When you were 17, what did you want to be?
I really wanted to write, but, at that age, I already knew that it was unrealistic to make money doing that. So I shut myself down on that. I thought being an editorial assistant and working my way up in publishing seemed feasible. But if I was letting myself dream, I wanted to write, which is also what I wanted to do as a 5-year-old.
There are a lot of readers in my family. For every holiday, I would get a picture book, so I have this incredible collection of children's books. My mother had to hide the Berenstain Bears because I wanted to read them all the time, and my dad read all the Little House on the Prairie books to us.
I wrote a ton when I was a kid. I would make little books and illustrate them. The other thing that I wanted to be as a child was a veterinarian. So I had a lot of very dog-heavy books. It's crazy to go back and read some of them now – kids’ imaginations are just so rich.
How did you decide to attend Colby College?
I did 13 years of all girls’ prep school starting in kindergarten. I came from a very high-pressure background where there was no question I was going to college. The high school I went to had a graduating class of 75, and there was a 100% matriculation rate for college for every class. Everyone went to a four-year college.
I was the youngest of three sisters, and my parents took me to see 25 colleges collectively, which is incredibly excessive. I think by the time they got to me, they knew a lot about college. Both of my sisters had gone to small liberal arts schools, so I thought that would be a good fit. I also wanted to play D3 field hockey and squash. But I would recommend to my former self not to do that. There are some great things that I learned from playing sports, but I spent a bit too much time and energy doing it.
My oldest sister went to Colby and she really enjoyed it. Although we had very different experiences, I thought that if she enjoyed it, I would as well. I was also really interested in Kenyon, but I chose mountains over flat land. I would have been happy at all these small liberal arts schools, I know that now. But, at the time, it was very hard for me to make a decision among them.
How did you choose your major?
I went in undecided. I thought about being an English major, which was a very easy fit for me. And I thought about doing international relations, but my sisters had done that kind of thing. English seemed like a safe bet. I was also an art minor, which I really enjoyed. I got to do survey art classes and work as a teaching assistant for the photography classes. I was really trying to figure out this side of me that was interested in art. I had been doing all of these really athletic things, but I had this very visual side that was undeveloped. And it was a way for me to be creative that wasn't writing.
I also studied abroad for a year in Ecuador, in Quito, and then in Buenos Aries, Argentina. Colby is huge on studying abroad. 60% of their student body studies abroad. My Spanish was terrible, so dropping myself into Quito and having all my classes in Spanish was an amazing experience. This was pre-smart phone, so if I wanted to get home, I needed to speak to people or I was going to get lost. I just cannot recommend this more. Studying abroad gave me a level of independence and taught me how to live.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
I graduated in 2009 and the stock market had crashed in 2008, so I knew I was going into a bad market. My sister was in the Peace Corps at the time, so I was looking into that. I was looking into AmeriCorps. I decided that I wanted to do a film project in Argentina, so I told one of my friends to come up with a topic and I would write a grant proposal.
She wanted to do something on anti-Semitism in Argentina, which is super interesting because Buenos Aries has the largest Jewish population in Latin America. So I secured us about $7,000 worth of funding through the college, and said, “Great, let's do this.” I wish you could bottle this mix of gumption and naiveté and tenacity that I had at 22. I don't think I could do that today; I was just unfazed by the obstacles in front of me. And so we did that for few months, and we made a photo film out of that.
After that, I was applying for different AmeriCorps jobs and even having trouble getting an AmeriCorps position because it was a tight job market. One of my friends was doing an AmeriCorps position in West Virginia and they had another spot. That seemed like an easy yes, although West Virginia was never somewhere I had anticipated living.
We did all kinds of different things. We worked on building a town library, which I was entirely unqualified to do. I really hope it's structurally sound to this day. We did that for about four months, and I got to a point where I realized I was not really being effective in the community. I was a very idealistic 22-year-old.
My sister was in the Peace Corps at the same time, and she was planting trees and doing malaria net distribution, doing HIV/AIDS testing events, doing basic hygiene for children. We would have lots of conversations about how ineffective we were and how it would be much, much more effective if she had a nursing degree or an agricultural degree or a forestry degree or an engineering degree.
It really made me think about what my skills were and what I could bring to this community. And I realized that I wasn't a member of this community; I did not understand their needs and I did not have the skills to address them. So I applied for a transfer to DC, and I found a really amazing robotics nonprofit to work for. My job was to recruit mentors for these teams from businesses, liaise with colleges to find event space for us, and do community organizing and event planning for the teams. And this was a skill set I had; I knew how to talk to companies and colleges to get them on board with community activism.
