By B.D. McClay
Continuing on with alumni stories, here’s a graduate of the Annapolis class of 2012 who not only has a job, but has held three.
So, in my piece on liberal education, I mentioned wanting to hear from other recent graduates who—unlike me—went straight into the professional world without much trouble. And, of course, my first thought was you, Kate Havard, since you have more success at getting gigs than basically anyone else I know. But, like many Johnnies, you switched your career aspirations part of the way through, which meant you had a lot of catching up to do.
Let’s start with the switch: you had a great awakening when confronted with an ancient spoon. Can you tell us something about that?
It was a six foot tall, bronze, Etruscan fork. I think it had been pulled out of a shipwreck.
The summer after my freshman year I was interning in the antiquities department of the Getty Villa and I was bored to death. The Fork’s arrival was the high point of that week and as I watched the curators (who were all very brilliant at what they did) ever so gently unpack and make a fuss over the giant fork, I found that I could not match their rapturous enthusiasm. This is when I realized that museum work was not for me.
It was upsetting because I had thought since I was pretty young that I would like to work in museums, specifically this museum. I had no idea what I wanted to do next.
So, to spoil the ending a little, you’re a journalist now—how did you get interested in journalism? Did you start by doing college journalism and then get hooked, or did you get into it some other way?
Sort of by accident and sort of by openness. I knew I was ambitious, and after that summer I went back to what I liked from freshman year, and that was politics. I thought I might want to be a lawyer. But because I didn’t know I spent my sophomore year aggressively pursuing too many study groups and setting up SCI seminars with tutors I wanted to learn from.
One of those tutors told me about a new program called the Hertog Political Studies Program and he nominated me for it. One of our speakers was Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard. He was teaching a class on Tocqueville.
When I came back to St. John’s for my junior year, the tutor who nominated me told me, as an aside, something like, “Oh, Bill Kristol told me you were a good student.” Perhaps this had actually happened. Or not. Either way, my response was to jump all over it: get Kristol’s email and ask him for an internship. I sent him an email about how I was a hard worker and that even though I didn’t know anything about journalism, St. John’s had given me the Great Books and made me a fast learner. I worked on this email for days. It was embarrassingly long but full of enthusiasm. At the end of it all, he sent me something like “Seems fine,” and forwarded my email to another editor, who handled internships.
At this point I had never done any journalism. The Standard didn’t pay so they pointed me to an organization (the Student Free Press Association) that would fund a summer internship at the Standard—if I’d write stories for them (the SFPA) during the year. They assigned me a story right away and I started making phone calls and interviewing people and I wrote my first story.
That story got picked up by the Atlantic, Fox News, Huffington Post, and National Review Online. And I really really liked seeing my name in print (digital print?). That summer, I interned at the Standard, and wrote for them as a senior at St. John’s. When I graduated, I worked for them full time as a Collegiate Network fellow, and then I went to the Washington Post.
Well, the Student Free Press was sort of an in-between for “student” and “professional” journalism. It was online and had a wide readership so it was professional, but the other reporters were students, too, and they had a great editor who knew I had no experience and was very free with lots of helpful guidance.
What’s it like being a reporter?
Sometimes, it’s spending 8 hours in a committee hearing, waiting for something to happen, but then it doesn’t happen, and you get to come back the next day and hope it happens then. Sometimes you try to sneak into prisons. Sometimes you sit outside someone’s office all day in case they come in, and maybe you chase them across a parking lot so that you can get to them before they make it to their car. This is how I used to find tutors for Shakespeare in the Fall seminars.
Mostly it’s really fun. I get paid to learn about things, stalk people, and ask them offensive questions.
I like finding out that no matter what your subject matter, someone in the world is an expert on it. The state of Maryland has—or at least had—a team of experts dedicated to exterminating this one rodent species from the state. The Nutria death squad. I spent a lot of time learning about this, but the story never ran, so I mention it whenever I can.
What’s your favorite piece out of what you’ve written?
The most fun I ever had writing a story was when I covered a “Cajun Primary” in southern Louisiana. Because of redistricting, two sitting Republican congressman were facing off for the same seat– no primary, the contest would run into election day. It was a bitter, ugly battle. They accused each other of all kinds of corruption, cocaine use, and fake Catholicism. One campaign tried to woo me into talking up their candidate by taking me off-the-record night-frogging, which is where you go out into the swamp and try and catch bullfrogs with your bare hands. At the end of the day, though, neither candidate was happy with my story which I suppose means I did well.
So, you’ve described yourself as “ambitious” earlier in this interview, and that raises a common question about St. John’s, especially for kids whose other college options might look better on a resume. Which is: suppose you’re a hungry career shark, but you also want a liberal education, so you don’t want to go the traditional hungry shark Ivy route. You want to go to St. John’s. But you worry that will set you back in terms of making connections and such.
How do you compensate for that? What are the resources at St. John’s that will help you?
Well, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I went to school—I thought museums might be it, but it wasn’t enough to send me to museum studies school. I wanted to get an education that seemed whole and complete. Actually, what I really wanted to do at the time was to write novels, but I thought I needed to have something substantial to say first. I figured that the St. John’s education would make me smarter and better at anything I wanted to do. It was nice because when I had my great fork awakening, it didn’t disrupt my education. I didn’t have to change majors. I could keep forging ahead.
The main resource at St. John’s that helped me was definitely the tutors. They know people, and if you make sure and tell them what you want to do, they’re happy to help. (My freshman lab tutor knew the librarian at the Getty museum, my freshman Greek tutor knew the Hertog Program people.) I did go to Career Services to proofread my resume. And of course, the College is right across the street from the Maryland State House, so that’s why I got assigned the Maryland politics stories from the Student Free Press and later, the Weekly Standard.
