Education Defined: Katie Zimolzak on How Ball State Helped Refine Her Understanding of Education

Ball State alumna Katie Zimolzak is currently working to earn her third English degree: a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California. As Katie prepares to enter into the greater world of academia as a university instructor, she reflects on her educational journey, which has led her from the cornfields of Munice to the metropolitan landscapes of L.A., and her sense of what made her Ball State English degree valuable.  Read below to find out how Ball State provided Katie the unique tools she needed for her prospective career and for life.

I was trying to find a way to write a post for “Life After the English Degree” that didn’t just sound like a litany of praises for the Ball State English Department. Of course, since my life after Ball State lead me to another degree in the same subject (18th and 19th century novel adaptations into film, MA, University of Missouri, 2008), and yet another (adaptation and media persistence writ-large on the 18th century, PhD, University of Southern California, in progress), I have to give credit to the institution that started my “Life During a Perpetual English Degree.”

In spite of all the good-natured ribbing I’ve received when telling people about my undergraduate alma mater (you know all the jokes; no need to repeat them), I credit Ball State with a great deal of my preparation for work in graduate school. I joke that I’ve cut my way southwest, from humble beginnings in a town that grew out of the cornfields around it, to one of the most dynamic and diverse metropolitan areas of the world. Although this is true, at least geographically, I doubt my career progress would have followed the same path had I chosen one of the two Michigan institutions most of my high school friends attended. I remind my friends who started at larger institutions—Ivy Leagues, Seven Sisters, and research one or flagship state institutions—that an education is what you make of it. Ball State provided me the benefits of small, engaging courses; encouraging professors; and a community so easily navigable that I could see the same people every day.

I know people in my current program who only had one or two intimate courses, writing senior projects for professors whose time devoted to each student was limited. During my time at Ball State, I only had three courses in four years with enrollment numbers higher than twenty-five (by comparison, twenty-five might be the smallest class any of my current students see). This factor, more than any other, prepared me for grad school: the fewer people there were in each class, the more I was able to enter discussions. Feeling not only prepared, but indeed compelled to speak in class—you have to when the class size is so small—made me better at engaging with my ideas, helped me break from a shyness that plagued me through high school, and gave me a reason to pursue further education. I knew that if learning could be like this, I wanted more.

Even if I haven’t reached the final “after” of my Life After the English Degree, I have reached a measure of career success. Since high school, I wanted to teach at a university: I imagined my life dominated by syllabi, book stacks, offices behind august building facades, and perennial tweeds. I’ve achieved all of these goals (the tweeds come out for my annual conference circuits). How many people can say that they’ve achieved a major life goal by the time they turned twenty-five? Having the encouragement I did from my professors, I realized that I wanted to participate in that same kind of exchange: in my classes, I “got it,” the teachers helped me get it, and I wanted to pass that accomplishment on to others. Within the last weeks, I told my most recent crop of students I still think of Professor Debbie Mix’s lesson on thesis writing every time I develop a sample during class. As an undergrad, I joked that what one gains with an advanced English degree is the ability to pull a thesis from thin air; although some of this was the pedagogical skill Dr. Mix brought to class, I have tried to develop my own writing towards that end.

I tell my current students and my academic colleagues that my experience at Ball State is what I think education is all about: the exchange of ideas, opening your eyes to other possibilities, to others’ experiences, is learning. In college, we learn to interrogate ourselves, to examine why we believe what we do, how we resolve those beliefs with others who have drastically different life experiences from our own. This isn’t just academic learning, of course: this is how we learn to be better humans, and better citizens of our world. Through various degree programs, I have devoted my life to analyzing my own values, developing the breadth of my understanding, and challenging my assumptions. Especially when those assumptions have to do with a college in a cornfield.

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