Why I went to community college first

Baby Vanessa (& baby Jacob) in 2009

Baby Vanessa (& baby Jacob) in 2009

I got into MSU as a senior in high school, but I didn’t want to go there. I had a plan. Thanks to my high school grades, I got a $2,000 scholarship to Oakland Community College. It would nearly cover my entire first year. I would go to OCC for two years and then transfer to MSU as a junior, successfully graduating in four years and paying less for the piece of paper. But I felt some push to go to a four-year university.

“You’ll miss out on the dorms and the experience!”

“You’ll regret it.”

“It’s important to get out on your own.”

Whatever. I ignored those sons-of-bitches and went to community college. It was a great solution for me, and I still met great people and made great friends. I had some incredible professors. I learned just as much as I did at MSU. It was the absolute perfect experience for me and I do not regret a thing (in fact, I often miss OCC more than I miss MSU, no matter how much I dig my PW buddies). It was a great bridge from high school to college. I didn’t feel pushed out of my house and stranded in a big college all on my own. It let me slowly build up my independence, so by the time I was moving out of my mom’s house I felt ready.

But let’s go over some pros and cons of attending a community college before transferring to a four-year.


  • Save money
  • Live at home (this was a pro for me. I got to stay close to some of my close friends and live with my mother, whom I have a great relationship with. I also got to stay in the lives of my brothers longer, which I am grateful for)
  • Missing out on the dorms (I like cooking my own food, thank you very much)
  • Community college has some GREAT courses. I learned much more in my general classes at OCC than I did at MSU and at a fraction of the price
  • Smaller classes and a greater variety of students—I became friends with several people a lot older than me who were back for an education or taking classes for fun
  • Smaller campus—easier to navigate and easier to get a job on (I worked as an English Literacy Tutor for a year and a half, plus as a French Study Instructor)
  • If you take a bad class, at least you aren’t paying thousands of dollars for it


  • Live at home (this might be a con for you even though it was a pro for me)
  • By starting at a four-year college as a junior, it’s harder to make friends as most people have already formed their friend groups (regardless, I made great friends—it just took two semesters)
  • You miss the experience of the dorms (pro for me, might be a con if you reeeeally wanna do that)
  • Less FinAid once you do get to a four-year university (however, that didn’t matter for me because OCC saved me so much money)
  • If you don’t know where you’re going to transfer to, many of the classes you take at a community college might not transfer—and that means wasted time and money. Knowing if your classes transfer and having a plan is super important

So, what do you think? Did you do community college first or a full four years in one place? Do you wish you’d done it differently?

Vanessa is a digital media coordinator by day and a writer, novelist, and badass cook by night. She loves used bookstores, is way too serious about tea, and doesn’t give a damn if she wears the same outfit 2 days in a row. She totally wants to be your friend, so you should follow her on twitter & maybe check out her writing blog.

What I wish PW had taught me

Professional Writing taught me a lot. I am forever in gratitude to an incredible program, wonderful professors and fellow students, and internships that (mostly) prepared me for the workforce.

Regardless of how awesome PW is, there are a few things that I wish they had taught me. Some of them are related to the program, some would make good Writers’ Bloc workshops, and others simply I wish I had known beforehand.

Better technical writing
This might just relate to me—but the technical writing class I took was crap. I brushed it off and didn’t think it would affect me. But then I was given a writing project at work (back in January, you can read all about how I failed here). If I had had a better, more competent technical writing professor, I truly think that I would have done better with this project (though I still would have struggled). Technical writing is more important than I ever realized and students need to recognize the impact it might have on their future careers.

Analytics workshop/class
I am not the only one who has come across analytics in the workplace and been faced with a pretty big learning curve. We never spent time learning about analytics (the various tools, best practices, etc) in school, and now it’s something that just comes with the territory of my position. I’ve had to learn a lot about Google Analytics in a very short time (Facebook Insights and others included), and a workshop or at least practice compiling a social media analytics report would have been great as a student.

How age, privilege, and class affects us in the workplace
I truly did not realize how much my age would affect me in the workplace. I am young (24). When I started I was really young (22). I couldn’t understand why no one liked my ideas unless they came from someone else or why people seemed to brush me off as a silly little girl until my boyfriend said, with a shrug, “Well, you’re young.”

