Striding with STEP: English Majors Showcase Their Signature Projects

December 5, 2017
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Become an international artist. Launch a YouTube songwriting channel. Serve communities in need. Research drugs to combat cancer. This is what Ohio State English undergraduates are doing nowadays—and they’ve only finished their second year of college.

At Ohio State’s recent Second-Year Transformational Experience Program (STEP) Expo, eight English majors presented their signature projects to a bustling ballroom full of students, faculty and staff confronted with the unenviable task of navigating a room simmering with phenomenal stories just waiting to be shared.

Students who enroll in STEP work with faculty mentors and peer groups and participate in co-curricular activities throughout their second year at Ohio State. After completing the program requirements, STEP students submit a signature project proposal in hopes of receiving a fellowship to bring their projects to life. Signature projects provide an opportunity for students to engage in a transformational experience in one of six core categories: internships, leadership, education abroad, service-learning and community service, undergraduate research or artistic and creative endeavors. STEP is a partnership between the Office of Academic Affairs and the Office of Student Life that focuses on student engagement and development to enhance second-year success.

The Department of English is proud of our STEP students’ outstanding academic and personal achievements—the depth, breadth, vision and remarkable creativity of which are emblematic of just what our majors are capable of.

Julia Sabella & Isabel Ciminello: Education Abroad

It’s pervasive. From the vibrant streets of New York City to the narrow brick alleys and turquoise waters of Venice, from doodles scrawled on bathroom stalls to murals painted on curved cathedral ceilings, art surrounds us at all times. This past May, Isabel Ciminello and Julia Sabella put this idea to the test by embarking on a three-week May education abroad trip: Film and Art in a Global Context.

The trip began in New York, where Ciminello and Sabella visited museums, galleries and other sites of art production to get a domestic perspective before commencing their international tour in Athens, Greece. After Athens, Sabella, Ciminello and their classmates traveled north to experience Paris and then Berlin, where each student hosted an ambitious pop-up show. They ended their travels at the prestigious Venice Biennale, a contemporary arts exhibition in Venice, Italy. The students’ experience did not end with their travels, however. Back at Ohio State in the fall, each student revived their pop-up shows for an exhibition at Hopkins Hall.

This journey of actually creating something to present to the world— not only traveling and studying as in other study abroad programs—proved a worthwhile challenge for these two English majors, both of whom note how being on a film- and art-focused trip where most of their fellow travelers were art majors—allowed them to grow as English majors, art enthusiasts and critical thinkers.


For Julia Sabella, life at Ohio State means having a chance to experience everything she is interested in and nothing less. “I’m an English major, but I’m also pre-med. So, for me, college has been a time to explore everything I’m interested in. I’m not really left-brained. I’m not really right-brained. I’m somewhere in the middle. I was able to explore my more creative side [through this study abroad program],” says Sabella.

Sabella highlights how, as a writer, she leans toward a more analytical style, but the trip—and the pop-up show project in particular—encouraged her to develop her creative side. “While we were [in Berlin], we actually got to make our own art. I’m not an art major, so I chose photography because I figured that’s something I always was interested in… I chose this [trip] mostly because of the different locations I got to go to. I knew I would get to see a bunch of different locations in a month, as well as the fact that art has always been something I’ve had a deep appreciation for and have been interested in, but I’ve never really had the chance to learn, so this seemed like a great time to do it.”

Of all the locations she visited, Sabella’s favorite was Venice. “I loved the arts festival there, and I’m Italian, so my first time in Italy was really great.” Despite the high points, Sabella’s trip was not without its hardships. While in Paris, Sabella received news that her grandfather had passed away. “I was almost going to go home for it…But the people I met there made it so much better, and they were there for me the whole time. I realized that these people I had just met two weeks ago were such great people and that I would never had met them without this.”


