Although a recent study suggests that graduates with English degrees could find themselves unemployed, ten famous English majors offer evidence to the contrary. Instead of aiming solely for careers as academics and writers, today's successful English majors use their training to develop strong communication and critical thinking skills. With careers that span film, journalism, politics, and popular culture, the names on this list illustrate how a foundation in literature can lead to a highly influential life.
- Carol Browner, University of Florida (Gainesville, FL): As "climate czar" for the Obama administration, Carol Browner has helped politicians and business leaders commit to environmentally friendly policies. She has also collaborated on a number of environmental initiatives for the state of Florida and has helped negotiate drilling bans and land preservation deals. Before beginning her political career, however, Browner had an opportunity to advance her communication skills while earning a bachelor's degree English literature from the University of Florida. The university's English department emphasizes innovative thinking in all of its areas of academic emphasis. A few courses of study that English majors at the university can pursue include creative writing, children's literature, and film and media studies. UF's Center for Children's Literature and Culture allows students to dive deeper into the discipline by working on special projects with their peers or with writing professionals and by attending talks and other events about children's literature.
- Clarence Thomas, College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, MA): Associate Supreme Court Justice may not have enrolled as an English major out of a sheer fascination with literature. The Georgia native spoke Gullah while growing up and learned English as his second language. Justice Thomas has since told interviewers that he majored in English literature at the College of the Holy Cross as way to "conquer the language." The English Department at Holy Cross still helps students such as Thomas gain "mastery of written expression," along with an appreciation for how literary works help us sharpen our everyday communication. Students also have the option of concentrating their English degree in creative writing and further specializing in fiction, non-fiction, or poetry.
- Diane Sawyer, Wellesley College (Wellesley, MA): Winning the America's Junior Miss competition in 1963 earned Diane Sawyer a college scholarship, along with an opportunity to exceed the typical expectations of a pageant queen. During her time as an English major at Wellesley College, Sawyer refined the writing and communication skills that would support her future roles as a press room aide for President Nixon, the first female correspondent on 60 Minutes, and as a groundbreaking network news anchor on ABC's 20/20 and Good Morning America. Students in Wellesley's English program can follow in Sawyer's footsteps, drawing upon the works of great authors to break their own ground. Analysis of Asian American and Indian literature complements the study of English and American works. A number of degree tracks are available for students to shape their curriculum, including poetry, drama, fiction outside British and American traditions, the modern novel, the novel in English, and specific literary periods. Students can also concentrate their degree in creative writing and may take advantage of a number of sponsored editorial internships.
- Helen Thomas, Wayne State University (Detroit, MI): As a first-generation American born to Lebanese immigrants, Helen Thomas pursued her English degree at Wayne State University and progressed towards her career as a professional journalist. Thomas often covered political topics and went on to become the first woman assigned to the White House full-time by a news service and the first female member of the Gridiron Club, a journalistic organization. As it did with Thomas, Wayne State University's English Department extends its influence on today's students through dedication to undergraduate and graduate teaching and extensive publication. Undergraduates have the option of concentrating their degree in one of several disciplines, including Folklore, African American Studies, and Film Studies. The department also has excellent faculty, including one, Jaime Goodrich, who recently earned the prestigious Fulbright Award.
- Joyce Carol Oates, Syracuse University (Syracuse, NY): While still an undergraduate English major at Syracuse, Joyce Carol Oates won the Mademoiselle fiction contest, kicking off one of American writing's most productive careers. Oates' bibliography spans novels, short story collections, poetry, and nonfiction. On the suggestion that she may have produced too much work over the years, Oates told the Paris Review's Robert Phillips that "we all must write many books in order to achieve a few lasting ones." Syracuse's English Department honors Oates's work by offering a "Joyce Carol Oates Award" in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction to graduate students who produce outstanding literary works. The department also encourages its current undergraduate English majors to explore creative writing and literary excellence through media, with courses that include film and screen studies alongside traditional creative writing workshops.
- Mario Cuomo, St. John's University (Queens, NY): Before former New York Governor Mario Cuomo entered politics, he studied English at St. John's University. Cuomo applied his athletic skills and intellect at the school, playing college baseball, being voted Best All-Around Student, and graduating Summa Cum Laude. St. John's faculty continues to teach well-rounded and intelligent students such as Cuomo. Today's undergraduate English majors can pursue either a Bachelor of Arts in English or a joint program that leads to a B.A. in English and a Master of Business Administration. Along the way to earning their degree, students develop an advanced knowledge of literary study and hone their writing and critical reading skills.
- Michael Eisner, Denison University (Granville, OH): Entrepreneur, author, and former Disney CEO Michael Eisner developed a rounded view of world culture while studying English literature at Denison University. In a 2010 interview, Eisner told WSJ Magazine that he preferred to hire executives with exposure to "history and philosophy and language and art, and English and Russian literature." In Denison's small classes, students gain the kind of education that could impress business leaders such as Eisner. English majors examine texts from Britain, America, and other countries while honing their creative writing skills. Students can display their writing talent through the university's literary journals, including "Articulate" and "Exile Literary Magazine."
- Paul Simon, Queens College (Flushing, NY): When the early years of his band with Art Garfunkel failed to result in significant success, singer-songwriter Paul Simon pursued an English literature degree at Queens College. After graduating, Simon teamed back up with Garfunkel to produce a number of great works, including the soundtrack to The Graduate. With the motto "we learn so that we may serve," Queens College encourages English majors such as Simon to apply their analytical skills to their own creative works. Students can study a wide array of literary genres and time periods and can take specialized courses in subjects such as minority and ethnic literature. The school's overall mission is that graduates of the English program gain a sense of "how to read and articulate the culture in which they live."
- Renee Zellweger, The University of Texas at Austin (Austin, TX): While studying English at The University of Texas at Austin, Renee Zellweger went from waiting tables to acting in local film productions. The early years of her acting career brought her to Hollywood's attention, leading to fame for role in Jerry Maguire and acclaim for her Oscar-winning performance in Cold Mountain. The UT Department of English might not have Bridget Jones's Diary on its required reading lists, but its faculty's research, particularly that of Douglas Bruster, has earned attention from The New York Times, along with other notable publications. In addition to having acclaimed professors and a diverse curriculum, the English department has programs for aspiring actors such as Zellweger during her time at the university. "Shakespeare at Winedale," for example, gives students an opportunity to study and perform Shakespeare plays, and "Actors from the London Stage" allows students to watch classically trained actors from English theaters perform during a week-long residency.
- Susan Sarandon, The Catholic University of America (Washington, D.C.): While studying English at The Catholic University of America, Sarandon had no interest in acting. However, her acting career eventually took off, and she landed roles in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Dead Man Walking, among other movies. Today, CUA continues to educate talented individuals such as Sarandon through its English program. English majors enjoy access to faculty members with strong track records in publishing their own works, upholding a departmental "commitment to scholarship and teaching." Students passionate about the subject can join The CUA English Society or contribute to the CRUX Magazine for the Creative Arts. The school also offers joint majors in English and education for students who want to turn their love of English into a teaching career.
All ten of these famous English majors demonstrate how a sound liberal arts education can complement a variety of potential career choices. Whether you're drafting the script of a play or a shareholder's speech, your English degree can provide the insight you need to impress your audience.