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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Sean Campbell: Summer Internship at The Aspen Institute

Senior English major Sean Campbell's narrative about his summer internship follows.

This past summer I interned at an international educational and policy studies organization called The Aspen Institute, located in Aspen, Colorado. The Institute hosts events very similar to TED Talks in which speakers give lectures or form panels about a wide variety of topics. Aside from hiking and biking through stunning mountainous landscapes on weekends, I spent a lot of my weekdays employing many of the skills that Villanova has instilled in me as an English major. Since my role at The Institute was to assist in organizing and staffing three major festivals and interact with high profile attendees and speakers, strong communication was essential to the success of each event. While many majors offered at Villanova emphasize the importance of communication, the English major is distinct in that it stresses the story as an essential medium for communication. While I was initially nervous to interact with the likes of New York Times Columnist David Brooks, Twitter Founder Evan Williams, and Chicago Hip-hop Artist Lupe Fiasco, my background in literature helped me to recognize that each speaker held a uniquely human story outside of the narrative that their title manufactured for them.  During the Security Forum, in which the heads of every major government security agency spoke, I witnessed the director of the NSA offer his thoughtful perspective on the tension between privacy and national security. Just as novels often offer a human voice to complex cultural issues, this opportunity enabled me to see the human face behind the callous covering that American media has created for the NSA.

In one car ride after an event, I had the pleasure of driving former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright back to her hotel. I initially expected the conversation to revolve around either mundane topics like the Aspen weather or forced attempts on my part to learn about her position as secretary of state, but instead, she began our discussion by asking me to tell her my story. After talking for a short while about my family, I told her that I wanted my career to involve writing in some capacity. I was slightly embarrassed by my career goals because I had so frequently been informed that writing is a surefire path to financial instability. Secretary Albright, however, responded that she was particularly encouraged that I hoped to write because it was a skill so vital, yet so lacking in my generation. She then proceeded to tell me her story, yet it was not the story of the fame attached to being the first female secretary of state, but rather of an immigrant from Czechoslovakia whose family had been displaced after the Holocaust. She told me how writing had been a passion of hers throughout her life and that one of her principle frustrations as a professor at Georgetown is that few of her students know or care about writing. While I do think that we could have had an insightful conversation even if I was uninterested in writing, I sincerely doubt that we would have found a common passion without both of us appreciating the value of storytelling.  

Though I often feel pressured to include tangible skills about my writing, reading, or verbal communication abilities on my resume, my experience at The Aspen Institute revealed to me that the English major also fosters more abstract feelings of human empathy. I found the experience of interacting with unfamiliar, yet fascinating speakers to be similar to my relationship with books. While both have titles and some have hard exteriors, the most endearing qualities stem from the honest stories within. As a result of my internship, I no longer hold the insular perspective that English majors are destined solely for careers as writers or teachers. Rather, I now believe that in any job requiring personal connections or an understanding of the human condition, an English major can excel.

Sean on the top of Mount Elbert.