And I felt like I could really connect with the kids. I remember talking to these brilliant, amazing high schoolers. One of them had just gotten a full ride to MIT, and he was so aware of the resources that the kids in northern Virginia were getting and the support that he was not getting. I felt like I had some sort of value I could provide for this community, like finding mentors for them.
After I did AmeriCorps in DC, I interned at the Center for American Progress, which is a think tank in DC. I had originally been hired as an intern for government relations, but I quickly started doing videography for them. But I hated politics, so I realized I didn't want to do that. I went back to Baltimore and interned at a now-defunct magazine doing some copyediting and some photo stuff and started assisting this photographer. We shot a lot of very edgy things that I had not done before and I liked that.
I was really into photography and wanted to see if I could make that work as a career. I found out that the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) was starting a post-bac program, so my mom and I went to check it out. I was thinking, “I like writing and I like this visual side, so how do I combine these?” I realized I could do some sort of editorial graphic design, so I applied and got in.
What appealed to me about the MICA program was that it was very skills-based. I had done a more liberal arts undergrad, and so I was looking for something that was more hard skills that I could use in a job. I felt like I could think analytically and I could write, but I didn't have a clear skill set for the workforce.
So, I got there and I had no idea what I was doing. I didn't know anything about design. My friends and my professors taught me so much. I was 24 at this point, and I was working 14-16 hours a day, learning how to design on the fly. I wish I had had that laser focus in my undergrad. I was just so determined to learn how to design in nine months and get as much out of this as possible. And I had taken out student loans for grad school, which was also good to realize the amount of money that goes into an American education.
It was an amazing experience. I learned so much, and I still have amazing friends from that small studio of 15 people. And that was enough to launch a design career after that. I started freelancing at the end of that year and started to build up freelance clients while I was still in school. I was still kind of struggling, so I ended up doing one of the strangest jobs of my life working at this bookstore in Baltimore, doing their catalogs and photographing all the inventory that came in. They had a lot of movie posters, things by Saul Bass, really amazing things.
I did that for about nine months, and then I realized that I needed to leave Baltimore. Baltimore was never somewhere I really wanted to live long-term and I didn't want to get stuck. So I quit my job and moved to New York where my sister nicely let me crash with her until I figured it out. I was having trouble getting jobs because nothing on my resume was in New York, and they really wanted New York-based candidates.
Then I found a graphic design internship at StoryCorps. I love podcasts and I had loved StoryCorps for a long time. I interned there for about three weeks, and then they hired me on as a freelancer. I worked about 20 to 25 hours a week for them, which was just enough to pay my bills, and the rest of the time I just explored New York. It was kind of this magical time of having enough money to live in New York, and enough time to really explore this amazing city. Then they brought me on full-time and I worked there for another three years.
I was the only in-house graphic designer, which was a pretty interesting experience. They do a lot of campaigns to raise money, but they also do materials to explain to people what StoryCorps is. I was working with a hundred super idealistic, energetic, amazingly diverse people who really care about both activism and stories. I started to drop down my hours so I could do more freelance, and then I decided to jump into freelance all the way. I knew there was never going to be a right time, but I had amazing support systems in my family and friends, so I decided to go for it.
I picked up as many freelance clients as I could. After two months, I realized that I was living in Brooklyn, one of the most expensive cities in the world, but I could be living anywhere. I was working at an amazing coworking space called Friends Work Here, and I slowly started moving toward digital nomading. I found a subletter for my apartment, I stored all my stuff at my parents' house, and I booked a ticket to Berlin and that's what I’ve been doing for the last three years.
The big thing that I'm trying to get back to right now is writing. Right now, I’m doing it more as a hobby, but I want to add that to my work in some way. I want to get back to my five-year-old self and what she was really excited about.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
I wish I had spent a little less time worrying about playing sports in college and spent more time exploring things that were really interesting to me. When I went to MICA, I felt like my whole approach to learning was so different. I ended up doing well in those classes because I truly wanted to learn, not because I was trying to get a particular grade.
Also, don't be afraid of living with your parents. It was very scary for me to do that when I was 23 and I so value that now. I don't know if I'll ever get to do that again, and it was wonderful to get to spend that time with them. And I’ve really approached work as something I was passionate about, not something I needed to do to make money (not that I had a lot of money). But I'm so happy I had that approach because it really allowed me to do things because I was excited about them. Obviously I was able to do that because I came from a place of privilege and I had amazing support networks. I don’t take any of that for granted.