In times like these, the value of a college education is often hotly debated, especially one that isn’t highly industry specific. With COVID-19 disrupting everything, many are turning their thoughts towards the challenges of life after quarantine. This is especially true for the class of 2020 who will be facing an uncertain and disrupted job market.But this is not an entirely unprecedented situation; when you think about the evolution of the job market, there are few periods as tumultuous as the past two decades. Karen Cooper (’06) is an inspiring example of a creative individual who, armed with a liberal arts degree, has navigated the ups and downs of the past 15 years in pursuit of a rewarding career that spans industries, cultures, and languages. Her story is encouraging for anyone nervously eyeing their professional outlook.
After graduating Magna Cum Laude in 2006 with a double major—International communications, and combined French and Literature— Karen got a job as an English copywriter and PR assistant at a Public Relations agency in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Though it was a small firm, their clients were high-end and Karen found herself working with Rolex on their sponsored sporting events. She spent seven years in Neuchâtel and worked her way up to Event PR Manager and English Content Strategist. After achieving everything she could at that agency, she moved to Vevey and started work as the Marketing Manager for another small, though much more innovative and tech-forward, agency, which gave her experience in then-new concepts like Social Media marketing.
In 2015, Karen decided that it was time to explore opportunities back in the USA, which she was starting to miss. Her Franklin network helped with this big transition, and she and her old roommate from the Giardino Tower (Anna Ranck ’06) once again became roommates in the Big Apple. But two years later, Karen’s wanderlust came calling and she decided to trade living in New York City and working at a fast-paced, corporate publishing firm, for the digital nomad lifestyle and full-time freelancing. It’s huge change, Karen says. “I currently work remotely 99% of the time, for Swiss and USA-based clients, and I take advantage of that workplace flexibility to travel, so I am usually on the road about 5 months out of the year.”
Freelancing has also allowed her to explore her artistic interests, including filmmaking. Her first feature length work, which she is co-directing and producing, is a French language documentary called AlternaSuisse (No Alternative) which had its global premiere at the 2019 Montreux Jazz Festival. This project started back when she was working in Neuchâtel. Wanting to get more involved in the art scene, she discovered a local art collective and creative space. One of her new friends there, a filmmaker named Kevin Rumley, was having difficulty funding his projects and she decided to apply her marketing skills to help out, with success.
Their first collaboration went so well, that she and Kevin decided to co-produce a documentary about the broader community of art collectives scattered around Switzerland, which are often underground, and struggle to stay open. It took 2 years to find all the other collectives, mostly by word of mouth due to their underground nature, and the task of interviewing, filming, and production took several years more.
“It’s been an incredible project, but to be honest I think we are a bit over it,” she says laughing. “There is a big fat question mark over where this goes next, but most of all I want this film to be seen, especially by those in the underground art scene, and by the Swiss. I want them to know what’s in their own back yard.”
As you can probably tell from projects like this, Karen is the kind of person who follows her passions, goes after what she wants, and gets it. Her variety of experience is thanks to working for startups and small firms where flexibility, and the ability to “wear many hats,” has given her a uniquely diverse resume. As a freelancer, she does everything from copywriting and translations (French/English), to business development and content strategy. Her many clients range from Swiss giants like Art Basel and Helvet Magazine, to a growing bakery in New Jersey (Feed Your Soul), a project she’s working on with fellow Franklin alum Ann Manousos (’05).
Her Franklin experience has been instrumental in her career, not only in terms of education, but also for her professional network. But back when she started as a freshman in 2002 it was impossible to imagine where this experience would take her.
She says, “I chose Franklin because I wanted to travel but didn't even know where to begin as an 18-year-old high-school graduate who only spoke English. Franklin gave me the opportunity to continue my education and travel at the same time, while also offering me a base and a community to come home to.”
At Franklin, she became heavily involved on campus. Karen worked in the library and bookstore, was an active member of the Literary Society, and a co-founder of Lugano Street Dance, a student run dance club. Those friendships she made during her time as a student have developed into lasting contacts. She says, “My Franklin family is unlike any other group of people in my life. They are fabulous and easygoing; they just get it and they just get me. We share a special connection and experience that bonds us, even though we are scattered all over the world.”
Her time at Franklin also gave her important practical skills that she was able to put right to work after graduating. Describing the impact of her education on her career, she says, “My experience at Franklin definitely set me apart from my peers in many ways and has had a huge impact on shaping who I am, as well as on my personal and professional path in life. I developed critical thinking skills, learned how to examine and judge the integrity of my information sources, and learned how to read and write properly. I know that last one might sound silly, but I'm actually blown away at how many people with college degrees are incapable of analytical reading or putting their thoughts into words and then backing them up with proof.”
Having worked all over the world, Karen still believes strongly in the value of her degree. “Especially in hindsight, I can confidently say I have a quality education. I’m so happy to be able to say this, because education is so expensive these days and a lot of people pursue degrees that they never even use once they get into the working world. But there are a whole set of skills that you pick up in a liberal arts education that actually prepare you for what it’s like to have a job. I learned languages, I learned how to think critically; and then there are all the soft skills you pick up at Franklin. I’m totally at home working with people from different cultures, I know all the proper etiquette, I’m confident traveling by myself…. It’s hard to quantify these skills, but they make all the difference between struggling and excelling at the kinds of international jobs I’ve had. My Franklin experience made me more self-reliant, capable, and confident, all things you need to navigate the many unexpected challenges that come with a well-lived life, especially as a freelancer. I'm at a place now where I look back and I’m so happy with how things turned out; I wouldn’t change anything.”
At the moment, Karen is based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a town best known for its large Amish community but, as Karen describes, it’s actually the perfect place for an art-loving, globetrotting freelancer like herself. “When I decided to freelance full time, I travelled all over trying to decide where I wanted to live next. But then Anna, my roommate from Franklin and NYC, suggested I move in with her in Lancaster. Here I’m surrounded by nature, and the area has a low cost of living, an amazing food scene, a strong public arts program, and a growing refugee community… It’s an art forward city and I love that. Plus I had a Franklin family member here.”
Currently, Karen’s work time is split between her freelance work, and promoting AlternaSuisse (No Alternative). “How this film shapes the next phase of my career, I’m not sure yet. But I am now more passionate than ever in my support for artists and artistic communities. I wrote my thesis on Proust’s definition of art, so this is a thread that has followed me all through my life. It’s been a lot of work, but now it’s coming full circle and I can’t wait to see where it goes.”
You can watch Karen’s presentation of the film on April 8th as part of Franklin's Virtual University Day.