Seeing the Big Picture: Sociology Alumnae Share Their Career Path

We live in a fascinating and complex time. We carry the world’s information around with us in our pockets, easily accessible for any question that comes to mind. But what do we make of all of that information? How do we sift the wheat from the chaff, and identify those grains of wisdom that best answer our questions?

UChicago Sociology majors have a distinct talent for synthesizing this abundance of information. Sociology majors learn through every assignment how to process large swaths of data, identify the crucial components, and distill meaning which they then communicate succinctly to others. After they graduate, they take these tools of analysis, synthesis, and communication with them wherever they go, and usually find that they are more than capable of tackling some of the world’s greatest challenges.

Consider the stories of Sociology alumnae Wendy Gonzalez, Jvani Cabiness, and Jessica Ramirez, each of whom regularly apply these skills in their chosen professions. Though Wendy now applies her skills in marketing with Google, Jvani in public health and economic development, and Jessica in education administration, the same training continues to serve each of them well.

Wendy Gonzalez (AB ’08) entered her first year at UChicago excited to partake in the renowned core curriculum. She loved having the flexibility to take different classes and discover new interests. It was when she felt a growing interest in the makeup of cities that she took her first Sociology class on the subject. She followed this by studying abroad in Paris. “In Paris, I began to think about spaces, and how those spaces influence how people make decisions and see opportunities.” This exercise in connecting the dots between people, their interactions, and their spaces affirmed her decision to pursue Sociology as her major.

Wendy returned to Chicago with a major decision, but was not yet sure how she would apply a Sociology major in her future career. “What I enjoy about Sociology is that it is about people, societies, cities, and cultures. It is endlessly fascinating to me. I never had a clear sense of what I wanted to be when I grew up, but whatever it was I wanted to impact people positively...I loved that with Sociology I could make an impact.” This fascination, as it turns out, helped Wendy transition smoothly into her first of three positions working with Google. “I had heard Google was a great place to work from a friend, but I was also interested in the mission: Organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful. I liked the idea of working at a place that used sociological principles, data, and research, and then took action.”

Today, Wendy works in a marketing role, and uses many of the skills learned through her Sociology studies as she researches Google’s economic impact in the United States. “There is a lot of data, but also stories from small businesses. These are people who used Google to grow their businesses and give back to their communities. I’ve been able to collect these stories and share them, showing how Google and the internet are impactful because they help strengthen communities.” Wendy says she thinks often of how her research at UChicago impacts her work today. “It’s cliché to say that UChicago teaches you how to think, but it is true that it teaches you to synthesize information. It gives you a curiosity of the world and the habit of questioning everything you see…My education has been really versatile. [Skills like] synthesizing information, managing my time, not getting rattled by a ton of work or things moving quickly have been critical…You learn what’s important, what’s not, and how to find balance. In addition to learning how to communicate eloquently...Those skills are hugely helpful. I don’t know that everybody has them in the way everyone leaving UChicago has that edge.”

Jvani Cabiness’s story overlaps with Wendy’s significantly, especially in terms of the skills she learned as a Sociology major: analysis, synthesis, and communication. Jvani entered UChicago knowing she wanted to work in international public health, and assumed her pathway would be through studying public policy. She was very curious, then, when a visiting professor from Harvard urged her to consider Sociology for a better fit. As with Wendy, it was a trip to Paris that secured Jvani’s decision. Her study abroad classes, she found, were full of Sociology majors. “I was absolutely impressed with their line of thinking, and I loved debates because of their backgrounds in Sociology.” She returned to Chicago confident in her switch from Public Policy to Sociology, and began structuring her coursework so as to best leverage her studies for a career in Public Health. Sociology, she says, taught her “that context was really important, and the major gave that in a big way.”

