“It’s funny that I work in journalism now because I wrote my thesis vaguely about journalism without having any knowledge that I would one day end up in it,” commented Sara Simon ’13. An English major, Simon now works on the Interactive News Technologies team at the New York Times. Talk to Simon and you will quickly realize that her life post-college has been about seeking out connections, not just checking off steps on a career plan.
After attending a small arts middle and high school outside of Portland, Oregon, Simon found a home in the English department at Wellesley College. Once she graduated, she was not sure what she wanted to do next professionally, but she knew she wanted to move to Minnesota. “I was dating someone at the time who had one more year left of school in Minneapolis. And I think Wellesley students don’t talk about this enough — that it’s OK to make decisions based on your personal life,” said Simon. “Especially at Wellesley, there’s so much pressure to have the perfect job out of college or have the perfect grad school, [or] whatever, lined up, or have the great fellowship,” she continued. “Those things were still very uncertain to me, but I knew that I wanted to give my relationship a chance.”
Simon got a job in a communications role at a small software consultancy in Minneapolis. “I was the only person at the company who did not have a developer background — a software development background — or a design background,” she said. “Basically, I pitched the job, and I said, ‘I noticed that you don’t have anybody on staff, you know, running the blog, or running your social media accounts, or kind of acting as a liaison between your technical staff and your non-technical clients. If you hire me, I’ll find ways to be productive.”
Simon says she learned a lot from the job itself but also realized that her first job out of college did not need to be perfect — she just needed to start figuring out what she liked to do.
“[One thing] I learned that I didn’t like was running a company’s Twitter account, for example. What I did really enjoy was being in this technical environment, which was a surprise for me. I never took a CS [Computer Science] class at Wellesley. I had never really thought of myself as somebody interested in technology. I was terrified of computers.”
When she left that company, Simon moved to Colorado for a seven-month program to learn how to code. As she began looking for a tech job, Simon decided that a traditional technology company would not be the right fit for her.
“I wanted to find a company that valued all different parts of me. Not just: Sara, the developer. But also: Sara, the woman who went to art school, and who studied English in college, and who also speaks Chinese and is really interested in learning more about languages, and who wrote her English major thesis about Ernest Hemingway,” Simon explained. “I wanted to find a role that would see all those different parts of me.”
Although she had never considered media or the role that technology could play in a newsroom, Simon landed a job as a web developer at Vermont Public Radio (VPR).
“So many people were like, ‘Sara, what are you doing taking a job at a newsroom in Vermont? No news happens in Vermont. What are you gonna go write about, Ben & Jerry, or cows, or whatever?’ And then sure enough, about a month later, Bernie Sanders announced his [2016 presidential] candidacy. So I was there, kind of front row. It was all hands on deck — in a very small newsroom — covering Bernie,” Simon recounted.
After about two and a half years working as the only web developer at VPR, Simon applied for a job at the New York Times.
“I throw my name in the hat, thinking, ‘Wow, it will be cool to, you know, maybe get a phone call — maybe.’ And then I got one phone call, and then I got another phone call, and then I got another phone call, and then they brought me in for a full day interview,” she said, estimating that the process took about four months. “I remember thinking, ‘OK, that makes sense. If anybody’s gonna be thorough in their vetting process, it’s gonna be the New York Times.’”
Simon has been working on the Interactive News Technologies team for about a year and a half now.
“We build tools for research and news gathering — [it’s] behind the scenes software development, specifically for reporters here,” Simon explained. One of these tools is a way for reporters to upload long documents and make them text-searchable; other tools are bots that alert reporters at one desk about relevant news that other reporters at the Times are covering, since the newsroom is so massive that it can be hard to keep track of what everyone else is doing. Simon has also done some data reporting, including tracking patterns among the winners of the Miss America Pageant — a story she pitched last year. “It was really, really fun to be in Atlantic City, on the ground, reporting from the Miss America Pageant with the gender editor at the Times,” she said.
Reflecting on the ways her Wellesley education contributed to where she is now, Simon commented that the professors she worked with in the English department were very important to her. “The ability to write well and the ability to identify good language skills and storytelling skills — everything that an English major gives you — they planted me with the confidence to know that that would propel me far in whatever I choose to do. I feel very grateful to the English department.”
Simon is also grateful for the Wellesley alumnae network. Everywhere that she has lived since leaving Wellesley, Simon has connected with other local alums.
“I feel like I not only have the network, but I also know that it’s appropriate to reach out to people and just ask questions or ask them [to] coffee,” she explained. “I play on a soccer team here in Brooklyn because somebody posted to the ‘Wellesley in New York’ Facebook group and said, ‘Hey, my soccer team is looking for more women, is anybody interested?’ It’s been, like, the most fun I have. It’s a Sunday night outdoor soccer league, we play in Brooklyn Bridge Park and watch the sunset over the skyline. It’s great, and I wouldn’t have found that without the Wellesley network.”
Even now, working at the New York Times, Simon is aware that a job is just a job — even if it is a great one. She did not decide in college that it was her goal to work at a world-renowned paper. She did not know that she would make a connection between her English degree and technology. By not putting too much pressure on herself to do any one thing, Simon has been able to pursue her interests as they come.
Her advice to current students? “Definitely keep an open mind, know that your background has prepared you to do well, and trust your gut.”