Ayla Cordell

December 15, 2023

Abigail Arnold | Graduate School of Arts and Sciences


Geeking Out With…is a new feature in which we talk to GSAS students about their passions. You can check out past installments here:

September 2023

October 2023

November 2023

Ayla Cordell is a second-year master’s student in English and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. Her research uses memoirs informed by experiences with eating disorders to consider the gendered and racialized critical formation of the body and mine the negotiation of identity that transpires when returning to a self that is past yet formative of the present; she questions how memoirs disrupt the idea of a one-way transition with a definitive past and future. She joined Geeking Out With… to talk about her passion for her role as the career and professional development student assistant with GSAS’s professional development team.

This interview has been edited for clarity.
You’ve been a student worker with GSAS’s professional development team for a year and a half. What drew you to the role?
I took a break between undergrad and grad school and spent a few years in the workforce. I think the skills you build from working in a job are invaluable. I was always very invested in education and being a student, but, to me, finding myself as an adult has been a dual process of both learning from working and deciding to return to higher ed and get my master’s. I wanted to keep working during that time, and since a master’s program is so short, I wanted to get as much out of Brandeis as I could. I was scrolling Workday looking for on-campus roles, and the job stuck out to me. It looked like it would be helpful for my own professional development and also an opportunity to hone relevant skills like digital marketing and website design.
What kinds of things do you do in your role?
I started with making a lot of links for Zoom meetings and fliers on Canva, which helped remind me of a variety of skills I could develop. As an English student, I often think I am built for thinking through nebulous ideas and waxing poetic. But my brain really thrives on shorter-term focused projects. Getting the details of a Canva flier just right bolstered the idea that I can do these tasks, and the process also helped me understand what the professional development team does and how to effectively market their offerings. Now I am a lot quicker at these tasks, so I have more capacity to update the website, write posts for LinkedIn, and write articles. I got to write an article about the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition last year. I can better represent professional development and express myself through my role now.
What do you like about working in professional development?
Academia is super insular sometimes, and, as a master’s student, you occupy a super liminal space. If you’re like me, you’re not sure what you want to do: if you want to go into the workforce or get a PhD (although I’ve now decided the latter is not for me). You also hear conflicting information about whether your job should be your passion or the way you get money, and I have a difficult time navigating that. I sometimes feel like I’m not getting the hard skills that I need for the workforce. And that is where professional development comes down on a white fluffy cloud with sunbeams behind them. I love being required to go to their events because I hear from such a range of people about their jobs, and you’re hearing directly from the source about their own process, their experiences, their failures, and their successes. Everyone likes to have the idea that they will find a job in what they love most and do best, but I don’t know what that is for me, and it turns out a lot of other people don’t either! So it’s great to hear about their journeys.
How do you collaborate with the other members of the professional development team?
I meet with Marika McCann every week, so we just get each other by now. And Jon Anjaria is my greatest Canva critic, which feels like a privilege. We have a really great collaborative relationship because now that we all know each other much better, there’s a natural understanding of each of our strengths and the things that we can focus on individually to come together and create one thing. It’s chaotic because we’re a small team trying to do a lot of meaningful things, both large and small. There are so many moving parts all the time, especially since individual students are only here a certain amount of time, and they are all really busy. As a team, we have moments where something could have gone better and we talk about it and figure it out for the next time. And then we have moments where an event was awesome because we all did our thing. For example, I have really good handwriting and like to dabble in calligraphy, so I did the thank you notes for the 3MT judges–something small but impactful to contribute. Marika and Jon are great at fostering an environment that lets us use our individual talents.
How does your work in this role overlap with what you are learning and doing in your master’s program?
Writing-wise, there’s a lot of crossover with academic work. I feel like I’ve learned more about how to cater my writing to certain audiences and purposes; if I’m writing a paper for a course on nineteenth-century realism, it will be in a totally different style to a short-form article on 3MT. I get to practice honing what my voice sounds like in both formats and making sure I am writing something engaging, clear, and legible. I feel like I’m in a little intermediary zone because so much of my academic work is more theoretical, involving a lot of concepts and dense ideas that don’t necessarily feel very grounded, and then my professional development work does feel very grounded and practical. The good thing is that the professional development team helps people mine their academic careers for all translatable and marketable skills. I can learn about how I write and approach work, and I can find a job where I can combine both sides of what I’m doing–where I can take my ideas and try to bring them into a wider sphere.
How do you feel you’ve grown as a person during your time working with professional development?
I credit professional development as one of the biggest reasons why I feel really connected to Brandeis. It’s given me a lot of networking opportunities and connections, and it also has me on campus and going to events frequently. At 3MT, I got to hear about research in Molecular and Cell Biology, which is not a part of my own program at all! I feel connected to the campus and the community. And the experience has really forced me to think about what I am enjoying right now, skill-wise, and to look into the future and think about jobs. In English, you write a lot of big papers about big ideas. I love that; I’m a theory girl so I’m always thinking about really big things! But I also think it’s very important for information to be widely accessible, and often, the most accessible streams are not in academia. So honing more workforce-applicable skills like digital marketing, writing short-form articles, and audio editing has shown me different ways I can disseminate information. Rather than feeling like I’m just working on one big thing, I can have many threads weaving together.
What do you think will come next for you?
I’m thinking about work in digital media production. I am a big listener of podcasts. I think they’re a very resonant and potent way to tell stories. I’m a sucker for all the NPR podcasts, and I also like Maintenance Phase, which is about unpacking and debunking diet and wellness culture. I now envision working in the realm of podcasts as more of a possible pathway for me, whether that is being an editor, a writer, or a member of a marketing team for a podcast. I’m realizing that I have a variety of skills and that I don’t need to pigeonhole myself. It’s less about the specific role and more about the field I’m entering and the skills and desires I want to enact there. That’s where my head is right now, but I’m interested in other digital and multimedia production roles too. I’m not jaded–I’m still on my creative bent!
When you’re not working on your research or with the professional development team, what else are you up to?
You can find me taking aerial circus classes over in Somerville, which has become my favorite form of exercise and embodied expression. That’s the best! If I’m not here or there, I’m probably at home trying to make something good for dinner and then watch a good movie or TV show.
What advice do you have for other students exploring their passions?
Knowing your passion is not a prerequisite for exploring potential passions. I think I am still learning this–that I do not have to feel certain or confident at all about what I might be doing or even thinking, because the value that often comes from exploring something might be in discovering it’s a passion, or in discovering that it’s not a passion, or just in having an experience. There’s inherent value in all of those things. I think I’ve gotten to the idea that the more I do, the more I do, and the more different experiences I have! And that’s a beautiful part of being a human who has the capacity for many different experiences and connections.