Jvani had long envisioned herself in the Peace Corps, so upon graduation she enlisted to work in Botswana. Immediately, she began to practice the skills she learned as a Sociology major. “One in five to one in four people are affected with AIDS in Botswana. [Because] everyone in government has part to play in HIV programming, a core component [of my job] was being able to organize people and pick out the relevant stake holders: who is important for motivating individuals to make change? My background in Sociology, which included economics and health, really helped there.” Jvani was in fact so successful in applying her analysis and communications skills that when the other workers in her office were laid off for budget cuts, she ran her office alone for five months! “I realized if I didn’t work on this, no one would. I wondered, ‘Why do I think I can do this?’ And I realized I’d done it all. I made it work because of UChicago and the way people in my major taught me to work. I thought, ‘I’m prepared, I got this.’” Her efforts so impressed the mayor, deputy mayor, and town council that they gave her unprecedented support and attended all the events she hosted.

Since returning from the Peace Corps, Jvani has gone on to study economic development at Berkeley and will soon be joining the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs (JHU CCP) as a Program Officer working on global health behavior change communication projects throughout Africa. Through her continued studies and job searches, she reports that few of her peers seem to have the same capacity for analysis and synthesis. She has really has appreciated her time at UChicago as result. It has led her “to dig deeper, knowing things are really complex and have rich contexts. So many aspects of development are unknown and unforeseen, so it takes rigorous questioning to get to the bottom of it. [This skill appears] unique to UChicago…I’m so glad I have the UChicago foundation because I don’t think I would be as productive as I am now.”

Additionally, Jvani credits her time at UChicago for the confidence she has in approaching her work. She urges current students to believe that “You are so much more capable and competent than you ever thought you’d be. When you leave, no matter what field you go into, even if it is bartending, there are aspects of your education that have prepared you for that experience. You worked so hard, and dealt with disappointment and high pressure situations. You have experience and employers want to see that. There is the feeling that Sociology is not as applicable, but Sociology is such a foundational knowledge, in addition to the Core, what you take away from it can bring so much to any professional environment. So have confidence in your abilities, and don’t be afraid to go after any job or position you want because your degree IS directly applicable.”

Like Wendy and Jvani, Jessica Ramirez’s interest in Sociology came about gradually. She knew early on that she was interested in educational reform, but wasn’t sure what that meant in terms of choosing a major until she found herself attracted to courses under the Sociology umbrella. These courses provided a framework of research and context with which she felt equipped to try her hand with real world experience. After graduating, Jessica taught with Teach for America for three years. This hands-on application of research and theory had special meaning for Jessica, who says “All of the organizations I've worked with have a mission that touches on some aspect of this, whether in the classroom directly or on the fundraising and external relations side.” Since Teach for America, Jessica has worked as a teacher for a charter school in New York City and served in various administrative roles in several Chicago schools. Today, she is the Director of Development for ChiArts (The Chicago High School for the Arts), Chicago's only public arts high school providing a college-preparatory academic program combined with pre-professional arts training. She oversees marketing, communications, and fundraising.

Jessica credits her studies at UChicago for her ability to link the research and theory to the practical applications in a school setting. More than anything, she is grateful for the communication skills learned as a Sociology major: “I became a much better writer and communicator after writing all of those 25+ page papers! Above all, that has been the most useful skill in every part of my career.” Additionally, Jessica values the Socratic approach used in UChicago classes, and has even adapted many of the principles into her own classrooms. “I had almost no experience with the Socratic Seminar format and was very intimidated by it my freshman year of college. A few years later when I was teaching Great Books to a class of third-graders in Brooklyn, I used a kid-friendly version of Socratic Seminar. It resulted in some amazing discussions and connections for my students, and I found that they grew more comfortable speaking up. They will be freshmen in college in 2017, and I hope they will confident enough to be ‘that guy from Hum class’ who is always engaging in the conversation.”

As evident in the three stories of Wendy, Jvani, and Jessica, Sociology majors are well adapted to a host of different professions thanks to their ability to grapple with large amounts of information, synthesize meaning, and communicate that meaning well. Their stories emphasize the importance of sifting through large quantities of information to find the most meaningful ideas, and transforming those ideas into usable, tangible solutions to the world’s challenges. Analysis, synthesis, and communication are the skills we all need to work in today’s world, and that is good news for Sociology majors.