Irena Huang on creating a pathway you love

Interviewed by Samia Abbasi,
Dreams In-Progress Creator + Host

I took a fairly long hiatus from Dreams In-Progress. All the while, I’ve been thinking about why it’s something I’m so drawn to and what kind of content people will connect with most right now. I’m noticing that it’s all about the conversations I’ve been having. I want to hear how Gen. Z-ers & Millennials have been navigating “the real world,” especially how they’re exploring creative energy and figuring out the essence of who they truly are. That’s definitely been interesting in the context of shelter-in-place & COVID-19. I’m curious: How are we simultaneously taking a pause in life but also trying to take steps forward?

Ever since I started Dreams In-Progress, I’ve wanted to interview Irena. She is one of those genuine upperclass-people you met in college that you’re so happy to know. Maybe this is all a front for me to pick her brain about her Humanities pathway—who knows? But I assure you that this interview is filled with specific & insightful reflections that everyone can take something away from. Irena shares her experiences with navigating Humanities grad school & the job market, and what it means to be in the process of creating a life that you truly envision for yourself. Thank you to @C.anad for submitting an Instagram Story Viewer Question for this interview!

Jump to Different Parts:

I. An Uphill Battle | Humanities Grad School

II. Seeking Contentment | Post-Grad

III. Carving a New Path in the Familiar | & Other Advice

[PROFILE]
Name: Irena Huang (she/her)
From: Loveland, CO
Degree: B.A. English Literature & International Relations, Mills College +
M.A. Humanities w/ a concentration in English Lit., University of Chicago
Career: BEOTIS, a literary-talent agency (publishing industry in the long-run)


SA: Tell me about yourself! What are you passionate about?

IH: At this very moment, I’m really into baking. I’ve always loved to bake, but now I feel like I’m challenging myself as a baker. Most recently, I tried to make my own sourdough from scratch. It’s been such a journey! It took me 8 days to get to the actual baking part of this bread. I’ve been cultivating my own starter, and it’s a total flop. So, I have to rethink that!
SA: It’s honestly been so soothing to see this baking content during the pandemic.  
IH: Right? I’m super passionate about poetry, and I also really love romance novels. I love finding new romance novels, especially ones that are written by or feature People of Color. It’s interesting to see how representation has been shifting in the publishing industry. I heard one of my favorite romance authors, Alisha Rai, speak about independent publishing; she started publishing her books online and then started generating income by selling books on Amazon for a couple of dollars. Now, huge publishing houses are starting to be like, “Oh, wow, POC representation is actually super important; not just white people can find love.” Alisha Rai has been writing romance novels for around 15 years, so it’s cool to see how her body of work has evolved and how mainstream publishing has recognized her.

AN UPHILL BATTLE | HUMANITIES GRAD SCHOOL

SA: What are some experiences that shaped your English Lit. pathway?

IH: I have always loved books—that was the gateway, My parents kind of let me do whatever I wanted in terms of major and career. I’m very stubborn and also very lucky to have them. My dad was definitely like, “What are you going to do with an English major? Teach for the rest of your life?” I think a lot of people don’t necessarily respect or appreciate teaching as a profession. With my family and the people I grew up around, there was a 50-50 split on the demographic of people who went to college and those who didn’t go. My parents even said, “As long as you can come through with a diploma, you’re good.” 

At Mills, I wrote a paper on Frankenstein, and I submitted it to the Northwest Undergraduate Conference on Literature, which was hosted in Portland, Oregon. I was super nervous, because there were so many smart people with brilliant papers. It was really cool to go to sessions throughout the day and hear what conversations were happening outside of the Mills bubble. Awkwardly enough, I won an award, but they didn’t tell me!I thought my session was supposed to be normal, but everyone came to see it. I was sweaty and nervous, but it was a good experience to have that pressure and gain the confidence to know that people actually wanted to hear what I had to say. 

SA: I remember seeing you at the Mills Teashop once. It was the fall of your senior year, and you were starting grad school apps. How did the process of applying to grad school go?