A heads up would have been nice. Some advice on how to deal with age discrimination and even class discrimination in the workplace would have been helpful. It’s something that I’ve struggled with navigating, especially as a—I hate this word—Millennial. I have grown up calling professors by their first name and chatting with bosses as if they were friends, but not all businesses work like that. I didn’t know that I need to tread lightly. I suppose that relates back to office etiquette, however—a potential workshop idea.


How to negotiate bonuses and raises
I learned how to negotiate salaries (sort of, and I have never actually done it IRL), but I definitely never learned about bonuses and raises. One of the most helpful things that PW did to prepare me for interviewing for jobs was to have a mock interview session. Something like that would be equally helpful for learning how to negotiate bonuses, raises, and all of that stuff. Something else to note here is that PW is largely made up of women. Negotiating can be especially hard for us ladies (which is bullshit, but it’s still true), so learning how to navigate that would have been really helpful. I still don’t have a grasp on negotiation and I probably won’t for a long time.

Being asked to do things that aren’t in your job description
How does one handle being asked to do things that aren’t in their job description? Do we just do it without complaint? Do we bring it up? Do we refuse? How do we tread lightly in this situation?

Social media workshop
Social media is ever changing, so a class might be difficult or even a little much. Regardless, some help in the social media area would have been appreciated. Workshops on best practices and strategy, and especially analytics, proving the value of a solid strategy (or ROI). Social media etiquette is also a good one.

Email etiquette
PLEASE—do not be that person who replies all to everyone in every email. I know this but not everyone does—something to consider when it comes to workshops? It would also be a good place to include discerning when to be formal/casual and more little nitpicky things about email. Do I say, “Hey Ali,” when I’m opening an email, or do I say, “Hi there,” or do I say, “Good afternoon”?

How to deal with colleagues who aren’t so nice
Group work fails in this capacity because at the end of the day the group is over and you can leave those suckers. Coworkers are forever (or until you quit/leave). And, let’s face it, there will always be crazies. You will always have to deal with people who do not like you, or who you do not like, or who try to make your life a little harder at your job. But—let’s say a coworker is harassing you and basically being an all out bitch—how do you handle it? Talk to her directly? Go to HR? Talk to your boss?

And I don’t mean the employee handbook way. I mean the stop-harassment, deal-with-the-problem way. I mean in the real-life way. Because life is not by the employee handbook.


Office politics
This is not really something that PW can teach us—but workshops can. Professors can. Internship advisers can. Bosses can. I never really got an introduction to office politics until I was out in the workplace and I was making mistakes left and right—of course, every office is different. But it’s something to consider.

No one was really harsh with me about my writing in school. Okay, so harsh might be a little much, but no one was really nitpicky with my writing. Now I am a big girl in the real world and people are not always nice about the failings in my writing. Expectations are high in the workplace and no one likes to be surprised with that shit—I definitely didn’t feel prepared for how much more difficult things can be in the workplace compared to how I was treated/graded in college.

To sum up this blog post, let me just say—a lot of what I felt blindsided by in the workplace is stuff that you just have to learn on your own. Professional Writing did a fantastic job training me for a full-time job and teaching me how to be a top notch employee.

MSUPW: What would you add the above list?

Vanessa is a digital media coordinator by day and a writer, novelist, and badass cook by night. She loves used bookstores, is way too serious about tea, and doesn’t give a damn if she wears the same outfit 2 days in a row. She totally wants to be your friend, so you should follow her on twitter & maybe check out her writing blog.

Giving Technical Writing a Reality Check

As you all (read: avid readers of this blog) know by now, us VALCANA ladies pursued Professional Writing (#msupw) for our bachelor’s of arts degree. Without spending this entire blog post worshiping the people, things, and stuffed animals associated with this program, here’s what you need to know:

  • Professional Writing is amazing.
  • Professional Writing will prepare you for a career in technical writing, among other writing professions.
  • If you want to call yourself a writer, you should study Professional Writing at MSU.

–End unpaid endorsement–

It’s the second aforementioned bullet point that really got me thinking, especially as I’m deep in the job hunting trenches at the moment: What exactly is technical writing?

