Soon-to-be graduates take advantage of world-renowned University of Iowa writing resources to prepare for their future, regardless of academic area or job field.
Emily Nelson
Justin Torner and Tim Schoon

The University of Iowa’s excellence in writing shapes students in all disciplines, preparing them for success in their chosen professions and fulfillment in their personal lives.

“We want to offer every single student on campus, regardless of whether or not they are majoring in something that is directly related to writing, the chance to take advantage of the amazing opportunities at the UI,” says Daniel Khalastchi, director of the Magid Center for Undergraduate Writing.

These December Iowa graduates have done just that, honing their business and engineering skills, preparing to teach the next generation how to write, and learning how poetry can help a physical therapist better treat patients—and earn money for school.

University of Iowa fall 2020 graduate Ally Merfeld
Allyson Merfeld, from Cascade, Iowa, appreciates gaining strong problem-solving and teamwork skills while attending Iowa. “In one program, we might be paired with a nurse, pharmacist, dental student, and medical student and given a patient problem to solve,” Merfeld says. “They prepare you for the real world. They teach you how to interact with other professionals, not just how to find a physical therapy diagnosis.”

A creative outlet and a way to connect

Allyson Merfeld wrote a bit of poetry growing up in Cascade, Iowa. But as an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, her main creative outlet was art, which she minored in along with a BA in health and human physiology.

Then, as a student in the Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science, Merfeld learned about a poetry competition within the Carver College of Medicine for students in the MD, physical therapy (PT), and physician assistant programs that included a scholarship as the prize.

‘Ability’ by Allyson Merfeld

Read Allyson Merfeld’s winning poem, Ability, which she wrote about her younger sister. 

Merfeld was awarded the top prize for her poem Ability.

“It’s about my younger sister,” Merfeld says. “I need people to realize something about living with people with disabilities and how they navigate the world.”

The competition reawakened Merfeld’s appreciation for writing.

“I’m really thankful for that scholarship opportunity because I realized how much poetry and writing in general can help you emotionally,” Merfeld says. “I started writing more since then. It’s a good way to keep your mental health in check.”

The poetry competition wasn’t the first writing resource Merfeld took advantage of at Iowa. As an undergrad, she often visited the Writing Center to get feedback on essays she was writing to apply to PT schools. She also credits Andres Carlstein, who teaches Writing for Health and Human Physiology courses, for taking a timeout from his vacation to help her craft her personal statement for PT school applications.

Merfeld says while her profession may not be writing-centered, having those skills still help tremendously.

“Writing unlocks your emotional side,” Merfeld says. “It helps you tap into, ‘What do my patients need emotionally?’ It helps with those soft skills. On the other side, being able to write and articulate your thoughts helps you better learn how to translate them into speaking. Writing something out helps me organize my thoughts and how I want to come across.”

She’s also writing a research article analyzing the evidence, intervention, and outcome of her work with one patient.

While some people were surprised to hear that the Roy J. and Lucille A. College of Medicine was hosting a poetry competition, Merfeld says she thought it was a natural fit.

“Just because you are in a science degree doesn’t mean you don’t need a creative outlet,” Merfeld says. “There’s such an art to science. Some of the best clinicians use both sides of their brain—they’re creative and logical. I think having an opportunity to write and be creative is important for all professionals.”

University of Iowa fall 2020 graduate Isabella Volfson
Isabella Volfson, from Davenport, Iowa, says she liked to mess around with her camera in high school. She continued to develop her photography skills at Iowa and has worked as a photographer for the Tippie College of Business and Student Life Communications, for which she was asked to shoot the Bad Suns homecoming concert in 2019. “They are one of my favorite bands,” Volfson says. “I felt so accomplished in that moment because what started as a hobby had come to fruition as a job. It was an opportunity I never thought would have happened to me when I was 16 and I got my first camera. It’s one of my favorite memories and I’ll take it with me the rest of my life.”

Ready to present and persuade like a pro

Isabella Volfson knows firsthand the importance of developing professional communication skills. And she credits the Judith R. Frank Business Communications Center within the Tippie College of Business for helping prepare her for a product marketing internship at Medidata Solutions in New York.

“I had to come up with a lot of slide decks regarding products, write whitepapers, and send out important emails to sales reps,” Volfson says. “The experiences I had at the Frank Center played into that because I knew how to correctly address people, how to keep things short and sweet within a presentation but also get my message across in a professional manner.”

As the Davenport native prepared to graduate with a BBA in marketing and double minor in Spanish and Russian in December, she once again turned to the Frank Center. Chosen as the Tippie commencement speaker, Volfson is working one-on-one with Pamela Bourjaily, associate professor and director of the Frank Center, to craft her speech.

Excellence in writing across the disciplines

Iowa’s unmatched writing-related resources prepare its graduates for success in many fields. This level of excellence positions Iowa as the best public university for writing and communication.

Volfson says the Tippie College of Business stresses the importance of strong writing and communication skills as soon as students begin their studies. During a Direct Admit Seminar, students are asked to create their résumé and are encouraged to use the Frank Center.

“Writing is taken seriously at Tippie,” Volfson says. “There are high expectations for the quality of work you present. Something I love about the Frank Center is that they are there for both academic and professional purposes. They do résumé review and make sure it’s formatted for the best outcomes. They’re also available for a lot of classes, group projects, slide decks, memos, different types of papers. They’re just always there to make sure you are on the right track.”