Isabel Ciminello, an English major with a double minor in film studies and art history, considered Film and Art in Global Context as the perfect combination of her interests. “Having to think about myself as an artist was probably the biggest challenge,” explains Ciminello, however. “I’ve always enjoyed looking at art and learning about it, but actually trying to create it was really hard.” But Ciminello proved herself to be up for challenge, fully embracing the intellectual and physical rigors of creating her own work, especially in a foreign city and on a time crunch.

As part of the experience, each student had to create their own pop-up show in Berlin. For her show, Ciminello chose to provide a critical commentary on high art and low art. This included taking pictures of art and statues in museums and pictures of public statues. Putting together the exhibit came with its own unique challenges. “Our pop-up show was in Berlin, so we had to go out and find our materials on our own. I had to find a place to print pictures from my phone. Just being in a foreign city and having to gather all these materials and actually create something was hard.” In the face of these challenges, however, the wonder of Berlin was not diminished. In fact, Ciminello believes this experience helped Berlin become her favorite city, stating that her unfamiliarity with it made the city all the more exciting.

As is only fitting—the “T” in “STEP” stands for “transformation,” after all—this project significantly influenced Ciminello’s future goals. “It definitely impacted my future because I met with archivists and curators, and I had never really thought of them as careers for me.”

Sam Turner: Education Abroad

Some students choose their STEP signature project to develop their majors and some use it to help them choose one. This was the case for Sam Turner, who decided to double-major in English and women’s, gender and sexuality studies after enrolling in the Department of English’s Literary Locations: Greece program.


“I didn’t know that I wanted to be an English major until I took the course. I was an English minor, so I was using the study abroad as a way to decide my major. So, it definitely had huge academic implications for me in terms of loving the program and wanting to be more involved in the department,” states Turner.

Part of the Literary Locations experience included taking a class before the trip which involved reading classical and contemporary Greek literature. “It was sort of a culture course, too,” says Turner. “Then we traveled to Greece to experience the places we talked about, which was super awesome…It was my first experience abroad, so that definitely has transformational aspects in itself.”

Turner spent her first time abroad traveling in style—three weeks’ worth of strategically selected style that she fit into a single backpack. “I traveled three weeks in Europe with only a backpack. I really had to do some research to find out what would be versatile pieces…it allowed me to do a lot more walking around and experiencing without worrying ‘Where’s my luggage going to be?’ or ‘Am I taking up too much room on this Italian bus?’.”

Turner is grateful to STEP and the Department of English for providing students with transformative opportunities such as this. “Maybe my experience was a little bit rare because I chose my major after this program, but I think the fact that the English department offers trips such as this is really awesome and not a thing that can be said about some other humanities programs. I’ve even met some people [during the STEP Expo] who’ve said ‘Oh, I should look into English because of these study abroad programs.’.”

Madi Task: Artistic & Creative Endeavors

Of the different types of projects STEP students can choose to do, creative projects elicit a special intrigue. Creative projects offer students an opportunity to bring childhood fantasies to life: road trips across the country, scuba diving, etc. For Madi Task, STEP was an opportunity to start her own YouTube channel to feature her songwriting. Through STEP, Task took piano and voice lessons and learned photography in order to showcase her love for the music industry.


“I’ve always been interested in performing and songwriting, but I’ve never had the professional skills to do it. I picked up guitar—I’ve never had formal guitar lessons, but I can play it enough so if I’m trying to write a song, I can do basic chords,” says Task. “But as far as reading sheet music goes and sight reading or practicing healthy singing habits, it’s always been my friends telling me to do things that their voice teachers have told them. I’ve never had that experience myself, so this summer was really just me giving myself that experience.”

As a member of the student-run theater group Off the Lake Productions, Task knew many people who had taken voice lessons. One day, someone in the organization told her that Ohio State offered one-on-one voice lessons; she promptly enrolled. “I was thinking I wanted to do something songwriting-based because I always wanted to take it more seriously. And when I stopped taking one-on-one voice lessons in the fall, I realized how much I missed it. I was too aware of all of the work I needed to do so I knew I had to do a STEP project dedicated to the work I had started.”