When I go into job interviews or apply for “Technical Writing” positions online what is the potential employer really expecting of my skill-set? With a couple of years of experience under my belt I can confidently say it’s not what I thought when I was studying technical writing. It’s time that I gave my definition of technical writing a reality check.

To understand what an employer’s view of technical writing is today, I needed to understand who the first technical writers they hired were. Growing out of a necessity for clear and understandable documentation to accompany machinery at the turn of the 20th century, employers hired engineers (today known as subject matter experts) who could write better than their peers or copywriters who could liaison well with these engineers. Thus, the stereotype of technical writers as engineers who are the outcasts amongst their colleagues working in corporate office buildings for software companies a la Office Space was born. Despite efforts on behalf of the Society of Technical Communication (Unpaid Endorsement #2: You should join if you’re interested in technical writing because these people are super cool), some of those who are not technical writers still have this perspective.

As a student preparing to enter the workforce, I instead thought of technical writing in terms of its foundational approach that allows someone to be a technical writer regardless of their C++ knowledge.

Technical writing identifies the audience (or user) and designs documentation around their needs.

Sample Infographic

Making infographics can be part of a technical writer’s job.

Expected more? Well, everything else comes from that key concept. Reduction in jargon? Yup, if your end-user requires it (most likely they always will). Appropriate graphical document design? Yup, your documentation better be if you want to make reading and understanding the easiest for your user. Proven and tested? Double yup, because before you bring anything to market you want to make sure it’s effective and when people are your users you’re talking usability.

This is a fantastic way to approach technical writing, but it does have its drawbacks. While this may be how technical writers view their own field, it’s not necessarily how the engineers, human resource representatives, marketing communications teams and CEOs view technical writers. Through my experience they typically define technical writing as:

(Best described in a disengaged adolescent voice) The act of writing user manuals, instructional documents and all of that complicated or boring stuff our MarComms team won’t do, duh.

While not representative of all companies, many of the companies I’ve pursued want subject matter experts (SMEs) instead of writers. Many of the job descriptions circulating out there put greater emphasis on having previous experience with the company’s industry rather than having a true understanding of your audience and communicating appropriately with them. These are the same jobs that require English or Journalism as degrees, but I can say with confidence I’ve lost out on them to those with degrees in Mechanical Engineering.

While every employer is different and every business unit within large companies can be different, this hiring practice is so much more common than I expected two years ago when I entered the job market.

So I may have a different view than the employer, but I still want to get a job! What do I do?

Taking some valuable advice from Chelsea’s post on why she loves her job: it all comes down to people. If the employer does not value your perspective as a technical writer, you’re wasting your time with them. Focus on applying with the companies that want you for you! Below are a few things I’ve had to change when it comes to my job search:

I become picky.

If the job description requires a lot of experience with specific languages or technologies, I don’t apply because I can tell they want an SME, not a technical writer no matter how the job title may read.

I re-brand myself.

I’m not just a technical writer, I’m a communicator who approaches tasks from a technical writer’s perspective. I can create a brochure for an event just as well as I can produce a user manual for a new software program.

I don’t let HR rule my career.

This is something that doesn’t always have a positive outcome and is more something I do in theory. HR doesn’t understand me as a professional and they may never understand me as a professional because I’m a new kind of employee. I don’t fit a 20th century cookie-cutter career. It may mean they don’t hire me, but I feel that if I can meet with the team I’ll be working with daily and we see how we can best work with and learn from each other, then it will be the right hire for both parties.

I structure my language for the job.

Ok, so I do let HR “gently guide me.” Most likely we’ll be referring to the same thing but HR will categorize it as something different (i.e. Develop standard product lines = Make templates that are user-friendly and standardized).

So, there you go technical writing, you have officially been checked.

Ashley HaglundAshley works in corporate, health care and non-profit communications. She loves starting new writing projects; is a media junkie; enjoys studying science, technology and patent law issues; and has a love/hate relationship with semi-colons. To see her face and be her internet friend, follow her on twitter.

Learning to Stand Up


Exhibit A: Me in Sophomore Year, when I was pretending to be brunette.