IH: Like I said, I’m very stubborn. Everyone I talked to was like, “Don’t apply to grad school in your senior year of college. You don’t know what you want, so take however much time you need to make your application stronger.” I did not listen to any of them. I applied anyway. I felt a lot of imposter syndrome going into it, but the Mills English department is very much like, “You can go wherever you set your mind to!” So, I ended up applying to places like Harvard, University of Chicago, and Columbia. When I got into Mills for undergrad, I was amazed and took a chance. But with the elite grad school system, I was like, “Okay, these are places I can actually access now.” It was a battle to talk to professors, write 8 drafts of my statement of purpose,  get everything done. It sucks up so much time and mental energy. I really learned to lean on friends and anyone who offered to help me. 

SA: Tell me about that waiting game for grad school decisions. What were the backup plans you were thinking about? 

Fall foliage | University of Chicago

IH: I had never worked a 9 to 5 job, and I didn’t know how difficult it is to find a job. So, I wasn’t worried about that as a backup plan for grad school, which was naïve in hindsight, having just gone through that, haha. When I had submitted my materials to Harvard, they wanted me to fill out an additional form that asked questions like, “Is your last name Hudson?” or “Do you know anyone who graduated in the class of 1986?” So, they’re trying to figure out who in the application pool is “legacy.” I submitted all this work, but my last name is Huang, my parents came here 20 years ago, and definitely didn’t go to Harvard during that time. I had only applied to 6 schools, but after each rejection, the odds were getting slimmer. Then, University of Chicago emailed me and said, “Hey, our PhD applicant pool was really large, and we’re not going to accept you in our PhD cohort, but we have a 1-year master’s degree program that we would love to accept you for.” That became my backup plan as I was waiting to hear back from schools (and frequently crying at that bench next to the Mills chapel). I ended up accepting UChicago’s Master of Arts Program in the Humanities (MAPH) offer. 

“I gained the confidence to know that people actually wanted to hear what I had to say.”

— IRENA H.

SA: What was it like going from a small school like Mills to a big school like UChicago?

IH: It was so strange. Mills and UChicago are very different institutions in what they value and what is considered an appropriate topic to research or bring up in class. UChicago is conservative and rigid in a way that Mills is not. People are coming from different places at Mills, but we have a couple of unifying core values, whereas at UChicago, there was literally an anti-abortion rally in front of the library during Visit Day. I really struggled to find the sense that people believed in me, like how I felt supported at Mills. I felt estranged from everyone—even though there were 150 people in my MAPH program. 

We were told that MAPH students are primarily chosen from the pool of PhD applicants, with a small number of students applying directly to MAPH as a master’s program. I always wondered what it meant then, that the program was overwhelmingly comprised of white students. Does that mean Students of Color are not applying? Are Students of Color not getting the nod to move from the PhD applicant pool to MAPH acceptance? Are the research interests and writing from Students of Color considered “not in-line” with the program? I don’t mean to hate on or blame MAPH—I learned so much and there are incredible professors at UChicago. Resources-wise, UChicago is heavenly. The libraries and the spaces you can study in are incredible. Community-wise, however, I definitely struggled. 

SA: Were there any on- or off-campus things that helped you during that time?

A breathtaking dome | Chicago Cultural Center

IH: I did try to find community initially. I joined an alliance of Asian students, and I couldn’t make it to many meetings, because I would usually be working during those times. I also spent a lot of time exploring and trying to learn Chicago as a city. The university is kind of set away from the city; Hyde Park is its own little thing that you don’t have to venture out of. So, to navigate what was happening at school, I’d go explore outside of it.
SA: I’m sure you found so many cute cafes and bookstores and things like that! 
IH: Yeah, definitely! Some of my favorite Chicago bookstores are listed in the Resources Section at the end.

SA: So, did you see a shift in how you thought about your pathway from undergrad to master’s? 

IH: I thought getting a PhD in English was the next significant step. But I realized that the things I loved about English were not happening in the MAPH program, in terms of inclusive pedagogy and the kinds of conversations people were having. I found so much freedom in English classrooms at Mills—I felt really creative. At UChicago, I didn’t feel open enough to think that way or I didn’t feel like it would be well-received. I think a lot of that was me talking myself out of being happy there and not wanting to commit to their vision of English—even though UChicago was the #1 English PhD program in the country in 2019. I took a PhD seminar, and while the course was amazing, and I was so lucky to be in it, my whole body rejected the idea of doing this for 5 more years. I realized that I wanted to do something totally different than be a professor.

