the folks you are hanging out with all look and think like you, it’s harder to grow as a person.aapip-training

Don’t burn bridges. This is generally a good approach but is especially true in the Philanthropic field in Minnesota—you will run into people repeatedly and in varying roles.

Learn to network meaningfully. I make a point to do my best to meet with any emerging professional for informational interviews (especially out of staters and people of color). It took me a while to learn the value of networking because it can feel transactional and disingenuous. In a nutshell, networking should be about figuring out what you (or someone you know) can build with a new person, not what you can get from them.

Email me (Jon@Headwatersfoundation.org). There is no degree in Philanthropy (I don’t think there should be) and it can be an amorphous concept. Like I said, I make a point to try my hardest to meet with the next round of leaders.


Jon Schill grew up in Eugene, Oregon and lived in Nampa, Idaho and Flagstaff, Arizona before moving to St. Paul to attend Hamline University. While at Hamline, he was active in the Asian Pacific American Coalition, Fusion, Multicultural Alliance, and the Fulcrum Literary Journal. He’ll be returning to Hamline November 30 to be on the Fusion Panel. He received his BA in English in 2009. After a brief stint as a Financial Aid Officer, he found himself in the Foundations world and currently works as the Development Manager at Headwaters Foundation for Justice.

Jon is passionate about community, story-telling, and building equitable relationships. Outside of Headwaters, Jon serves on the board of AK Connection, a non-profit that works with Korean-Adoptees in the Twin Cities area and as co-chair of the Minnesota Chapter of Asian American/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP). He lives in Minneapolis with his cat where he enjoys baking, science fiction novels, and writing when he has the time.

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