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Student View: How St. Olaf alumni helped me find a path from software to storytelling

In this Student View column, Fenton Krupp ’24 describes how he spent his fall break meeting with St. Olaf alumni working in the communications field in Washington, D.C. — and what it taught him about the power of a liberal arts education.

I am a senior computer science major in a precarious situation: I don’t want to develop software or hardware after I graduate. Instead, I have developed an interest in the art of storytelling. My foray into communications began outside of my classes. I joined the team that connects students to St. Olaf College’s Board of Regents, and I now serve as the student representative to our board. I also work in the college’s Marketing and Communications Office, where I help craft impactful stories for the St. Olaf community.

While these roles expanded my communication skills, I wanted to learn from others who were doing this work elsewhere. This fall I spent a week in Washington, D.C. meeting with St. Olaf alumni in the communications industry, with funding from the Johnson Family Opportunity fund. The Johnson Family Opportunity fund was established in 2014 by former St. Olaf Board of Regents Chair B. Kristine Olson Johnson ’73 and her family, including daughters Berit and Kelsey and husband Robbin. The Johnson family, who themselves benefitted from scholarships to attend college, recognized the importance of studying abroad, off-campus internships, and other high-impact learning opportunities. 

While everyone I met with in D.C. understood the power of storytelling, there’s no such thing as a “typical” communications professional. Some of the alumni I met worked at PR agencies, which help corporations across the world better tell their stories and respond to crises. Others worked in-house for a single company, which let them dig even deeper into that organization’s story and tell it even more compellingly. I’m still trying to learn which of those paths — agency or in-house — appeals to me the most, and speaking to people who have done both types of work was incredibly helpful.

My journey to D.C. helped me understand more about how I can craft stories professionally and underscored the value of the liberal arts — all thanks to the wisdom of our remarkable alumni and the generosity of the Johnson family.

Karen Hopper '11
Karen Hopper ’11

Alum: Karen Hopper ’11
Major: Music and Political Science 
Job title: Senior Director of Performance Marketing 
Workplace: Bully Pulpit Interactive — a data-driven advertising agency that shapes political narratives and helps organizations affect change. Clients range from nonprofits to political candidates to global corporations. 
Favorite spot on the Hill: Christiansen Hall of Music — especially Fosness and the music library

Karen is an Ole through and through: she was in the St. Olaf Choir and sings with The Choral Arts Society of Washington when not busy with work. We spoke about her journey through several different agencies, and she explained her love of the fast-paced yet innovative environments. We share a fascination for solving novel problems creatively, and I especially appreciated her insight into what a career at an agency could look like beyond the first few years. I was also reassured by how her liberal arts background has guided her in every role she has taken on, from her first job right out of college to today as she guides a team of other strategists. 

Alexander Currey ’19
Alexander Currey ’19

Alum: Alexander Currey ’19
Major: Psychology and Economics
Job title: Senior Brand Strategist
Workplace: Weber Shandwick — one of the largest public relations agencies in the world, with an international client list to match. His work with H&M helped launch 10 startups that combat fast fashion.
Favorite spot on the Hill: The prairie area of the Natural Lands (especially at sunset)

I got the opportunity to meet with Alexander and a few of his team members at Weber Shandwick, including an intern on his team and a colleague from Weber’s Analytics Department. Speaking with Alexander helped me get an idea of what a global agency might look like. I’d be fascinated to work with national brands like Pop-Tarts and eBay, and it must be so cool to see how your work impacts decisions like commercials and entire marketing campaigns. He spoke about team collaboration and the ability to learn from all sorts of different people working in adjacent roles to you. He also shared advice on finding an affordable apartment in D.C. and what he loved about living in the city.

Patrick McWilliams ’14
Patrick McWilliams ’14

Alum: Patrick McWilliams ’14
Major: Sociology/Anthropology
Job title: Senior Associate Asset Manager
Workplace: Placemakr — a hospitality startup that offers luxury stays that combine the convenience of hotels with the homeyness of AirBnB.
Favorite spot on the Hill: The Pause in Buntrock Commons

Patrick and I spoke about communications in a slightly different context. Patrick spent over eight years at Marriott and was the primary financial contact for nearly 100 hotels across the United States before shifting to his role at Placemakr. Patrick still works in hospitality — Placemakr combines apartment living, vacation rentals, and hotel stays into one experience. There are interesting parallels between asset management and strategic communications work: both roles involve being able to explain the value of assets and identify opportunities to increase that value. Also, I spent last summer interning in hospitality management, so it was interesting to learn more about what that career might look like 10 years down the line. 

John Stoltenberg ’66
John Stoltenberg ’66

Alum: John Stoltenberg ’66
Major: Philosophy
Job titles: Author, Activist, and Executive Editor
Workplace: DC Theater Arts — the premier source for performing arts news in D.C., including reviews, interviews, current events, and calendars of performances happening in the area.
Favorite spot on the Hill: The Ytterboe Annex, a since-demolished wooden building where John produced satire reviews he’d written and began a Saturday-night improv group called Playmakers

John and I spoke about how communications impacts a wide array of fields, including theater and the arts at large. John wrote and edited for a variety of publications in New York City and D.C. before retiring to the position of executive editor at DC Theater Arts. I appreciated John’s insights into the power of storytelling in shaping public opinion about an event or convincing those in power to use it for the right reasons. I also was struck by John’s clarity about his time at St. Olaf — I’m not sure how much I will remember about the Hill in 2080, but I hope I can still remember the hijinks I pulled with my roommate and the professors who made an impact on my education.

Kathy Minardi ’67
Kathy Minardi ’67

Alum: Kathy Minardi ’67
Major: English, Literature, Education
Job title: Executive Director
Workplace: Whole School Leadership Institute —a nonprofit international institute that transforms school leadership teams through immersive and collaborative training modules 
Favorite spot on the Hill: The Student Center

Kathy and I met in Columbia, Maryland, a planned community between D.C. and Baltimore. Columbia was formed to create a community free of segregation based on race, religion, or economic status, making it the perfect home for the Whole School Leadership Institute. Kathy and I walked around Columbia while she explained her journey as an educator and how she came to found the Whole School Leadership Institute. The Institute offers a transformative leadership training program for school leaders from across the world. Good leaders tend to be good communicators, and I have a particular appreciation for educators. Both of my parents are teachers, and my work with St. Olaf’s Board of Regents has helped me understand how governance structures can help guide educators toward a better institution for all.

After talking to these alumni, I carry with me a newfound appreciation for the liberal arts. It’s one of those clichés that exists for a reason: no matter where you come from or what you study, a liberal arts education opens doors for you. It makes you more adaptable, creative, and open to learning new things. 

As a computer science major, I never imagined myself working in communications. But the beauty of the liberal arts is that I can now see how my computer science work will inform how I tell stories, whether that’s understanding how generative AI works or being able to leverage technology to be more efficient in my workday. While I’m leaning toward pursuing agency work after graduation, I know that my time at St. Olaf has prepared me to merge my interests so that I can succeed anywhere, and that’s something I’m really stoked about.

So if you’re a student like me, don’t hesitate to explore beyond your major, engage with alumni, and make the most of opportunities like the Johnson Family Opportunity Fund. Whether you’re studying computer science, music, psychology, or something I’ve never even heard of, take a moment to connect with others in your fields of interest and learn from their journeys.