Russek at a poetry reading. Russek at a poetry reading.I first heard about the New York Arts Program through Professor of English David Gaines, Southwestern’s Director of National Fellowships and Scholarships. I was looking for something that would reinvigorate the second half of my education, maybe studying abroad. But Dr. Gaines knew me better than that. He understood my interests and my strengths, and he suggested that I pursue something that might give me a competitive edge over others looking to make it in the same industry: publishing.

In Texas, when someone says they’re an English major, there are two deductions that seem to pop into most people’s heads. First, they think, “Oh, they want to be a teacher,” and if that doesn’t make sense for this particular person, due either to upbringing or temperament, the next natural assumption is that they don’t have a plan at all. People are right to ask, “But what do you want to do with your degree?” though the general reaction when you tell them you want to go into publishing is a smirk, a nod, a nonverbal good luck with that.

The New York Arts Program was founded in 1967 and has worked to help budding artists and professionals find their footing in competitive New York industries, from publishing and fashion design to museum management and music performance. Their directors are well connected and always willing to help; even after you’ve left the program, they will advocate for you and help you find a job.

Recently, 1999 program alumna Rashida Bumbray was awarded a Met Museum residency for artists committed to social change. Other alumni are working at Picador Publishing, pursuing PhDs at Columbia, and working freelance all around New York City—the point being that those who go into the program are laying the foundation for later and greater professional work.

After being accepted to the program, I had no idea where to start or what to look for. I had a vague idea of working at a literary magazine but was unsure of which one. My passion for writing and social justice led John Reed, creative writing professor at the New School and director of the writing department at the New York Arts Program, to propose that I apply to the Awards Department of PEN America, a nearly 100-year-old literary organization focused on advocacy and free speech (former presidents include Susan Sontag, Toni Morrison, and Allen Ginsberg), and Bloomsbury Publishing, an international publishing corporation with offices in Great Britain, the United States, and India (they published Harry Potter). I managed to secure both internships.

PEN Event

There is a certain kind of life that New York provides young writers and artists, one that’s more difficult than ever to financially afford. The program provides affordable housing right next to Penn station, and students get the opportunity to feel what it’s like to be a working artist. After a nine-to-five workday, I could go home and sleep, visit with a professor, go out to a poetry reading or a gallery opening, visit a museum, or go out with friends. There are social events, lectures, and conversations every night; all one has to do is look, and you never know who might be there, who you might be able to talk to.

Once, after leaving work for the day, I went with my boss to a poetry reading by National Book Award–winning author Erika Sánchez; we had previously gone to a discussion between authors Hari Kunzru and Margo Jefferson. As the director of PEN America’s Literary Awards Department, my boss was more than familiar with most of these authors and was able to introduce me to more than a few people who left me starstruck. It was not unusual for authors to visit the Bloomsbury or PEN America offices, either, or for free books to be posted at the front desk for eagerly awaiting interns. Oftentimes, I was able to grab books that hadn’t even been officially published yet.

The program also gave me the confidence to advocate for my own writing.

The program also gave me the confidence to advocate for my own writing. I had always thought that writing was a far-off dream, that editing and marketing for other writers was the easier, more stable path toward making a living. But working at Bloomsbury and PEN America helped me realize that working writers do exist, working artists do exist, and it was not uncommon for employees at either company to invite coworkers to a reading, lecture, or other event where their work would be shown. I didn’t have to pick one; in fact, I could do both.

My advisor helped me edit and place my first news article at Latinx Spaces, and I was also invited to read and share my poetry in a live setting, something I had never done and never had any interest in doing, but afterwards, I couldn’t help looking for more opportunities to do so. The New York Arts Program gave me the confidence to pursue my own unique career path, take more opportunities, stretch myself, and find fulfillment in everything I do.

The New York Arts Program gave me the confidence to pursue my own unique career path, take more opportunities, stretch myself, and find fulfillment in everything I do.

I couldn’t recommend this program enough to students at Southwestern. If our University gives us the skills and the drive to work for what we want, then the New York Arts Program simply gives us the tools and connections to thrive. The work I’ve put in and the people I’ve met have made the experience more than worth it.