After I finished grad school, people were treating me like I did something amazing. In actuality, I felt like I didn’t put in the work and didn’t feel connected to the institution. During graduation, everyone around me had friends and professors that they were really grateful for, whereas I hadn’t made any of those interpersonal connections. Since it was so accelerated, I felt like I was suddenly handed this degree without really accomplishing anything. I wished that I had done a 2-year program, taken my time before applying, or went in with a different attitude. Mental health-wise, I don’t think I had the capability to do that. With therapy and hindsight, there are things that I would have probably done differently.

SEEKING CONTENTMENT | POST-GRAD

SA: In your post-grad year, what were some of the things you wanted to do to reconnect with yourself and explore your interests?

Griffin, a good boy

IH: I knew that I needed a break. I did 4 years of undergrad where I was super involved and went straight into a rigorous master’s program. Post-grad, I needed to reconnect with myself and figure out what I actually wanted to do in life. My brother lives in LA, and he had a spare bedroom that he was renting out as an AirBnB. He was like, “You can come stay with me!” I wasn’t very sold on the idea, but I thought, “Okay, it’s a new place where I can figure things out.” In LA, I started applying to jobs for the first time ever, found a new therapist, and I adopted a dog! His name is Griffin. So, post-grad became this journey of coming back to the things that I cared about and what I wanted.

SA: How did you create structure? What was it like applying to jobs with an English background?

IH: No one is creating structure for you when you’re a post-grad. Once a week, I was going to therapy. And once I got my dog, I knew I would have to take him out for a walk at specific times throughout the day. That gave me structure, so in the other times of the day, I would try to apply to jobs. I really had to look at my resume and be able to sell myself. The job market is competitive, and you have to show people how to frame your skills. I think if you read an English grad’s resume, it’s very easy to be like, “Oh, they don’t have any useful, marketable skills.” Actually, we’re suited to do everything. You have to tell people why writing is important and why it makes you a more skilled employee to have studied and practiced it. Break down the things we think of as natural into bite-sized pieces that you can then show your potential employer. So, for the English grad’s resume, you have to go down the bullet point list of job requirements and really match your skills and experiences. 

I wanted to work in the nonprofit sector, publishing industry, or something related to International Relations. At the same time, I had no idea what I wanted to do or what I was suited to do. I got an interview with the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) for their admin. assistant role, and interviewing with them taught me a lot. They knew Kathryn Reiss, an English professor at Mills, so I talked about her in my cover letter. It was small things like that where I wondered, “How can I leverage tenuous connections with people?” During the job interview, I was able to showcase all the things I know and can do related to the publishing field. It didn’t really work out, because I forgot to send a thank you email, so they weren’t sure if I was still interested. 

Around the same time, on Instagram, one of my favorite poets that I follow, Eve L. Ewing, posted “Hey, my speaking agency BEOTIS is hiring!” Other than The New Yorker, BEOTIS is one of my dream places to work. So, I was like, “You know what, I’ll just submit an application and see.” I submitted my job app, and Tabia, my current boss, called me for a phone interview, and it went well. I did an in-person interview next, and I got the job! From going through the hiring process to Tabia offering me the position, I could really feel inside myself that I wanted this. It was a combination of accidents and going with what felt right that led me to my job. I remember with SCBWI, I was like, “I want this role, but only because I feel like I need a job.” 
SA: I’ve had that experience before, too! That a position or company feels like something I’d like on paper, but it actually wasn’t deep-down. Sometimes when you want something, it really shows in the effort level you put in things like that.
IH: I’m a firm believer that the universe will guide you toward what you need to learn in this moment.

SA: What was it like living in LA and how did it inform where you ideally wanted to live?