Task points out how her English major and STEP project benefited from one another. For instance, English 2260: Introduction to Poetry helped her with word choice: “Songs are only three minutes long, so you’ve got to have really clever word choice. I’m studying English literature, which definitely makes me believe that being a better reader makes you a better writer. And just the community in the English department helps…I always tell myself that Lin-Manuel Miranda was an English teacher before he wrote Hamilton.”

As for how this experience has impacted her, Task, who is pre-education, states that she hopes it will affect her post-graduation plans before she begins teaching. “I want to be the dumb person who goes to New York for no reason and work while writing my songs in my free time." To get that point, however, Task is aware of the work she has yet to do. One of the unique characteristics of a creative project is the feeling of never being satisfied. Task advises students who are planning creative STEP capstones to find get others’ guidance and feedback: “Everyone says you need a mentor, but they’re not always easy to find. So, look to your peers who are interested in similar creative things and look at where they learned from. Also, if you’re doing creative stuff and majoring in English, use the department to get a connection…I really relied on Ohio State for my project.”

Hanna Crosby: Service-Learning & Community Service

Traveling to a different country inherently transforms a traveler’s life. Traveling abroad to serve others transforms hundreds of lives. For Hannah Crosby’s STEP project, she participated in a two-week Buck-I-SERV trip to Senya, Ghana, with the Akumanyi Foundation, an organization founded by an Ohio State graduate. Crosby worked with a program called the Becky’s Children’s Home that housed fifty orphaned Ghanaian children, ages five to fifteen.


When coming up with a STEP project proposal, Crosby relied upon her values to guide her toward a service-oriented trip. “I’ve always really believed in community service, and I think that volunteering is a good use of your time…It was just a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience, and I was really intrigued so see what this culture was like.”

“The day-to-day of what we did was help them get ready for school, help them cook, help them clean the house and then mostly just play with them and give them love and all that fun stuff,” says Crosby, who adds that her favorite part of the trip was getting to know and play with the children. “It sounds cliché, but I’ve never met happier people. I never heard them complain. It puts into perspective how fortunate we are," she says.

What shocked her the most, Crosby says, was not necessarily the poverty in Senya, but the great difference of wealth there. “I wasn’t all that surprised at the poverty that I saw, because before we went we learned a lot about what it was going to be like. The thing that hit me the hardest and has transcended back into my normal life is the wealth disparity…seeing these kids, they’d have two shirts and that was their wardrobe. And then to go half an hour away, and it was like a western mall...To see that disparity and to know that the kids I was really close to would never experience that just thirty minutes away was very impactful to me.”

Physical challenges met Crosby and her fellow volunteers as they endured opressive heat throughout their stay. “The heat. I can’t even describe to you how hot it was. You were just so uncomfortable the entire time… when I decided to fall asleep, that was the position I needed to stay in. Otherwise, if I moved, I would wake up because I would be so hot. That was hard for me, but it’s a small price to pay for what a wonderful experience this was.”

Aside from the fulfillment she gained serving others, Crosby emerged from the experience with a sense of empowerment. With an aspiration to pursue policy writing after graduation, Crosby is grateful for how this project allowed her to act on improving others’ lives. “The person who co-founded this organization is also named Hannah; she’s twenty-five. It goes to show that if you feel like you can make a difference, you can actually make that difference. It seems impossible, but it’s really not.”

Emma Crane: Education Abroad

No one can dispute the allure of France. It’s the land of the Louvre, Hugo, fine wines and the language of love. So, it’s little wonder why Emma Crane, a double major in English and French, chose to dedicate an entire semester to experiencing this beautiful culture as her STEP signature project.


This past spring, Crane participated in a full-immersion program, through which she spent a semester in Nantes, France. This included living with a host family, always speaking French and taking classes. “I felt like I was at a point in my French learning where I couldn't really learn much more in a U.S. classroom, so I was like 'Okay, I need to study abroad and be actually in the culture.'"

