Interview with Dana Sweeney, English Major Alumnus and Recipient of the Truman Scholarship

Dana Sweeney graduated summa cum laude in May 2017 with a major in English Literature. While at UA, Sweeney earned a prestigious Truman Scholarship, beating out 729 candidates from 305 American colleges and universities. As a Truman Scholar, Sweeney spent his post-graduation summer in Washington D.C. working with the advocacy group, People for The American Way. He is now working in Chicago as an organizer with Change Corps through the Public Interest Network.

Sweeney spoke with Van Newell about his English journey prior to graduation.

Why did you decide to attend UA?

As someone who wasn’t sure how to finance higher education, merit-based scholarships attracted me to UA. My high school mentor was a Bama grad, and I’ll never forget discovering that I could afford to attend this university. I was also impressed by the communications staff. All of the folks that I corresponded with were warm, welcoming, and excited to speak with me as a prospective student. I’d had the chance to visit a few other universities, and I left those campuses with the impression that I should feel lucky if I ever got to attend them. When I visited Alabama, by contrast, everyone left me with the impression that they felt lucky I was considering UA. This total shift in the relational dynamic made me feel so welcomed here. It cemented my decision that Alabama was the right place for me—both in financial and circumstantial terms.

Why did you decide to major in English?

I decided to major in English because I love literature. English equips me with essential abilities to persuade, to interpret, to discern, to communicate, to reason, to connect, and to imagine. I do not underestimate the value of these skills. At the same time, however, I distinctly chose this degree because I knew it to be something that I would enjoy and look forward to. I chose English Literature because it makes me happy and curious and excited to learn.

Which English class has had the most impact on you and why?

I have had so many enthralling, perspective-shifting courses, but one particular class was Dr. Jennifer Purvis’ special topics class on Heteronormativity. It was the first time that I had ever taken a class where I had the chance to study and discuss feminist and queer theories formally, which upended much of my thinking about gender, sexuality, power, history, and social organization. In addition to my love for literature, I am profoundly interested in politics and civic life. This course gave me a unique opportunity to bring those loves together—to think about society and politics in new ways through literature. It left a lasting impression, and I still think about and refer back to this class often.

What interested you about the Truman scholarship?

I have always wanted to go into public service, and I knew that I would need more than an undergraduate degree. Because graduate school is important preparation for public service, I figured that it made sense to apply, even if the award was a long shot. As I moved through the application process, my interest shifted. While I was initially interested in the scholarship (which I appreciate) I encountered a diverse community of organizers and activists who are working to uplift communities around the country and around the world. Current Truman Scholars are constantly learning from, being challenged by, and receiving support from their Truman peers from previous cohorts. The impact of Truman runs deeper and much longer than a few years of graduate study. It is a lifelong community and journey of working together for the public good. That work became the focal point of my interest, and I am most grateful to be entrusted with a Truman Scholarship.

What are you going to study in graduate school?

My graduate studies are a little up in the air. I had initially planned on pursuing a Master of Public Policy (MPP) degree in a program that would allow me to take elective classes in that institution’s Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program. I wanted to have the quantitative foundation to address public issues and the expertise to translate spreadsheets into accessible stories. I am also considering law school, given the versatility of a JD. For now, I am also planning to defer graduate school for a few years so that I can make a more informed decision. about what sort of education to pursue. The Truman Foundation direction calls my decision “time on”—the chance to go out into the field and to learn. I will be spending several years doing community organizing and then choose a graduate program that equips me the most effectively to move forward.

What would be your dream job or vocation?

I once read about an Icelandic writer, activist, parliamentarian (Birgitta Jónsdóttir) who described herself as a “poetician”: part politician, part poet. I don’t know what exactly is included in that job description, and I’ve no idea where one might apply for such a position, but I’m trying to live my life so that I can someday be a poetician, too.

How would you convince an undergraduate student to major in English?

One of my great mentors said: “History tells you what happened; literature tells you what it felt like.” Study English to learn about people, history, and how stories shape the world. I could leap into all of the professional reasons that you should major in English (and there are many), but for me, those reasons are all secondary to the value of discovering how our lives are connected across space, time, and experience. Major in English because you want to think critically, to read widely and well, and to be prepared for a complex world where everybody is telling stories.