Lena Levendoski graduated from UA with a BA in English in 1995. She is currently the founder of the non-profit organization, Stick’s Gift, which provides clothing to newborns in need in the greater Nashville and Davidson counties. Levendoski shared her story with Van Newell.
Why did you decide to attend UA?
The reason I chose the University of Alabama was simply because I lived in Tuscaloosa. It was an easy and convenient choice that worked out well for me. I moved out, just as most freshmen do, and lived in Tutwiler dorm. I had the full college experience with the bonus of being able to escape every once in a while back home.
Why did you decide to major in English?
At first, I didn’t. I started out as a Business Major. I think most Freshman come to college thinking they are going to go one direction and soon find themselves interested in another. Two things happened that convinced me to finally change my major to English. One, I had already taken a few English classes, and I seemed to thrive in the invigorating atmosphere. My professors, Dr. Don Nobel and Dr. Dwight Eddins, easily drew me into the lifestyle; authors such as Jack Kerouac and Shakespeare had me hanging on every word. The second thing that convinced me to change majors was that I was in the midst of taking a three-hour accounting course on Tuesday nights that felt the opposite of invigorating. I finally came to the decision to switch majors, which wasn’t easy because my father, Dr. Lonnie Strickland, is a notable professor in Alabama’s Business School. I remember going into his office one day to break the news. I felt terrible about it. However, later that day I found a bouquet of flowers and a note on my front step with his blessing to change majors.
Which English class has had the most impact on you and why?
Hands down, the study abroad program to Oxford was one of the best experiences of my life. I absolutely loved it. We were immersed in literature. We would read a Shakespeare play and then walk down the street to see it performed. We would read Wordsworth and then visit the Lake District to see where he wrote. It was an amazing time and I was thrilled to be a part of it. The second most impactful experience was when I wrote a paper about an obscure classic novel. I had the read book and come to the conclusion that the main character had a split personality, which I thought easily explained her erratic behavior. I turned the paper in knowing that I was taking a risk. To my surprise, I received an A with a note from my professor that read: “I do not believe a WORD of this, but because you supported it well, I have no choice but to give you an A.” This taught me something important; it taught me the value of supporting what you believe in and doing it well. Words are powerful when used correctly, and with support, they can change outcomes.
How did majoring in English prepare you for life beyond UA?
My first job was with BellSouth in Nashville—I think I may have been the only English major in our office. What is unique about majoring in English is that it sharpens critical thinking. English Majors have been taught to look for different meanings and to interpret the intentions of authors and characters; and in my line of work, customers, projects, and managers. My strength is the creative communication of ideas, plans, and concepts. Not only could I do all of this, I could communicate it easily in writing. I was able to explain new ideas to customers through analogies and to write letters and proposals that were clear, interesting, and persuasive. It was easy to see how an English degree set me apart in the workplace.
How has majoring in English helped in your involvement with nonprofits?
I founded Strick’s Gift in 2008 to help newborns in need in Nashville. I had to be able to tell a convincing story about why I was doing this work and how someone could get involved. Words are important when it comes to applying for grants and writing letters, presentations, and online content. The words have to be chosen carefully when trying to shift perspectives, motivate a group, or explain a new idea. Being able to successfully write and communicate points of view are important skills that will serve English majors their whole lives, no matter what field they choose.
How would you convince an undergraduate to major in English?
Understanding literature, writing, and analytical skills will set you apart from your competition. From the first day a student looks for a job, they have to be able to communicate who they are to a potential employer. First impressions happen in person, but also (and maybe more importantly) they happen in writing. An English degree teaches one to look at situations from all angles and to support points of view. It derives knowledge from different cultures, histories, and perspectives. It is a skill; it is not just about being well read. These skills are sought after and can be utilized in any setting. In business, these skills are assets and considered a competitive advantage.