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.

Take Pride in Being a Generalist

When I graduated from Michigan State University (was it REALLY two and a half years ago?!), my resume felt like a jumble of skills. I can build you a website AND write your tweets AND write instructions for using software AND build you an elaborate stage set. I have the skills to design a basic logo AND create communications strategies.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers suggests it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert (though a recent study disagrees). So how can one call themselves a specialist in something or an expert if they focus on so many different things? How do you communicate your expertise?

Take pride in being a generalist.

There’s a huge benefit to having a list of skills that are related. Particularly when going into a non-profit or a smaller company which may not have segmented out certain responsibilities, being able to say, “I can help you with your web communications AND your print” is hugely beneficial. Being “the best” can be nice, but tout your other skills as an added bonus.

Sure, the fact I can build a set is probably not relevant to most of the jobs I’ll apply to, but it can be spun as teamwork! Remind me to tell you the story of the time I built The Forge set at TechSmith.

Check out that awesome brick wall.

Check out that awesome brick wall. I knew that my minor in theater would somehow be useful.

As a generalist, you can roll with the flow and make changes easily. You can adapt to changes in company culture and structure, as well as more easily move up in the work force. Project managers have to have innate knowledge not only of how to lead a team, but also of the various skills of their team members. Being able to dynamically adjust is something all companies look for in a future employee.

The era of the specialist is over.

In 2012, Harvard Business Review published a blog about the end of the era of specialists, and the beginning of the era of the generalist.

Expertise means being closer to the bark, and less likely to see ways in which your perspective may warrant adjustment. In today’s uncertain environment, breadth of perspective trumps depth of knowledge.
—Vikram Mansharamani at HBR

Being single-minded and adept to one thing, no matter how great the knowledge is, means there is a lack of perspective and possibly an inability to come up with new solutions. Having a wealth of knowledge and various skill sets makes your chances of coming up with solutions for change much greater. Not all employers may know this off hand, but being able to communicate your value in this regard can be extraordinarily beneficial in future interviews and cover letters. You can sell yourself as a professional who draws from different backgrounds and experiences to bring fresh insight to a company or team.

One example of generalists companies are currently seeking is a “full stack developer.” It used to be commonplace that developers were great at one, two, or maybe three languages. They were segmented into front-end and back-end, knowing how to develop strictly for desktop or mobile. Now that line is blurring and companies expect their employees to be able to do it all. This may often mean the team is smaller and more focused on seeing a web product through from start to finish.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek expertise.

Just because you’ve got a large set of skills doesn’t mean you should constantly be seeking out small bits of knowledge about every last thing. Instead of being good at 100 things, try to be great at 10. Furthermore, try to be excellent at three.

When figuring out “what is it that I actually enjoy doing,” you can try out various different projects. Though this may seem counter intuitive to the idea of being a “generalist,” it doesn’t mean you should give up on having greater depths of knowledge in certain areas. You can be excellent at email campaigns, but still great at knowing how to write a press release. Don’t stop seeking knowledge in specific interest areas, as long as you maintain your other skill sets, too.

Thumbs Up

Now get out there and do it!

Alexandra WhiteAlexandra is a WordPress & front-end developer who builds awesome things. She loves craft beer, apple cider cookies, and traveling to new places (especially when the trip is free). You should follow her on twitter and maybe you can become internet friends. Or maybe even IRL friends.

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.

What I learned in Professional Writing

It’s been over a year since I graduated from college (WHAT?!), so I figured it was about time for an ode to my favorite major of all time: Professional Writing (PW). For those of you who don’t know what Professional Writing is, shame on you. But I will explain. It is not only the best major ever, it prepares you for so many diverse and interesting job possibilities—communications, technical writing, nonprofit work, editing, freelance, marketing, and more. We work with websites, content, making things sound good, and other cool stuff.

That description doesn’t do it justice.

Anyway, I am here to discuss some things that MSU’s Professional Writing program taught me that weren’t necessarily in the curriculum. Let’s get started!

1) Audience.
Who is your audience? That is probably the most important thing I learned in Professional Writing. It changed the way that I write, design, and even think. Who is going to be reading this and who do I want to be reading? How can I get the audience I want? It’s an important question that many people forget to ask themselves.

2) Communication, dear friends.
People aren’t so good at communicating. In fact, it is rare to find someone who is actually able to communicate what they mean, want, need, whatever. But PW taught me so much about how to communicate effectively, and when I took that into the professional world it wound up being one of the most valuable things I learned. Learn where you are failing in your communication and do your best to bridge the gap.

3) Internet presence is important in today’s world.
I see so many companies and businesses taking social media for granted, or thinking that it couldn’t possibly help them. PW helped teach me just HOW important social media is, and how it can help your business/company/whatever you do. Having a digital presence is more valuable than any billboard could ever be, and not a lot of people understand that or know how to utilize it. That’s why they need us…

4) It’s okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them.
And do I make a lot of freaking mistakes or what.

5) Sometimes you can call in sick.
Seriously, though. If you feel like you might stab someone in the eye if you have to go into work, don’t. It will be better for your work ethic, your health, and everyone else’s well being if you just play hooky.

6) Alcohol helps.
Yeah, I think this is self-explanatory.

7) You should always be studying and learning more about your field. 
You should never grow complacent. When I was at school, there was this one class I took about editing, and part of our “homework” was to read editing blogs. I cannot even begin to explain how much this helped me in the class, and the knowledge I gained has been infinitely valuable. And the same goes with your career. I took that skill with me into the professional world, and always trying to learn and gain more knowledge about what I’m doing has really kept me ahead of the game.

8) Networking is WHAT YOU SHOULD DO. 
Find networking events in your city. Make contacts. Go out to dinner with people. Keep up with old pals. It’s how you get where you want to go.

9) Now is the time to do what you want.
I’m 23 years old. I have so much of my life ahead of me, and so much freedom right now to do what I want. Now is the time to figure out what exactly I want to do for the rest of my life, and to take the steps to get there. Stop being a scaredy cat and just do it. This goes for you, yes you reading this blog. Get out there.

Vanessa is a digital media coordinator by day and a writer, novelist, and pretty 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.