Spotlight on Humanities and Natural Sciences Alumni: Leah Kaminsky
Occupation: Writer and Writing Coach
Education (UR and additional): UR: Double major in BCS and English (Creative Writing)
Current city/state/country of residence: Austin, TX
Current Community activities: None right now
Why did you choose to attend the University of Rochester?
I liked the idea of attending a small university, where I could contribute to extracurricular activities without having to compete, have easy access to professors, and have research opportunities while still enjoying the benefits of a top research university. That’s a very rare combination in a college.
When and how did you choose your major(s)?
I actually knew what I wanted to do before I entered college, though I was still unclear about my profession. I’d been a writer my whole life, so that was a given, and I’d developed an interest in the brain in my junior year of high school. I knew, however, that I didn’t want to be a doctor and that a full-on neuroscience degree would keep me too busy to double major and study abroad. Plus, I loved the idea of a major that was somewhat between psychology and neuroscience, though I didn’t quite realize how much its own field BCS really is (something I really appreciated once I did).
What resources did you use on campus that you would recommend current students use?
I definitely took advantage of professor and TA office hours, which allowed me really to make the most of the toughest classes. I also made full use of the Career Center, and applied for and received a Reach Scholarship, which allowed me to intern at a literary agency in New York—an experience that now, a decade later, has paid off, as I received some guidance from one of the agents there in trying to sell my book. I also really enjoyed the Study Abroad office, as it helped open my mind about overseas possibilities even after I returned from my semester abroad.
What activities were you involved in as a student and what did you gain from them?
I had a humor column in the campus newspaper, which I really enjoyed and which taught me a lot about working with other creatives on a team. I was in the cinema group, which was more just a lot of fun than anything else…something I needed for sure.
Who were your mentors while you were on campus? Have you continued those relationships?
I took several creative writing classes from Dimitri Anastasopoulos, who also was my thesis advisor, and he provided really honest feedback and guidance that I still haven’t forgotten. Also in the English department, I really benefited from Russell Peck’s courses and his feedback on my papers, and he wrote me several letters of recommendation for grad school; he really taught me what it means to be passionate about your career. In the BCS department, I loved working with Professor Knill, who pushed me harder and further than I ever thought I could go, yet never left me feeling like I was out there on my own. Working on papers for his course was one of the first glimpses I had of what it might mean to work on a research team with a shared goal. And of course, Dr. Richard Aslin was tremendously influential, employing me as a research assistant in his lab throughout all four years of college, and helping me find placement in a lab in London when I graduated. Dr. Aslin always made sure to sit all of his research assistants down to see what he could do to guide us in our careers. Though I didn’t wind up going into BCS professionally, I really benefited from this kind of guidance. I haven’t talked to any of them in years, though I’d love to.
What did you do immediately after graduation? How did you decide to take this path?
While I applied to grad school in Journalism and Creative Writing, I headed back to London (where I studied abroad) and worked in an infant perception lab (thanks to Dr. Aslin’s connection there). After 5 months, I left London and traveled around Europe, Asia and Australasia for 7 months. Then, I made the choice to go for my MFA in Fiction Writing at the University of Washington rather than my degree in journalism. Upon receiving my MFA, I started my own tutoring business in Seattle, which I ran for 2 years.
What do you do now and why did you choose this career?
Now I’m a freelance writer, specializing in content writing, white papers, expertise blogging, and web and ad copywriting. I had been dabbling in this kind of work as a tutor, but it took moving away from Seattle to Austin and testing my talents out at TEDxAustin to fully make the switch, as I was really drained from tutoring and didn’t want to start a new business again. The freelance writing grew organically as I got more and more referrals and began to work alongside SEO consultants. I still also coach students online through my business, Just Start Storytelling, as I help them apply to college and graduate school. I also work directly with business owners to write their stories online. I’m still writing and publishing fiction stories, and I’m shopping my first book.
What skills, tools, or knowledge from your major have been most useful to you since graduation?
Despite the fact that they’re in totally different disciplines, I would say that both of my majors taught me how to think. As someone who hires writers now, I can say that I look not for their degrees, but for the kind of deep, analytical thinking and fun, creative voice that can really dig deep, do some hard hitting analysis, and communicate high level concepts in a concrete, fun tone. In my experience, this stems directly from majors like English and BCS, which foster curiosity, creative risk taking, and analytical rigger, as opposed to courses that promote safe, outcome-based methodologies. They also taught me to question and dig endlessly for answers, without fear of being impolite. Of course, both of my majors helped me understand how to deal with massive workloads and pace my time, while also balancing a real life—something I’ve found crucial in the work world.
Where would you like to be in five years?
I’m in the midst of transitioning my business into something more product based, so I’d like for that to be off the ground. I’d also like to be a published fiction novelist, with another middle grade book under my belt and my first pop science book well under way.
How you are still connected with the University?
Mostly through my best friends.
What is your fondest memory of the University?
I remember talking to a friend once in the campus bookstore about how stressed out I was and how I couldn’t wait for the semester to be over, only to be overheard by an alumni, who told us with a nostalgic grin that we should appreciate what we had, because it would only last so long. I found the advice annoying at the time, because college *was* stressful, despite all of the Animal House-type stereotypes. However, now that I’ve been in the workworld for a number of years, I do really miss the idea of taking a class focused narrowly on one subject, and delving deep, just for the pure joy of thinking and debating and wondering (and, okay, grades too, which was where the stress came in, but roll with me here…). Despite the fact that I’m in an intellectual career, there’s always money to be made, deadlines to meet, and a sense of urgency that often overwhelms that sense of wonder, and turns me away from delving deeper. I do make time for that, but it’s all up to me to carve it up, and I miss having partners in that inquiry. So I suppose my fondest memory of the University is thinking…really thinking, just to think. Oh and study abroad, which really changed my life and made me embrace the kind of risk taking that has helped me follow my passions career-wise and travel the world.
What advice do you have for current students?
Take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way, whether it’s the opportunity to lead an extracurricular club, a study abroad experience, a research assistantship, or a one-on-one meeting with a world class professor to really get it right. I know I sound so adult and cliché when I say this, but college really does only come once and you’re paying a ton of money for it, so make the most of it while you can. It’ll be over in a flash, and the rate at which time passes increases exponentially as you age.