Today’s blog post comes from Matthew Howland (CLAS ’09), who uses his history background in running a successful nonprofit organization, even though it made him into a confessed ‘writing and public relations snob.’
The bio of myself that I share on my nonprofit youth fitness organization’s website starts with the sentence “I graduated from the University of Florida in 2009 with a degree in History, which helps a lot with what I do now.” Can you sense the sarcasm? In a sense, I like to play along with the common misconception that a history major is only good for teaching or killing time before law school. The truth is, the history major has changed my life, not just my career.
Let me map out how my history major took me from an immature “I know everything” undergraduate student to my current role as founder and executive director of a nonprofit organization that has little to do with history content. Towards the end of my undergraduate career I realized I had no real idea of what I wanted to do with my life, so, I did what all good history majors do, I took the LSAT and prepared for law school. Throughout my undergraduate career I worked for the City of Gainesville as a Program Director for an afterschool program. Upon my graduation from the University of Florida, a local principal offered me a teaching job. I originally laughed it off as I had never enjoyed school too much. I spent some time exploring opportunities with politics and law school, all the while thinking about what was missing in my life–the kids! I truly loved working with the kids. So, tail between legs, I returned to the principal and asked for the teaching job, which created both irony and contention at home as my wife, then girlfriend, was in graduate school working on an education degree… to be a teacher. So there I was, moving from one stereotypical history major path (law school) to another (teacher).
If you’re still hanging in there, we’re about to get to the part where I talk about how the history major helped me. In my final year teaching I created an after school fitness program. The program was hugely successful and after only a couple months community leaders were urging me to quit my job and expand the program, and so I did. I quit my job, sold my car, and established Youth Combine as a 501(c)3 nonprofit youth fitness organization.
Here comes the history major. My history major taught me how to read, write, and listen effectively. I lead an organization with 100+ youth members, 200+ parents, 40+ University of Florida student volunteers, and 12+ community business partners. Every day I am responsible for crafting a message that conveys our mission statement and garners the support of our community for the growth and success of our organization. The kicker? I have about thirty seconds to convey the message, every time. Whether I am giving “the pitch” to the CEO of a business, crafting a press release, or being interviewed by a local publication, I have about thirty seconds to capture the attention of my audience, deliver an effective message, and garner their support. I have to capture all the excitement, emotion, and effectiveness our nonprofit organization has experienced over the last two and a half years, and convey that in three or four sentences. Four years of pillaging through books and producing one hundred page papers (like a good fishing story, the length of the papers increase with time) taught me to take piles and piles of information and pack it all in nice and tidy to a paper that delivered a message and defended an argument quickly and effectively. My history major taught me to write.
As founder and executive director of a nonprofit organization, I can tell you that reputation is everything. You want people to know who you are before you walk in the room. You want everyone to love you, love your organization, and think your organization is perfect in every way. How do you accomplish that? You have to craft that very image yourself. Every word you write, every sentence you speak, should confidently showcase your superiority. If you are fortunate enough to be provided with a platform to share your message with the public, you need to treat that opportunity as your only chance to convince every citizen of this earth to support you and your project.
I’ve turned into a writing and public relations snob. You wouldn’t believe how many professionals are terrible communicators. In the last two years, Youth Combine has been featured seven times in local publications (we even made a cameo in a Washington Post article, a tip of the hat to another CLAS student who focused on political science, religion, and history, Benjamin Bartley). I love to pick up the local newspapers and magazines to find interviews and self-authored articles of local business owners with the sole purpose of critiquing their poor performance of public relations. They clearly weren’t history majors!
If you can read effectively, listen thoughtfully, and write elegantly, you can convince the world of anything. You are infinitely powerful. You were a history major and you should thank your professors even though you might resent all that red ink that they spilled on your papers!