IH: It was great to live with my brother, but the apartment building was filled with dogs. And my dog Griffin is very anxious. We think he has a history of abuse, which you can see with how he behaves, especially with other dogs. Sometimes we’d get trapped with other dogs while we were in the elevator. It was making both of us miserable, and we could never relax. I was already thinking about moving, and I think things were also stressing my brother out, too. While he does like dogs, he didn’t choose to have a dog. So, we talked and agreed that it was best if I moved out. 

I didn’t particularly want to stay in LA, though. The weather is hot, and it was really difficult to get around with public transportation. New York has always been my dream place to live; so many aspiring writers live there and books are set there. It also made sense, because there’s fantastic public transportation (I am a terrible driver) and the publishing industry is heavily based in NY. My dad was the one who really supported my move. He didn’t want me to regret never living there. He asked, “How would you feel if you were 30 and hadn’t given yourself that chance?” He even offered to help me financially, because New York is very expensive. He believes that his sacrifices should mean that my brother and I make choices for happiness, not survival. I know not everyone is in that kind of position, and that’s what every parent would like for their kids. My dad didn’t get to be a young person or build a career out of love. It was really important to him that I took the leap. 

I was working part-time at BEOTIS and was transitioning to full-time after 2020 began. In February, I was like, “Okay, I need to talk to my boss.” I was terrified. Even though everyone says negotiating as daunting, Tabia is amazing, and I was scared to lose this job that I love, because I needed to move. So, Tabia took some time to think about it and said, “Actually, a lot of our artists live on the East Coast. It would be nice to have a New York side of BEOTIS, too.” She framed it as a cool opportunity for the company—not just for me personally. Now I work remotely in New York, and because of the global pandemic, I became a remote employee anyway.

@C.anad asks: What does the day-to-day of your job look like? 

IH: I love my job, because the day-to-day can look very different! I’m handling admin things like emails, scheduling calls and events, tracking projects, etc., but there are always interesting new things that pop up. All 13 artists on the roster have different projects and interests, so sometimes the focus is coordinating book tour logistics with the publisher, sometimes it’s creating social media posts for a fundraiser the artists are passionate about, and sometimes it’s drafting pitch decks for a brand partnership. Recently, I’ve learned a lot about Zoom so I can successfully run the backend of our virtual event series. Tabia, the founder, is really the powerhouse behind all of it, and I support her vision and all the artists however I can! Admin. work can sound like a boring job, but for me, getting to support the creative work of Artists of Color is really meaningful.

SA: During your post-grad year, how have you explored your creativity in terms of writing? 

IH: I went to a poetry reading on Valentine’s day, and Danez Smith said, “Sometimes writing is the act of living. Sometimes the time you would spend writing is taken up by living.” Right now, I’m trying to get into the actual writing part of writing, because the living part has calmed down. I’m always writing snatches of poetry in my notes. Something I started doing in the last few months is keeping a mental health journal. After I talk to my therapist, I’ll take 45 minutes to journal and write down my thoughts and feelings. She says really wise things, and it also gives me buffer time to process before getting back to work or walking my dog. I sometimes talk myself down by saying, “Well, journaling isn’t writing.” But journaling is definitely a great part of writing.
SA: So true; we need to validate all forms of writing as actual writing! You’re still writing and thinking and creating. 
IH: Right! Now, it feels like pieces are falling into place in my life. I try to be as self-aware as possible through journaling and therapy. In the last year or 2, I had many things going on: my childhood dog passed away, my mom was diagnosed with a heart condition. I feel like now, I’m living in a place where I feel creative energy again. If we had this conversation like a month ago, I’d be in a very different state of mind. Lately, I feel inspired and want to write more. I also downloaded Medium for blogging purposes. I have so many thoughts, and the people I talk to regularly are probably tired of hearing them, haha. 

“I’m a firm believer that the universe will guide you toward what you need to learn in this moment.”

— IRENA H.

CARVING A NEW PATH IN THE FAMILIAR | & OTHER ADVICE

SA: There’s a lot of pressure that Millennials and Gen Z-ers face, and we’re constantly in this process of seeking contentment. What does that look like for you? Where do you feel like you’re experiencing pressure? 

