Training for a Thoughtful Future
June 25, 2020
A path to self-examination
As the daughter of a history professor who teaches at Texas State University, Meredith Murphy ’16 remembers watching her mother, then still a graduate student, translate her doctoral dissertation into a book. “She definitely instilled an interest in the subject and nurtured my love for reading and writing,” Murphy recalls. “Seeing her passion, I knew I wanted to love my work the way she loves hers.”
Still, Murphy admits that when she started at Southwestern, she hadn’t yet discovered which work she wanted to pursue. She applied to the university thinking she might major in biology but had already changed her mind before arriving on campus. She was interested in political science and psychology, and she thought she’d pursue a career in journalism … or law … or nonprofits.
In other words, Murphy experienced what so many first- and second-year college students feel: she had many diverse interests and appealing career paths, but she had no idea which direction to chase.
Eventually, she decided to double major in her mother’s field, history, and in political science. Her choices mirrored the two undergraduate majors of her advisor, Associate Professor of History Jess Hower, whom Murphy credits as an adept guide through SU’s curriculum and an enthusiastic teacher. “I took five classes with her throughout my time at Southwestern,” Murphy shares. “I really love her teaching style, and some of the books she assigned have stayed my all-time favorites since. She cares so deeply about her students, and it always showed.” In political science, her mentors included Shannon Mariotti, professor and Carolyn Peters Sydow Rogas Term Chair, who taught some of Murphy’s favorite classes. She admits that those same courses sometimes “sent [her] into numerous—but beneficial—existential crises,” but she and her fellow alumni still reminisce fondly about their seminars with Mariotti, especially their capstone. Murphy also appreciates the counsel and encouragement of Eric Selbin, professor and holder of the Lucy King Brown Chair. “Dr. Selbin both challenged and supported me in all of my classes with him,” she reflects.
“I took five classes with [Dr. Jess Hower] throughout my time at Southwestern. I really love her teaching style, and some of the books she assigned have stayed my all-time favorites since. She cares so deeply about her students, and it always showed.”
Mentorship by much-loved professors in specific departments is one commonly stated rationale for a student’s choice of major. But Murphy found her history and political science courses at SU particularly exhilarating because, she explains, “I learned things about the world I never knew about—some terrible things, some really inspiring things—and it made me want to learn more, about everything. As I learned more, I formed my own set of beliefs and opinions that differed from my upbringing, and it forced me to examine aspects of my own life.”
Work and travel through the lens of history and political science
That self-examination would eventually shape the alumna’s direction after Southwestern—a path that took her to the Pacific Northwest and eventually to Ireland. Murphy and her Southwestern sweetheart, religion major and political science minor Austin McCrory, graduated in December 2016, and within months, they moved to Portland, Oregon. Murphy was hired as a community outreach specialist with Boys and Girls Aid, a foster agency dedicated to serving the most traumatized and vulnerable youth in the state. “My boss told me my writing style and community-engagement history at SU were to credit for my getting hired,” she reveals. She explains that in addition to having honed her writing skills through her majors, her involvement in various student organizations, such as student government and her sorority, Zeta Tau Alpha, and having served as a founding member of H.E.A.T. and the Philosophy Club directly contributed to her landing that first job because they demonstrated her skill set and reflected her investment in civic responsibility and humanitarianism, which helped her connect with interviewers who shared those interests.
The position was part-time to start, so she spent the first month and a half also working at a local winery. But she was soon promoted to a full-time position as a community outreach coordinator, which involved recruiting foster parents for the agency’s various programs, leading educational presentations, and forming partnerships with social-justice organizations and government agencies across the city.
The day Boys and Girls Aid offered her the promotion, however, Murphy learned that the one-year working-holiday visas that she and McCrory had recently applied for had been approved. It was a program that she had first learned about during her first-year seminar with Associate Professor of History Melissa Byrnes, who had traveled abroad on the same kind of visa years before. The visa enables recent college graduates to travel to a number of countries, including Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Ireland, South Korea, and Singapore. Given that eligibility is usually limited to students who earned their degrees within the previous 12 months, Murphy says, “It is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and one I whole-heartedly recommend.”
Southwestern had inspired Murphy to seek out this exciting travel opportunity, and it ultimately enhanced her experience there. “Taking courses that educated me about the world made me crave seeing and experiencing it firsthand,” she recalls, “and thanks to my degree, I was able to do it while working and supporting myself.” She and McCrory moved to Limerick, a bustling port city in the Republic of Ireland.
