News - You Majored in Storytelling?

You Majored in Storytelling?

You Majored in Storytelling?

"What is your major?" This is a question frequently asked of college students. Unless the response is a pre-professional degree, a second question usually follows: "What do you plan to do with that?"

For liberal arts students majoring in subjects like English or art, this line of questioning can be frustrating. If students have studied their department's website or brochure, they can usually satisfy concerned relatives and friends by replying with a list of possible careers and outcomes. But how does a student majoring in "storytelling" respond?

Andy Mills '07, a radio producer for WNYC's Radiolab, knows the feeling well. When Andy transferred to Greenville College and declared a major in "storytelling," his family worried that he might be squandering his potential.

"My dad thought I might be spending money on an education that may not lead to a job," Andy said, "And my friends just kind of playfully made fun of me. No one was very encouraging."

Andy transferred to Greenville College at a time when he was searching for a new major. When he was young, he wanted to become a preacher, just like his grandfather. "I would go to church on Sundays and just look at our preacher, a guy who gets paid to tell these compelling stories and to write his listeners into the narrative," says Andy. "These stories have been around for thousands and thousands of years, and he was able to create a relevancy to their lives."

When Andy decided not to pursue a vocation in ministry, he still sought a career that would allow him to tell stories. He explored becoming a teacher, instead. Andy admits it was naivety that led him to education. "I never really wanted to be a high school teacher. I really just wanted to learn how to do that thing that John Keating does in Dead Poet's Society."

Next, he settled on studying history. "I'll learn the story of humanity," he thought. It was an idealistic and romantic goal, but his enthusiasm was met by professors like Teresa Holden, who empowers her upper division students to think and write like historians.

Andy describes an African American history class, saying, "She would tell us, 'You are a historian. You will read many primary and secondary sources. You will need to figure out what happened and tell us how it worked.'" He developed a deep respect for the role historians play in society. Andy thought perhaps he had found a major.

The pivotal moment in Andy's search came through meetings with Rick McPeak, a professor of religion and philosophy with whom he had grown close. They shared many conversations over coffee about faith, life, doubt, and wonder. At one point, Andy remembers a time when McPeak asked him if he was happy with what he was studying. "In a perfect world, Andy, in a world where you ran the universe, what major would you want?"

Andy said, "I want to learn how to tell good stories. I want to learn why we like stories so much. Why are stories the foundation of every religion, of every nation? I want to know about that."

McPeak turned to his computer and typed: Andy Mills, first Greenville College student to graduate with a degree in Storytelling and Narrative Studies. He printed it out and handed it to Andy.

"How does that sound? If you want, we can do this through an individually tailored education plan (ITEP). It will be hard. There will be a lot of little steps along the way. But together, we can make this happen."

Andy said that he needed a few days to think about it. "I was nervous that I was going to be just a really talkative janitor for the rest of my life."

For guidance, he looked to the stories of people he admired. Some of the most successful people he knew made ambitious, entrepreneurial decisions that did not look smart or safe on the surface. They risked a lot and carved their own paths. They made decisions based on what they hoped would happen and worked toward success. He felt assured that somehow it would all work out if he did the same.

Together, McPeak and Andy developed the ITEP degree. Professors like Brad Shaw, Ruth Huston, and Teresa Holden helped by tailoring their syllabi and projects to develop Andy's focus on storytelling. For his senior project, Andy performed an artistic story telling recital.

After graduation, Andy traveled to South Sudan to work as a research journalist. Upon returning, he studied at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Maine. When his time at Salt came to an end, he pieced together jobs working at coffee shops and cafes while pursuing his dream of telling stories.

His big break came with a short radio documentary he produced for fun about his close friend, Kohn Ashmore. Andy recorded it in his apartment with the help of several friends he had met at Greenville College. After he released it on the Internet, several local public radio stations aired the story. It was well received. Radiolab picked it up and collaborated with Andy to create a version of the story called "Slow."

Andy won the "Best New Artist Award" at the Third Coast International Audio Festival, which he explains is like the Academy Awards of international public radio. Earning the award confirmed for Andy that he was headed in the right direction. It gave him the encouragement he needed to stick it out and keep working at coffee shops and waiting tables, trying to make his dream a reality. The award told Andy, "You're not the only one who thinks you have something to say."

Shortly after that experience, he found himself on his way to Brooklyn to work for WNYC, a public radio station in New York. Andy says that his heroes at Radiolab are now his coworkers. In his role as a radio producer, he participates in all the aspects of producing a story. He researches and pitches story ideas, conducts interviews, edits his coworker's stories, writes scripts, and mixes audio.

When asked if he has struggled explaining his unconventional degree to prospective employers, Andy said, "Every employer who has actually hired me - which is not a whole lot of people, but the ones who have - were impressed by my degree in storytelling. They were impressed that I created my own degree. I now have a job at the largest public radio station in the country, a job that 3,000 other people applied for, and I was offered the position."

He is quick to clarify, "Having said that, my success didn't come as quickly as it would have if I had studied something more conventional. I took a risk, and I had to pay for that risk with a few years of living on minimum wage jobs with bills and student loans that I didn't know how to pay. I got nervous that I had put all my chips in on the wrong hand. There were times of significant doubt. If students want to pursue an ITEP degree, they've got to recognize that this could be their reality. My ability to be adaptable is the reason I've had this success."

Andy's goal at Greenville College was not just to earn a degree, but also to leave campus smarter. It took the encouragement of Professor Rick McPeak and extraordinary effort on Andy's part. He worked to align every course, every paper, and every assignment with his overall research goals in storytelling and narrative studies.

Andy says of the experience, "The best thing, in my opinion, about Greenville College is the friendships. My best friends are the people I met at Greenville. The way that our faith and our views of the world changed all alongside each other at a place like Greenville College, where you're really encouraged to talk about such things, created this bond that continues to this day."

He adds, "I legitimately miss most of the educators there. I don't know if most people can say that about their college or university experience."

Andy and The Hudson Branch, a band comprising several Greenville College alumni, performed live at the 2012 Third Coast Festival on Sunday, October 7th. You can learn more about Andy's work at Radiolab and listen to his stories by clicking here.

This story was published on October 18, 2012

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