COVID-19 Response and Reopening

Irene Cooper

What did you study while you were at COCC?

My very first class – and I took just one class that first term – was Art History. My goal was to earn an AAOT and go on to complete a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts. As I went through my degree requirement checklist, I took plenty of math, too, as well as anthropology and three terms of geology, which was not only fascinating, but eye-opening.

What did you do after COCC graduation, and what is your career now?

Upon completing my AAOT, I enrolled at OSU-Cascades to complete a bachelor’s degree in American Studies. After that, I was accepted into the inaugural cohort of OSU-Cascades Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing, by which I earned an MFA in Poetry.

Now, I write professionally. I create content for websites and marketing campaigns, including web pages, blogs, and newsletters. I am the author of Committal, a poet-friendly speculative spy-fy novel published in 2020, as well as a collection of poems entitled spare change, published in 2021. Ellen Santasiero and I co-edited and published Placed: An Encyclopedia of Central Oregon, an anthology of regional writings, in 2020. Various poems, reviews, stories, and essays appear online in literary venues including The Denver Quarterly, The Rumpus, phoebe, Witness, VoiceCatcher, Walled City Journal, and The Feminist Wire.

I teach creative writing, too: poetry workshops with COCC’s Continuing Ed program and through Deschutes Public Library, and craft-based workshops with Michael Cooper, my husband and partner, through Blank Pages Workshops. I’ve had the pleasure of helping several writers edit their manuscripts for publication, as well.

What does a typical week in your position look like?

As a freelancer, I’d be hard pressed to describe a typical week, as every week looks a little different. That said, I generally take an hour at the beginning of my workday to check my schedule and email, and to prioritize projects. I spend around three hours a day writing and editing content, and another two hours communicating with clients and exploring new leads. If I’m in the middle of a large project, I can spend six to eight hours at the keyboard, typing, typing, typing.

For me, the key to freelancing is time management, and that includes those times when the workload is light. There’s always something to do, and sometimes that something is to take a break. When I started out, I had no system, no boundaries for myself. I worked weekends, at 2AM, whenever. And, there are still times when I’ll work in the wee hours or on Saturday. If I’m really on top of it, though, I’ll write content in the morning, and have the afternoon to devote to  my own creative writing or to write a syllabus for an upcoming workshop. On an ideal week, I’ll do freelance work four out of five weekdays, and take a full day for my for my own creative pursuits. Most weeks though, I need to ride the wave of the workflow, while preserving time for family, a walk—all those needful things that fall outside of paid work.

What are the most valuable skills you gained while in college?

Patience tops the list. Every time I checked off another box on my AAOT course completion list, I was freshly reminded that goals are achieved one credit, one assignment, at a time. I’m confident, too, in the organizational skills I earned while at COCC. Community college is all about doing eleven things at once, or seemingly at once. I was perpetually inspired by fellow students who were studying, attending class, working elsewhere, and maybe raising a family or helping to support family.

Not a skill, per se, but: my horizons were truly expanded through exposure to so many disciplines and dedicated, passionate instructors. I was stretched and enlightened through my participation in science labs, speech class, and early morning yoga. My time at COCC reinvigorated my capacity for curiosity, and redefined success as something that, in all the right ways, involves try, fail, try again, and, to quote Samuel Beckett, fail better.

How are the skills you learned in writing, literature, film, or humanities classes relevant to your career and life today?

I use the skills I honed at COCC every day. I feel my experience improved my ability to step back and think about a subject, as well as broaden my research net. I’m not afraid of what I don’t know, and can find and pursue pathways to fill in my ignorance—through research, and by being a better listener. My experience with a diverse student population reminded me of the value of multiple perspectives, which makes me a better collaborator, particularly in this era of remote work.  

What is your advice for students taking writing, literature, film, or humanities classes?

Once I was out of school, the realization that non-school life doesn’t automatically include opportunities to see an art film, learn about a cultural movement, or engage in a lively discussion about Toni Morrison’s novels smacked me right in the nose. However, if I wanted those things in my life, thanks to COCC, I knew how to incorporate them, because, once a student, always a student—if that’s what you want. It sounds dumb, but “Enjoy it,” is part of my answer. After you’ve graduated, keep taking notes on things that interest you—bookmark articles, get a Goodreads account. Get a community member Barber library card.

While I pursued a career that can be related directly to a liberal arts or humanities degree, I feel my career could have taken any of multiple paths. Humanities classes helped me to be a more effective communicator, which involves both an ability to express myself with clarity and insight, as well as listen with an open mind. Human interaction: it’s right there in the name.

What is your advice for community college students?

Stay in the game. It’s your education, own it. Communicate with instructors if obstacles arise. Turn in work. Be kind to yourself, you deserve this. Eat snacks, drink water. You’ll get there.