Tabitha Cornwell: Project Manager

Name: Tabitha Cornwell

Age: 30

College & Majors/Minors: Arizona State, BA in English; University of Phoenix, MS in Psychology

Current Location: Phoenix, AZ

Current Form of Employment: Full-time, higher ed administration

Where do you work and what is your current position?

I work at the University of Phoenix as a project manager of learning content. My department handles the acquisition and management of all the types of materials that may go into a course—textbooks, educational technology, internally-developed tools and multimedia, open-source or free web content, and anything else the instructional design teams throw at us. As a core (and relatively small) team in the middle of a huge institution, we maintain a working knowledge of products we currently offer, pending requests coming down the pipeline, industry norms and trends, as well as the legal and contractual obligations associated with each of these product types. It's my job to maintain close and productive relationships with our internal customers (primarily college staff) as well as external vendors and suppliers.

A typical day might involve presenting a training surrounding our processes to staff in production before going back to my desk and calling my publisher rep to find out why an eBook file isn't rendering properly. I also work with vendors to establish and maintain QC processes that ensure we're providing consistent eBook experiences for students. It's essential for me to be able to translate between academic requirements, technical specifications, and high-level snapshots expected by executives.

Tell us about how you found your first job, and how you found your current job (if different).

As a teenager, I volunteered for the local library system for five years, since I practically lived there anyway. That hands-on community work introduced me to the world of networking, opening doors to several jobs funded by local government grants. As president of a library branch's "teen council," I met with corporate sponsors and participated in a ribbon-cutting ceremony while still in braces (and a terrible haircut, thanks Mom!). At thirteen, I was part of a group teaching senior citizens basic computer and internet skills, and by sixteen, I had revamped and updated the curriculum as the sole instructor. 

"I'm the one in the fuchsia top looking up." -Tabitha

"I'm the one in the fuchsia top looking up." -Tabitha

With the grant extinguished, I began working for a program sponsored by the Arizona Science Center that introduced middle school and younger students to scientific concepts in hands-on workshops (think CSI lab in which one of the instructors is the culprit). Looking back, these classes were a precursor to the current STEM wave in education. 

Because my mom worked in computer networking for my school district, I was usually taking apart computers or running CAT-5 cables under desks. I dabbled in web design, taught myself some coding skills and ran a small website for a genealogical society my family belonged to. I saved every penny from these early jobs and eventually bought myself a Blue Dalmatian iMac named Spot. (Spot still lives in my home office, though his fan needs a thorough cleaning. I'm thinking about converting him into a fishtank.)

What was another writing-related job that was important in your career?

Despite entering with a slew of AP credits, ASU still required me to take ENG/102 as a freshman. Within the first week, I was essentially running daily tutoring sessions in the back of the class. Looking back, the professor could have been really grouchy about my co-opting her students, but instead, she referred me to the director of the on-campus Writing Center for a job. Within another semester, I was the student coordinator. In my earlier teaching work, I had realized I have a knack for analogies, and meeting students at their level of understanding. Over time, I began to realize that ability was one of my most unique, transferable skills.

A few months after I'd graduated, a friend forwarded me a few postings for admin, entry-level positions at UOP, where she worked. I immediately gravitated to one in their online tutoring center—for math (yikes!). After poring over the job description a few million times, I realized they weren't actually looking for a math expert, but someone to keep the center organized. I also guessed that fewer people might apply because of the scary "math" word in the title, and I was right—the position only had about 20 applicants. In the interviews, I pitched myself as someone who could add perspective of a student who needed math tutoring, because I'd been in that position myself. It worked! Though it was a pretty basic admin job, scheduling shifts and managing payroll for about 50 faculty tutors, I really enjoyed working with a group of intelligent, thoughtful academics coming from a wide range of experiences and industries. I'm still close with several of these awesome individuals.

What did you do in college to prepare for your post-grad life?

The problem with being interested in everything is that it's impossible to settle on a major! I enjoyed my Writing Center work more than any of my classwork—in fact, when I look back, it's still my all-time favorite job. Somehow, I was too stubborn to see the obvious choice (Dear English Major would have been sooooo helpful). I found myself nearing the end of my four-year scholarship with credits all over the map and no degree in sight. I was juggling four jobs and trying to complete five courses per semester. My body couldn't take the stress, and a bad cold turned into pneumonia. I broke up with my boyfriend, moved back home, transferred campuses (and writing centers!) and met with the umpteenth (and final) advisor to review my credits. Suddenly, the answer was obvious, and those AP credits finally came in handy.

“I resisted the English major for years because it seemed like the easy way out, and because it didn’t represent a clear path to a career. No longer ignoring the obvious degree choice forced me to confront those preconceived notions, and suddenly, I was passionate about my coursework, engaged in every class discussion, and stretching my brain with every assignment.”

What is your advice for students and graduates with an English degree?

If there's one thing I wish I could go back and tell myself, it's that struggling does not equal learning, and that you don't have to fight for something in order to consider it an accomplishment. I resisted the English major for years because it seemed like the easy way out, and because it didn't represent a clear path to a career. No longer ignoring the obvious degree choice forced me to confront those preconceived notions, and suddenly, I was passionate about my coursework, engaged in every class discussion, and stretching my brain with every assignment. I developed rich relationships with my professors and am happy to say I still keep in touch with some of them.

If something doesn't come naturally to you, there's no shame in finding a better fit. Especially in creative fields, people take their own talents for granted because they've always had them, and they lack the context and experience necessary to really understand that uniqueness. It's the same reason we have such a tough time pricing freelance creative work. Remember that learning what you don't enjoy is just as important as learning what you do. The world will be hard enough on you—be kind to yourself! This strengths-focused approach has been tremendously useful in making staffing recommendations, conducting trainings, and performing interviews.

You can connect with Tabitha on LinkedIn and follow her on Twitter and Instagram

Posted on February 15, 2017 and filed under Communications, Project Management, Interview, Interviews.