Twitter and Toni Morrison: Gaylena Merritt on Discovering Inspiration in Unexpected Places

In our latest guest post, alumna Gaylena Merritt discovers how inspiration and opportunities are sometimes found in unexpected places. Continue reading to find out how such sources as Twitter and a Toni Morrison novel helped Gaylena uncover and rediscover the interests which guided her through Ball State, her master’s degree in Higher Education Administration, and her present position as Manager of Programs at the Kappa Alpha Theta Foundation.

I recently joined Twitter. This is certainly not an earth-shattering development to the social media-savvy, but for me—the gal who waited to publish a Facebook page until almost a year after the phenomenon swept up my peers—tweeting is a big deal.

I don’t tweet much, but I do tweet-stalk quite often. On a recent Tweetin’ safari, I came across a link to an interview of Toni Morrison in New York magazine. As I began reading the interview, I was taken back to the yellowed and creased pages of my Morrison novels—where I discovered so much more beneath her incredible words.

That may sound a bit melodramatic, but I can honestly say reading the work of Toni Morrison (particularly The Bluest Eye) as an undergraduate English major at Ball State sparked my interest in education and eventually led me to my current work as Manager of Programs at the Kappa Alpha Theta Foundation.

When I first enrolled at Ball State, I just knew I was eventually going to be a high school English teacher. I envisioned myself leading students through the sonnets of Shakespeare, the poems of Plath, and down the winding river in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But after a few classroom observation sessions and some core education courses, teaching just wasn’t as important to me anymore.

Honestly, I just wanted to talk about books.

So I shifted my focus from secondary education and continued with an English Literature major (and picked up a History major along the way) and didn’t see myself working in education at all.

That all changed after I read Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. If you’ve ever read the heart wrenching story of Pecola Breedlove, I’m sure you understand how it could profoundly affect me. But it wasn’t just Pecola; the entire world that Morrison described, rife with racism, sexism, and classism, shook me to my core. And it wasn’t that I was simply moved by the injustices of the past; it was that I recognized those injustices in my own world.

At that point, I began thinking about education in a different way than I previously had. While my classroom experience had been incredible, I recognized it as a small part of the broader construct of EDUCATION, a mammoth of a labyrinth of academics, politics, economics, and ethics. I became more curious about all of the “stuff” that went into making a meaningful experience for a student and even an entire student body.  I wondered:  what paths led my peers to the desks around me? What privileges and disadvantages did they experience? What kept them in those desks? Who kept them in those desks? Who cleaned those desks? Who paid the people who cleaned the desks?

And the one question we’ve all asked ourselves: why do classrooms typically look like jail cells?

I had the opportunity to learn more about all that “stuff” with a post-graduate fellowship with Ball State’s Honors College. That work eventually led me to pursue a master’s degree in Higher Education Administration from Indiana University. After grad school, I worked in development for a nonprofit organization whose primary focus is on music education. My responsibilities included fundraising and grantwriting in addition to coordinating a small scholarship program. Over time, I learned a lesson I will carry with me for the rest of my life:  giving money away is much more fun than asking for it.

So what does all of this have to do with Twitter and Toni Morrison? Through the magic of social media, I learned about a position managing the scholarships and grants program at Kappa Alpha Theta Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing educational opportunities for members of Kappa Alpha Theta, a fraternity for women. The Greek-life experience was one which I knew very little about, as I was not a member of a social sorority.

One thing I did know about? Thanks to Toni Morrison, Pecola Breedlove, and my own experiences as a student, I knew that being a female student is hard and that there are barriers that prevent many women from accomplishing their goals. The opportunity to award scholarships and grants to support women in their academic and professional endeavors seemed like the perfect marriage of the interests I had on my first day at Ball State and those I developed as a result of reading The Bluest Eye.

Now, I’m not a career counselor and there a number of things I should have done differently in college (ahem, internships), but I do know this:  even if you’re never going to be (or don’t want to be) a high school English teacher, or a literature professor, or a published author, or a lit nerd roaming the aisles of antique book stores, majoring in English can inspire and spark passion in a seemingly unrelated field, despite whitewashed cinder block classrooms. Long after you’ve graduated, you will find this passion surprises and inspires you in the most unexpected places—even in your Twitter feed.

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