When you were 17, what did you want to be?
Honestly I did not have a plan, which was not the intent of my high school. We had this program called Thumbprint, and it was meant to be a very individual, reflective exercise. It would ask you what you wanted to do in a year, in 5 years. I thought it was kind of ridiculous because I didn’t know what I wanted to do in a week, so asking me my five-year plan…(laughs).
Back then I was a Goth, full makeup, shopped at Hot Topic. I was really just trying to create my own identity. And my parents were actually very supportive through all of this. I’ve also always really been into television, but I actually use it as a tool to learn. Anytime something shows up that I don’t know a lot about, I look it up – it’s much easier these days with the internet. But I watched far too many movies and television, The Simpsons, the Indiana Jones movies – I’ll forever love them - silly things like Never Been Kissed, or Blow Dry, which is a movie about competitive hairstyling starring Alan Rickman. It was fantastic.
I played the violin back then; I was not a fan of doing it, but my dad always thought that musical education was really important. I was also really into theater in those days, and definitely a big reader. At one point I was kind of over my high school, so I went back to the public high school. I went for one week, and I was so irritated that in English class you got a big textbook and you’d only get excerpts from a book. It was like, “No, this is not the way you’re supposed to do it.” So I went right back.
How did you decide to attend Hampshire College?
Because I was so irritated with high school at times, I looked for schools that allowed you to skip your senior year and go directly to college. But at the time I really did not believe in doing homework. If I saw it as busy work, I just wouldn’t do it. So my grades were not great. Hampshire basically wrote a letter back and said, if you get your grades up, you’ll get admitted. So I started doing my homework.
What is something you wish people knew about Hampshire?
There were a few things that I really loved about Hampshire. On a totally superficial level, something like 90% of the rooms were singles and I was all about that. But on a deeper level, at Hampshire you have to shape your own education. You do have an advisor and there are some basic categories that you have to fulfill. But I knew that if I was really going to succeed in school, I needed to be interested in everything I was doing. So this seemed like the best chance to be doing that and not be forced into taking certain 101 courses I would feel are really boring.
And at the time, and it’s probably still true, Hampshire always came in as the number one Birkenstock-wearing, tree-hugging school. It was just a really relaxed school in a lot of ways. I really loved it.
How did you choose your major?
I went in thinking I wanted to study how religion shaped governments, so I was taking a lot of courses that could lead into that. After you finish Division 1, Division 2 is when you find professors who you think are aligned with what you’re interested in. I took a term off because I didn’t really know what I wanted to study at that point.
My mom gave me a book called Food and History, by Reay Tannahill, and I LOVED it. I had always really been into food and history, and I just love trivia. Like, if I remember it correctly, the original wines were actually made with cherries, not with grapes. So when I got back, because Hampshire was part of the Five College Consortium with Amherst, UMass Amherst, Mt. Holyoke, and Smith, you could take courses at any of them. UMass had a course on Italian Gastronomy 1500-1700, and that just really started to inspire me. And I was just taking other courses about the Renaissance, and I decided to learn about the spice trade during that age. I found that I had a knack for writing fiction, so I decided to combine all that into historical fiction: Fire-Breathing Peacocks: The Cuisine and Cookery Manuals of the Italian Renaissance. It was a series of vignettes, separated by season, and there were four characters and each one had a specific focus. One had to do with how at that time they thought food impacted the body because they still believed in the humours, so it was balancing bile with mucus. There was preparation of a wedding feast and other things. I probably should have worked on it more and tried to get it published, but by the time I was done with it, I was just really sick of it.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
Initially, I actually worked in the meat department of a supermarket. I don’t think I was particularly good at that job - I was pretty terrible at identifying the different cuts of meat. I knew that I wanted to move to a city with one of my best friends, and she couldn’t move until the summer, so I needed a job for a shorter period of time.
My best friend and I decided to move to Chicago, and at that point I ended up at Starbucks. I worked my way up to shift supervisor, and I had originally been on the manager track for two and a half years, but that failed to come to fruition and I was just getting really frustrated. I knew I needed to do something else, but again, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. My family had kind of convinced me that a law degree was very flexible. And when I took job placement tests it tended to be psychologist, which is what my mom is, and lawyer, which is what my dad and a whole bunch of other family members are.