IH: I feel content right now. I was finally able to move to a place that I chose and I have an awesome support system and Griffin. I finally feel like I’m making choices for myself, rather than making choices to please other people. Me finishing my grad program was really me wanting to please other people. It was really important to my parents and grandparents.

In terms of Millennial pressure, money is a huge problem. I think it’s going to become a larger problem as the pandemic spins out and we see where things fall. If you’re a young person looking for a job, especially in the Humanities, a lot of them are entry-level, and people are not going to value your labor in the same way that they’ll value a Software Engineer’s labor, for example. I’m pretty privileged in terms of where my family’s at, which is a cushion I want to acknowledge, and I’m grateful for it. Also, people are generally like, “Millennials are never going to be able to put a down payment on a house.” Like, how is it even possible on the salary I make to afford an apartment, save for a house, have kids, or even go on a vacation? I think the question of how to make all of that “adult life stuff” happen really hasn’t clicked in yet for me. That’s something I wonder about a lot.

SA: What advice do you have for college students who have to suddenly move back home because of the pandemic?

An etherial, snowy lake | Loveland, CO

IH: For me, moving back in with my parents in Colorado during my early post-grad months, didn’t feel like moving forward. It felt like it negated all of my accomplishments and all the things I had done in terms of my personal journey. If that is where you’re at, I think it’s also a practice of holding onto the things that you learned and trying to create space for yourself within that familiar space. I would often backslide into behaviors and thought patterns from before. But something that is grounding is to keep routines that you develop in other places. Take some time to go somewhere else or do something else that reminds you that you have become a different person. Even though it’s really difficult day-in and day-out, it’s great to check in with yourself. It’s not a forever thing to be living at home. 

SA: What advice do you have for young Millennials and Gen Z-ers? 

IH: Don’t listen to other people. Listen to yourself and really trust your gut. You might be like, “The salary of this position is not great,” or “XYZ isn’t good.” But if you’re able to be in a position where you can make decisions and choose people and environments that make you feel good, hopefully the salary aspect of that works out. Fingers crossed for everyone! You’ll feel a lot happier and more fulfilled. Work is something that you’re doing so many hours of your day and of your week, and if you’re able to choose something that you love, then choose that. Even if other people are telling you that it’s silly.

SA: I have one more question: I want your Top 3 things you’re looking forward to after the COVID-19 pandemic (hopefully) calms down:

IH:

1. I’m really looking forward to being reunited with my dog! I’m so excited to see Griffin again—it really hurts my heart that we have to be apart right now.

2. I have a pretty complicated relationship to dating, and I think I’m pretty excited to date again. That may seem really normal, but even if it sucks, who knows what the men of New York are like—we’ll see. I think it’ll be nice to be like, “Wow, a normal activity that I can do with other people.”

3. I’m excited to sit in a café again! My advice on adjusting to a new space is to take something you love and find that in the new city you live in. I really love coffee, so I would go to different cafes around Chicago. That helped me explore neighborhoods, try new things, and get to know people. So, I’m really excited to sit in a café again, because even though I like to be by myself, this is a lot of being by myself right now, haha. In a café, you don’t necessarily have to talk to someone, but there’s the buzz of people around you. I’m really looking forward to that.

A pen, a notebook, & a big smile

RESOURCES IRENA RECOMMENDS:

People to follow on Twitter:

IRENA’S TOP 5 FAVORITES:

Books:

  1. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  2. Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar
  3. The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
  4. Kindred by Octavia Butler
  5. Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Independent Bookstores:

  1. Seminary Co-op + 57th St Books (Chicago, IL)
  2. Women & Children First (Chicago, IL)
  3. Pilsen Community Books (Chicago, IL)
  4. The Ripped Bodice (Los Angeles, CA)
  5. Books are Magic (Brooklyn, NY)

TV Shows:

  1. Grey’s Anatomy
  2. Killing Eve
  3. Bones
  4. House M.D.
  5. Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist

FOLLOW IRENA ON SOCIAL MEDIA:

Instagram: @reeeeeenaa
Twitter: @pastaprincess7

“I finally feel like I’m making choices for myself, rather than making choices to please other people.”

— IRENA H.

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