As the world changes at an ever-increasing pace, professionals of all stripes find themselves changing careers and adapting their skills from their original degrees to new settings and contexts. Carl Peterson earned his Bachelors degree in journalism from Northwestern University and is an MFA Alumnus from The University of Alabama, where he earned his degree in Creative Writing. Although Peterson started by teaching English at The University of Alabama, he is now working for the private food and agricultural company Cargill in Minneapolis. His journalism and fine arts degrees prepared him for the corporate world in more ways than people may realize: critical thinking and analysis are useful outside of the humanities in so many different ways.
When asking Peterson about his MFA in Creative Writing, and how it has helped him with his current career, Peterson observes a little joke about the humanities: “You can’t do anything with a liberal arts degree.” However, now that he is experiencing the business world firsthand, he is the perfect candidate to show how wrong that joke actually is. Peterson acknowledges that “the English degree gives you the ability to communicate really well, think critically about things, put yourself in other people’s shoes, and see things from a variety of perspectives.” All that time spent debating famous works in the English canon is actually preparing students for a lot more than writing their theses. These skills allow students to think through complex tasks when they go into a field outside the humanities. Curiosity is actually what drew Peterson to the business world.
Unless someone is familiar with an industry, or the way a business operates, it’s easy and tempting to make assumptions about the corporate world. Some people erroneously believe that corporate jobs are as entertaining as a CEO in a Brooks Brothers suit. This assumption, according to Peterson, is wrong. As Peterson continues to learn about Cargill, the business world, and the food industry, he points out “the more curious you are, the more successful you are.” The people Peterson works with are also very diverse. Peterson explains that Cargill “is a far more diverse group of people than in the academic world. You get to interact with all kinds of people. There are different professions as well such as scientists, lawyers, business people.” Although Peterson misses time for creative writing and research, he enjoys the team aspect of the corporate world as well. Getting a chance to work with different people has been a rewarding and exciting experience.
Considering that Peterson did not think he would be working for a large company, it is interesting to discover what drew him to Cargill, a huge corporation that has been around since 1865. Peterson and his wife originally left Tuscaloosa to be closer to their family. Peterson was interested in trying something new, and as he and his wife prepared for their move, he began searching for companies with a great reputation. “It’s pretty fair to say I was skeptical of large companies while I was a teacher,” Peterson admits, “but I also suspected I didn’t know the full story.” Peterson was curious to discover what it was like to work for a large corporation, and given the current debates about food supply and production, Peterson was interested in the potential opportunities Cargill had to offer. In the two years Peterson has spent at Cargill, he has “been to China’s dairy heartland, the high-rises of Singapore, the remote corners of rural Brazil and 1,800 feet underground in a salt mine in Louisiana.” Peterson is very proud of these experiences as he “couldn’t have imagined getting to any of these places” on his own.
When Peterson first took his job with Cargill, he was hired to work on their employee website: “They essentially wanted to turn it into a news site that touched on topics that were affecting the company. I was hired to be a reporter, editor, and publisher for the website, so I was writing and reporting every day.” Now Peterson has two responsibilities. One involves working with the corporate responsibility team by communicating to different branches of Cargill and other external stakeholders around the world. According to Peterson Cargill “focuses on topics like the large issues with the food industry, food systems and we are trying to show the good things that companies do charitably and within the business. There is a large focus on food security, which is making sure that there is enough food to sustain the world.” Peterson also works with the financial team. Peterson says that he has learned a lot about business and finance, which has been an exciting learning experience for him.
Peterson’s MFA from The University of Alabama’s Department of English has helped him forge skills that have proven useful in a variety of settings. During his time at The University of Alabama, he had an opportunity as he got to see the university go through major changes from the time he arrived in 2004 to the time he left after being an instructor for several years. His advice to other English students and departmental alumni is to learn how to market the skills students gain from an English degree: “What you have as an English major is the ability to think critically; if you can write really well, it is going to grab someone’s attention. Take those writing skills and really use them in your application process.”