I got into DePaul University College of Law, and it turns out I absolutely despised it. I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that your entire grade comes down to one test. That’s not how life works, especially if it’s closed book. And they used the Socratic method, and each time that happened I pretty much had a panic attack and would forget everything, so I seemed like an idiot. And the thing that really got to me was a rape case we went over in criminal law. There was a woman who drove this guy home late at night, and he took the keys out of the car and made her go inside with him. Some of the other students were saying that she shouldn’t have driven him home, and I was just livid.
And learning that law has to be taken so literally - there was one case where a guy had a bunch of child pornography, but because the law referred to it as a book and he had individual photos, his conviction had been overturned. I just thought, “I really don’t want any part of this.”
Before I had gone to law school, I had considered going into a library program, so I went ahead and applied to the University of Illinois Graduate School program in Library and Information Sciences. And I loved it; I absolutely loved every course I took. I took a cataloguing course, so I learned how to input books into different library systems. I LOVE the Dewey Decimal System. I realized that people hate searching for things. My self-motto became, “if you can’t find it, it’s next to useless.”
I needed a job, and Upworthy was a site that would routinely show up on my Facebook feed, and I liked what they were doing, so I looked on their website, and they actually had a Business Intelligence Research Fellow position. The main job was that Upworthy didn’t want to work with companies, either through a page sponsorship or working on an article together, that went against their values. Walmart is a good example, or companies that do weapons manufacturing. We would collect information about these companies, put it in a document, and ultimately give it a rating.
I was trying to finish my degree by the end of the summer, so I decided to take 8 credits in 8 weeks, and in the middle of it, my manager left and they asked me to take over. So doing 8 credit hours and full-time job is…I didn’t sleep a lot that summer. I offered to take over a data visualization program called Tableau, and through that I was really able to start shaping my job in a more significant way. It was like going back to Hampshire, like, “This interests me, can I do it?”
I worked there until February . There had been a merger, and there were lay-offs. It’s kind of weird but it’s like when you’re dating someone, and you know you want to break up with them but they get to it first. It was difficult, but I’d wanted out for a while just because it really was a depressing job. And I still really like Upworthy’s mission, so at no point was I angry with them.
I took this as an opportunity to start doing something different. Someone at Upworthy was doing a similar remote-work program, and it just seemed like a good way for me to have my life be more interesting. I am on the job hunt, and it’s a little hard because the job at Upworthy, one of my managers referred to it as a “snowflake job,” because there’s nothing like that out there. So it’s hard to know what I want to do next. I’ve been doing research for a few different organizations, and then I had an idea for a book about cults, so I’m just starting to work all that out.
I learned that one of the reasons why it’s hard for me to figure out my next move is because a lot of stuff interests me, so it’s hard to pick a specific path. I would rather learn a decent amount about a specific subject, and then move on to the next, rather than become an expert. An interdisciplinary approach, I think a lot of people are missing that.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
Basically, other people’s opinions of you really don’t matter. You want to be a good person, but you’re not going to get along with everybody. And that doesn’t matter so much. And wanting everybody’s approval can give you a certain amount of anxiety. One of the things I appreciate about getting older, is really coming to that realization. You’re gonna do embarrassing things, you’re gonna do stuff that you really wish you hadn’t in hindsight, but you just have to be okay with it. Because you can’t go back and change anything; you can just try to learn from it.
During the summer between 9th and 10th grade, I went to this German language immersion camp in Minnesota, and that was the first time I’d been surrounded by a bunch of really dorky, nerdy people. There had always been individuals in my class, but this was the first time there were a lot of them. And I realized I’m not alone in this, it’s okay to be this. I am a shy person, and especially in the beginning, I can be a little awkward. I do have a dry sense of humor, which doesn’t always go over so well. But it’s hard to keep up the façade of trying to be what you think somebody wants you to be. Just let yourself be yourself.