For the next nine months, Murphy worked at computer manufacturer Dell, implementing data-privacy systems to comply with the European Union’s (EU’s) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and learning about cybersecurity policy. Transitioning from a job in the field of child welfare to one in the field of data privacy might seem like a leap, but the SU grad says that the two positions were linked by her ability to research, apply, and contextualize policy—all skills she attained through her political science courses. But her college coursework prepared her not just to work abroad but also to engage with current events there. “I moved to Ireland one month before the reformation to legalize abortion. It was a hugely exciting period, and since a referendum engages the entire population, everyone was talking about it,” Murphy remembers. She attributes her in-depth knowledge about Irish history and her understanding of the Irish women’s rights movement to her dual majors and courses she’s taken in feminist studies at Southwestern.
In February 2019, she finished her job at Dell, so she and McCrory began touring Europe by train. Because their working-holiday visas gave them official EU residency, they qualified for discounted public transportation and free admission to many major museums across the continent. The trip only increased Murphy’s appreciation for her history and political science classes at Southwestern because, she says, “I knew way more about the history of Europe than I otherwise would have had when visiting historical sites, making it all the more special.”
The career benefits of a Southwestern education
Fall 2019 saw the couple moving to Denver, Colorado, where Murphy joined The Suddes Group as a paid fellow. The nonprofit consults with organizations across the country and abroad—such as universities, start-ups, and social entrepreneurships—to improve their fundraising efforts by hosting training events, coaching development teams (i.e., the staff responsible for fundraising within organizations), and coordinating giving campaigns. Murphy’s varied responsibilities include researching prospective donors for the group’s different clients and assisting with training workshops. The goal of the yearlong fellowship is to train those who will either become future coaches within the consultancy or become a leader in the world of social activism.
The SU alumna says her work at the nonprofit has been “really exciting” and “wonderful,” and she likes that “no day is the same.” She juggles multiple projects at once and is constantly learning new things. Sometimes collaborating with CEOs and executive directors, she especially enjoys working directly with problem-solvers “who are creating lasting change” and supporting organizations that are dedicated to what she identifies as “the most important causes of our lifetime,” such as restoring our climate, improving the nutritional value and sustainability of school meal programs, and providing job training to disenfranchised youth in the juvenile justice system. “My favorite part of the job,” she says, “is connecting with passionate, intelligent people who are impacting the world both on an individual and systems-change level. They live and breathe their cause and truly want to make a difference.”
Whereas Murphy worried about finding direction amid a wide range of intellectual passions during her first year or two at Southwestern, her current job allows her to pursue those multiple interests simultaneously. Murphy partners with clients who work in dramatically diverse professions, from science and law to social justice and business, so she often has to adapt to different fields of knowledge. But that is frequently the case even when working with a single client. For example, she explains, “In one breath, a coach is citing neurological studies, and in the next, they are utilizing frameworks created by business professors.” So she’s enjoying the benefits of Southwestern’s commitment to interdisciplinary learning, which have enabled her to swiftly and coherently connect research and methodologies from multiple fields.
She credits her SU professors with building her confidence in her writing and critical thinking, skills that are crucial in a profession founded on “relationship building” and “find[ing] connections between individuals and your cause and persuad[ing] them to care and be invested with you.”
She also credits her SU professors with building her confidence in her writing and critical thinking, skills that are crucial in a profession founded on “relationship building” and “find[ing] connections between individuals and your cause and persuad[ing] them to care and be invested with you.” At The Suddes Group, she creates marketing and engagement tools, develops presentations, drafts proposals, and conducts research projects—none of which, she notes, have been as challenging as completing two capstones. “My history courses taught me how to see the world through various perspectives, the importance of narrative, and how to craft an argument that’s firmly contextualized,” she reflects. “My political science courses instilled research and analysis skills that are at the heart of every job I’ve had.”
Murphy’s fellowship with The Suddes Group should have ended in October 2020, when she would have decided whether she’d remain with the organization as a coach or continue her dedication to social change elsewhere. Unfortunately, as with so many nonprofits and small businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic means an earlier-than-expected end to her position later this summer. However, Murphy is currently applying to an accelerated one-year program to attain a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Colorado Denver. In the meantime, she appreciates that her alma mater and her current employer have provided her with so many opportunities to broaden her knowledge and develop her talent for leadership.
When asked whether she has advice to share with current SU students, she urges them to consider the kinds of work they want to pursue and then just “go for it.” That’s because, she explains, there are multiple benefits of having attended a small liberal-arts university. For example, she’s observed that networking with others extends beyond the support of the Southwestern community. Whether it’s “coworkers, people interviewing me, [or] people I have interviewed,” she shares, “we all immediately have a connection when you both have had a small liberal-arts education experience.” And although many might assume—or even argue—that degrees outside STEM and business might not have value beyond serving as a stepping stone to graduate school in those same fields, she has found that the opposite holds true, especially for jobs that are writing intensive. Recounts Murphy, “Multiple employers have noted they love to hire people with humanities and liberal-arts backgrounds.” Why? “Because,” she says, “they know how well it trains you to think.”