I also relied heavily on the St. John’s spirit of amateur endeavor—that is, plunging boldly into a topic or activity with the idea that I could probably figure anything out if I worked at it. For instance: I didn’t even know if I would like journalism when I wrote the letter to the Weekly Standard. I saw an opportunity to get my foot in the door somewhere interesting, to get into the political arena generally, and I jumped all over it, kind of blindly but with a lot of thumos.
Some people struggle with self-promotion, whether from shyness or politeness or disinterest in doing it at all. But self-promotion has been pretty key to your success. What advice, if any, do you have for them?
If you don’t do it, no one else will do it for you. I hate doing it too. It’s awful. But there are worse things. Like unemployment. But also, for me, learning how to be a reporter has been a long process of learning how to be shameless. . .so it gets easier every day.
You can self-promote humbly and honestly. Admitting you don’t know about something and want to learn about something is very appealing to people. Knowing that you don’t know something will probably put you ahead of a bunch of people who are going to apply for jobs trying to sound smarter than they are. Be the eager and humble rapacious little St. John’s learner that you are.
St. John’s gives you an awesome education and you can change your description of it to suit a lot of different jobs. So: emphasize different aspects of the program to suit your needs, without fudging them. For the Getty Villa, I talked about all the Greek we learned and all the plays we read (the museum was about to do an exhibit on Greek theater). For the Weekly Standard I talked about Machiavelli, Moses, and Xenophon.
St John’s teaches you to love wisdom but not to rely on experts for it. Which means that you don’t have to let a lack of experience in something prevent you from trying it on.
In other words, it helps with chutzpah.
Just going to follow up on this self-promotion theme: what does “networking” mean to you? It’s a big buzz word but whenever I’m trying to “network” I end up standing in a room awkwardly and the room is full of other people standing awkwardly and no one’s making eye contact. . . .
I think that it means introducing yourself to people who might be helpful to you at some point, that you want to learn something from. I’ve found that I’ve done my best “networking” when I’ve actually got something I want to ask this person. My senior year, there was a crisis with the Maryland budget and the Weekly Standard asked me to write an article about it. Since I hadn’t followed the situation closely, I emailed a reporter at the Washington Post and asked him for background on the situation. I wasn’t trying to get a job there. I just wanted information.
About a year later, after I had graduated and started working full-time at the Weekly Standard, the Washington Post needed to hire someone extra to report on the Maryland legislative session and they remembered me and asked me to come in for an interview. So I got that job.
A lot of my fellowships involved getting a “mentor” assigned to me, and I would actually solicit their advice when it was relevant (or send them my articles to read for feedback). That’s what they are there for. Then, I would listen to their advice and take their edits. I think the less sharky you are about it the better it is—you’re just taking people up on their halfhearted “if there’s ever anything I can do”-s.
The worst time I’ve tried to “network” and failed was when I got someone to give me the email address of someone I really admired, so I came up with a really thin connection between something she did and a story I was working on, and she answered me (by email) very politely but that was the end of it. She could tell I was just trying to schmooze. I am full of shame recounting this.
Have something specific that you actually want to learn from someone. Then ask them to have coffee with you and to tell you about that thing. They will likely be flattered and impressed by your initiative. Even if they’re not, you’ve learned something from them that you legitimately wanted to know. That may sound kind of lame and obvious but the key part is working up the nerve to use the resources available to you. Also, Johnnies present and future, if there’s anything that I can ever do for you. . .here I am: email@example.com.
Speaking of “resources”. . .I think you are one of the few people I know who has never worked for free. And part of that is that you hunt down funding; even when you were working at the Weekly Standard after graduation, you were getting your funding through another fellowship, right? And that was part of why you could so easily pursue that position at the Washington Post.
Yes! I always had to find funding somewhere, because I couldn’t afford to be an unpaid intern anywhere.
I think a lot of people don’t know about that whole world of fellowships and such and don’t know that doing unpaid internships is not their only option, that there are programs out there that will fund them to pursue what they want. So are there any fellowships or programs you’d recommend for St. John’s students?
I have oodles.
For journalism: The Student Free Press Association (or as it’s now called, the College Fix), the Collegiate Network fellowship, The Institute for Political Journalism, Policymic (I don’t know how much they pay, but I bet they will publish you). The Institute for Humane Studies, if you are libertarian or libertarian-tolerant.
For political philosophers of all stripes: the Hertog Political Studies program. I would highly recommend this program to any vaguely ambitious Johnnies who don’t know quite what they want but would like to be exposed to a lot of different kinds of political-philosophical lives. And you get paid a nice stipend to live in DC for the summer.
The Hodson Trust, and programs like it. There are all sorts of programs that will fund you to work somewhere else. And then you can offer yourself to an institution for free, so they will find it hard not to hire you, but you will not be an unpaid intern. Ask your host institution if they know of anyone or just google “___ field fellowships.”
Finally: what did you get out of your liberal education, Kate Havard?
It brought the question of the best life front and center. It taught me that that thing my soul was longing for was virtue. And it taught me how to read the books I love so much, so that no matter what I can do, after a day of unphilosphical muckracking I can “pass into the ancient courts of the men of old, where,…I am fed with that food which is mine alone; where I do not hesitate to speak with them, and to ask for the reason of their actions, and they in their benignity answer me; and for four hours I feel no weariness, I forget every trouble, poverty does not dismay, death does not terrify me; I am possessed entirely…”
Just kidding. Sort of.
Kate Havard is a Tikvah fellow in New York City. She graduated from St. John’s College in 2012. Since graduating, she has worked for the Weekly Standard and the Washington Post. She has been a Collegiate Network fellow, a Hertog fellow, and a Publius fellow. Currently, she is starting work on a series of articles about being Jewish in America.