Volfson is interviewing for positions after graduation, but will leave with plenty of experience, having held two social media marketing internships, a product marketing-related internship, a buying analyst internship, and two marketing-related positions in student organizations.

Along with the skills she developed within the Tippie College of Business, Volfson says the general education courses she took also will contribute to her readiness for the professional world. She says she particularly enjoyed an interpretation of literature honors class.

“That class was not something I expected as a business student to take,” Volfson says. “It was really great and eye-opening. And now I have exposure to different ways of writing that I wouldn’t have gotten just from my business education.”

University of Iowa fall 2020 graduate Loden Henning
How did the University of Iowa prepare Loden Henning for what lies ahead? “Our College of Engineering is small, but we’re still a Big Ten research institution, so that means there are a ton of opportunities with fewer students to compete for them than other schools might have,” says the engineering grad from Decorah, Iowa. “For example, I was able to be a teaching assistant and a research assistant in a lab, where I got to run a project while there was no graduate student available.”

Creativity comes with the engineering experience

Loden Henning planned to study engineering in another state. But after being accepted to New York University and the University of Washington, he decided to go to the University of Iowa—because of its creative writing program.

“At the last minute, I had a bit of a crisis about getting into engineering—probably like any sane person would,” says the Decorah, Iowa, native. “I decided I wanted to get into creative writing—specifically, writing children’s educational television, which I feel is really lacking and I’m passionate about. And Iowa has a great creative writing program.”

Ultimately, Henning’s passion for engineering won out, and he’ll graduate in December with a BSE in industrial engineering with a minor in statistics. But he didn’t entirely give up his love of writing and creating videos—and the Engineering Be Creative requirement within the College of Engineering helped him explore his interests and develop his skills through the courses Introduction to Animation and Producing and Directing Short Videos.

“There’s definitely a stereotype about what an engineer is like, but I’ve never really identified with that,” Henning says. “I did a lot of writing and acting growing up. During my senior year of high school, I got a lot of funny reactions when I told people I was going to be an engineer. But Iowa’s program has been great for me. I’ve always felt my personality was appreciated, and they do a great job encouraging people’s creative side.”

Henning says the skills he gained in those courses are applicable to his engineering work.

“The biggest thing I learned is that things don’t get done if someone doesn’t step up to the plate,” Henning says. “That seems obvious, but those classes made it so clear. Sometimes in group engineering projects, roles aren’t always clearly defined, so the leadership skills I learned in those classes helped.”

Henning also hopes to be able to utilize his more creative side when he moves to Seattle in January to work at aerospace manufacturer and launch provider SpaceX. There, he will be a systems engineer on the supply chain reliability team for the Starlink program, a satellite constellation being constructed to provide internet access to underserved areas.

“This might be complete wishful thinking, but SpaceX livestreams all their launches and they have a host who explains what’s happening,” Henning says. “I would be so stoked to help out with that in any capacity. And with Starlink being so new, there’s no telling what opportunities may arise.”

University of Iowa fall 2020 graduate Megan Meyer
Megan Meyer, when asked about her best experience at Iowa, referenced her time as a resident assistant for the UI REACH program, which offers an integrated college experience for students with intellectual, cognitive, and learning disabilities. While she originally planned to study speech and hearing science, her REACH experience made her want to work more with students with disabilities. “Being a part of the REACH program absolutely changed my life,” says Meyer, from Center Point, Iowa. “I was able to see what a good education could do for those individuals from a young age. I wanted to be a part of that impact for them, so I changed my major to pursue education, and specifically special education. And I haven’t looked back since.”

Working to increase writing’s appeal among youth

Megan Meyer knows that writing is not every child’s favorite thing to do.

“There are some students who just put their heads down and don’t want to do it, ever,” Meyer says. “Writing is not everyone’s forte. It can be one person’s pride and joy while the next person can hate it.”

The December College of Education graduate from Center Point, Iowa, also knows that writing can be difficult for students to learn to do. But Meyer hopes her research and her work in the classroom will make it a little easier for students to do—and maybe even learn to enjoy.

Meyer saw some of these struggles firsthand through Writing and Community Outreach, an arts-based service learning course with the Iowa Youth Writing Project, which is housed under the Magid Center for Undergraduate Writing, in which she and her classmates worked with students at Southeast Junior High and Tate High School in Iowa City.

The class reinforced what she was learning through her honors research project with Shawn Datchuk.

“We looked at and wrote a systematic review of writing interventions for school-age students targeted toward classroom teachers,” Meyer says. “Our goal was to help them find which type of writing intervention would best help their students. We found some creative ways to do lessons.”

Meyer, who will start in January as a strategist I special education teacher in the Iowa City Community School District, originally planned for her research to be based on students with disabilities.

“But the more research articles I read, I found it wasn’t just students with disabilities who were struggling,” Meyer says. “A majority of traditional classroom students struggle with writing, and all classroom teachers can benefit from writing interventions for students.”

Whether or not a student struggles with writing, Meyer is always amazed by the stories they come up with.

“It’s awesome how creative their young minds are,” Meyer says. “I’m in college and took creative writing and I can’t come up with and do some of the things they do.”