Joanna Shea O’Brien
Class of 1997
This past April (2019), the Marymount English department asked Marymount alumna, Joanna Shea O’Brien, Class of ’97, to speak at their Spring Celebration. They had the chance to catch up with her about the many successes she has had since graduating from Marymount with her Bachelor’s Degree in English. The following is the resulting Q&A:
1. What is your current job title or other position?
Oral Historian, Communications Consultant
2. What have you been up to since you were a student at Marymount?
After I graduated from Marymount University in 1997, I worked for two years as a staff assistant in the United States Senate for Senator Edward M. Kennedy. In that job, with an amazing mentor, I did a lot of writing, and got excellent training in the job world with a heavy emphasis on organizational and communications skills. I then decided to move to New York City to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree at Columbia University in the nonfiction writing program. While completing my degree, I worked on the September 11th Narrative and Memory Project for the Columbia Center for Oral History, a project that profoundly impacted me and redefined my understanding of the kind of work and research I wanted to be involved in as my career progressed.
I have worked in the communications, research and writing field for the Peace Corps, Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, the JFK Library Foundation, the 2017 Boston Women’s March for America and as a freelance consultant. After the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, I worked as an oral historian for Northeastern University’s Our Marathon WBUR Oral History Project. Most recently, I have launched my own website which focuses on oral history (www.joannasheaobrien.com). This past March, I presented at the Oral History Mid Atlantic Region annual conference (#OHMAR2018) at American University on the topic of Documenting Post-Traumatic Narrator-Centered History. In June, I was a panelist at the annual Massachusetts History Conference (#MassHistory2018), discussing What is Oral History and What is Storytelling?
3. What are you working on now and what are you most proud of?
I am currently working on two projects that involve writing, research and oral history. My first project is working for the Cambridge Historical Commission researching and writing biographies of notable Cambridge women for the Cambridge Women’s Heritage Project online. A second, longer term project focuses on narrative memory in response to trauma and its importance in public history. One of my Our Marathon project colleagues and I are working with community advocates on a potential new oral history project in Boston related to gun violence and community resilience. Stay tuned on the topic, or follow me on twitter @jsheaobrien
4. How did your experience at Marymount impact these things?
I am incredibly grateful to my time at Marymount because my professors provided a place for critical thinking skills to grow and flourish. Within the English Department, I felt deeply respected by my both my peers and professors, and that respect created a positive learning environment. I was excited to go to class and discuss George Eliot, Zora Neale Hurston, Shakespeare, confessional memoirs or 20th century American poetry. I remembering feeling electrified by the lectures of Dr. Hagy, grateful for the thorough editing of my papers by Dr. Hoare and nurtured and cared for by the mentorship of Dr. Bisson and Professor Atkins. I am still grateful for the continual support I receive from my French professor Dr. Dominguez. My classes were small, and that really worked for my learning style. Marymount gave me a sense of confidence as I contemplated entering the professional world. The professors serious attention to their students’ work and respect for our ideas reinforced the importance of mindful listening, something that is very important in the field of oral history.
5. What are your future career, service, or other goals?
To continue to work on meaningful oral history projects, to stay active in my community on social justice issues, and to raise my three children to be healthy and happy.
6. What advice would you give to prospective students considering a career in your field?
The post-college can be difficult because students are faced with the realities of adulthood, namely repaying college loans, deciding where to work and live, how to pay rent and pursue your dreams all at the same time.
I have three pieces of advice: pursue your passion, find a mentor and be willing to take risks.
First, pursue your passion: even if you graduate immediately and begin work in a field that isn’t what you had dreamt of during college, keep working on the side, as a volunteer or in any capacity, on the things that interest you or inspire you. Simply put, if you love something, you will eventually find yourself drawn to that kind of work and if you work hard, you will succeed.
Secondly, find a mentor: one of my graduate professors knew I was better at research than writing and introduced me to the Oral History Office at Columbia. That was a huge gift for me and shift in the direction of where I wanted to go professionally. Having mentors along the way really helps you to recognize your strengths because they may be able to push you out of your comfort zone to try new things. Working for Ambassador Caroline Kennedy also helped shape my vision of what professional life could someday be. Ambassador Kennedy had a law degree, was involved in a variety of professional endeavors, and was a mother of three young children when I worked for her, but she was always writing, researching and reading. Writing was always part of her daily routine, and that is something that every English major should take to heart. Even if you are not writing the great American novel, or your PhD dissertation, you should aim to write and work on projects that involve writing and research continually.
Last, work hard and take risks: English graduates have to pay the bills, so if you are going to be using your writing and research skills, put those skills to work in a job area that you love – whether it is technology, arts, politics or education. Ten years out of academia, it was hard to break into the oral history field because it is very academically-based. I joined professional organizations and I applied to participate in national conferences (many oral history organizations, and probably others as well, welcome independent scholars or professionals to submit paper proposals). After the Boston Marathon bombings, I wrote to every single library and university in Boston to discuss the possibility of an oral history project. Eventually, someone replied, referring me to Northeastern and that led to a job interview. I didn’t mind the rejections or the hard work because it was something I loved so much and really wanted to make happen. Find the thing you love and keep working hard and stay involved in that field, no matter what the perceived barriers are.