When I was a sophomore in college, I wrote a paper blatantly disagreeing with what my professor had been lecturing about all semester. The assignment was to write about how the class had changed my perspective. Instead, I wrote about how I disagreed with most everything that he had taught me. When I received the paper back, I failed — 0%, the worst grade I ever received in my history of schooling — and had a page-long note from the professor telling me I was ungrateful, snobby, and he didn’t understand how I had even gotten into college based on my shallow ways of thinking and I better set myself straight or else I would be a miserable failure in life.


I made copies of the papers and brought them to my academic adviser and the dean of the college — asking them if they were all right with professors force-feeding students opinions and failing them when they chose to disagree. The dead-panned faces of both my advisor and the dean agreed with my professor.


Immediately I dropped out of the “accepting” program I was in and entered into the world of professional writing, where I was greeted with open arms. Thankfully, I wasn’t graded on my opinions; I was graded on my participation, creativity, consistency, technique.

The rest is history.

That is just one of the defining moments of my time at college. I had many others: some good, some I’d rather forget. That moment taught me that it is okay to have beliefs and to stand up for them. It is okay to say I think this or that and not be told I am stupid and arrogant. It is okay to have an opinion. And that is something that I’ve carried with me from that day forward.

unnamed Last night, I went to a lecture where the speaker talked about the power of storytelling in business or in life. His book, “Lead With A Story,” gives example after example of stories that motivate and inspire, stories that have made changes to companies big and small, stories that define success and failure. He asked the audience what their story was. What story they could give to future employers, or a story they could use in their current jobs, or whatever. And here’s why:

Stories are easy to remember. It has been a form of communication for millennia. And, most of all, stories inspire others.

The speaker, Paul Smith, said, “If a story was meaningful to you, share it with someone. It may impact them, too.”

So, there you go, dear readers. That is one of my stories that have made me who I am today.

What is your story?

Lauren is a social media guru/web content manager/overall awesome editor. She spends too much time talking about Game of Thrones and the Oxford comma. To be insta-best friends, follow her on twitter.

Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Writing

Writing started out as therapy for me. It made me feel better. The more feels I felt, the better I got at articulating ideas through writing and the better writer I became. Writing turned from something that not only made me feel better because it helped me navigate my emotions, but also to something that made me feel better because it was one of the things that I received attention for (my disregard for ending sentences with prepositions not withstanding).

I always feared turning something so personal into a career. I didn’t think I would be able detach myself from my writing. Every suggestion or constructive critique would be like a knife to the stomach.

So, when I started college I decided I wanted to be a doctor. I wasn’t even that good at science in high school, but my mom was in love with the idea at potentially having one daughter as a lawyer and the other a doctor. Between her blind encouragement and the passable grades, I was on track for taking the MCATs and committing myself to years of indentured servitude to cadavers and merciless professors.

I hated every minute of my short-lived pre-med undergrad career. I failed at the material and I failed at convincing myself I could be happy in a field that I didn’t have the drive to improve in everyday.

I may have been a little too sensitive in regards to my writing, but it was a measure of the amount of care I had for it. Sure, I couldn’t detach myself when someone harshly critiqued a memoir piece I wrote, but I was fine when my grammar was ripped apart in the press release I drafted.

I’ve been feeling down adjusting to life as a grownup and not being able to whine to my mom about all of my #1stworldproblems. Then I remembered those two miserable years of biology, chemistry , and (gasp!) biochemistry. I may have struggled more in school than I ever had before, but the lesson I learned – albeit the hard way – was one that has profoundly shaped my life and career today.

For if I hadn’t made the full commitment to writing, I wouldn’t be blogging with these fabulous ladies. I wouldn’t be learning about all of the different ways I can write and still make enough money to not live in a box on the street corner (who’d a thought?). But most of all these past few weeks when I’ve been down in the dumps would have been weeks when I was absolutely miserable.

So when I learned that I really could never say goodbye to writing – that it is as much a part of me as my right arm – all my days weren’t sunshine and unicorns but they were better. And that’s all I need.

Ashley HaglundAshley works in corporate, health care and non-profit communications. She loves starting new writing projects; is a media junkie; enjoys studying science, technology and patent law issues; and has a love/hate relationship with semi-colons. To see her face and be her internet friend, follow her on twitter.