Crane chose this particular education abroad program after receiving recommendations from advisors in the Office of International Affairs. Going into the program, Crane remembers how shy and nervous she was: “I’m from fifteen minutes away from [Columbus], and I’ve never been gone for that long,” says Crane. “The first few weeks [were the biggest challenge]. The flight is so long, and then you go to a stranger’s house, and you just feel super alone and awkward with all the other students because you’re trying to gauge your French level compared to theirs. Everyone is very defensive about their French. But then, as the weeks went on, I got more comfortable. We’re all here for the same reason.”

Some of the courses Crane took while in Nantes were history of French religion, a literature class for which she read French dramas and a French politics class, which was particularly interesting as it coincided with France’s controversial presidential election this past spring. Crane recalls how challenging it was to adjust to taking classes in French and speaking French on a regular basis. “The first few weeks, I would go to bed with a huge headache because I couldn’t turn my brain off. I would be thinking in English and then automatically translating it to French as I was trying to sleep.”

While the academic benefits of studying in a new country were unparalleled, Crane says the best part of her experience was getting to know and love the French culture. She points out how the particular region of France where she stayed is well known for crepes and galettes, so her host mother taught her how to make crepes, and they had a favorite creperie where they’d go so often that the servers got to know them.

Over the course of her stay, Crane traveled throughout different parts of France, Belgium and the Netherlands. “The best part was exploring city and Europe with my friends. We’d try to be very ‘French’ and we’d buy a baguette and cheese and wine at the local store and then go to a park. There was a chateau in the middle of Nantes, and that was our ‘place,” Crane says, amused.

Abigail Rice: Internship

Last month, the National Geographic Society ranked Cleveland, Ohio, fourteenth out of its top twenty-one places to visit this coming year. The recognition comes with Cleveland being described as a city thriving in cultural and creative energy. Such an accolade would not be possible without the city hosting a menagerie of world-class attractions—one of the foremost being the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

This cultural icon has attracted millions of music stars and fans alike from around the world— including third-year Abigail Rice, who got the chance to intern at the Hall over the summer for her STEP project.


“I’ve been going to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since I was little. So I’ve actually been writing and rewriting my application for probably two years before I actually got the internship,” says Rice.  “I spent a long time on essays, trying to get connections, and I bothered them with phone calls all the time. They probably knew my name and were like ‘Ugh, it’s that girl.’”

For her STEP project, this English and journalism double major worked as a Rock Hall communications intern. Throughout the summer, Rice wrote press releases and gave tours to media crews. “Ultimately, I’d like to study music journalism, so I spent my summer trying to get field experience a little bit… My main objective with the internship was to write about music, and I definitely accomplished that. It was an awesome experience.”

Rice cites that the English courses she has taken at Ohio State helped her in this writing-heavy experience and gave her the critical-thinking skills needed for high-pressure situations. Above all, Rice asserts how this experience helped her to better realize her career goals and made them seem more tangible. “The biggest influence it had on me was realizing that people were doing what I actually want to do, and it’s not an impossible task [even though] music journalism doesn't have the biggest job market. I think it helped to encourage me to continue on the path. But also the writing experience I gained there was really awesome—actually writing out press releases, and writing about stuff I actually love and care about was really, really cool," says Rice.

Amanda Deighen: Undergraduate Research

Ohio State is a rarity in that it houses one of the top cancer care centers in the nation. Amanda Deighen is a rarity in that she’s been researching cancerous brain tumors while an undergraduate. Since her freshman year. As an English major.


In the spring semester of her freshman year, Deighen began working under Dr. Monica Venere through the James Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Department of Radiation Oncology with a focus on glioblastoma—an aggressive, cancerous, and malignant brain tumor. “[Dr. Venere] was a researcher from the Cleveland Clinic, and she was new. I was a freshman, and she was looking for undergrads. We met and talked. She liked me and brought me in,” says Deighen.

“I tell most people I research cancer cells—glioblastoma, a cancerous brain tumor, and they’re usually like, ‘Oh, so you're a neuroscience major.’ And I’m like, 'No, I’m an English major with a concentration in literature,'” says Deighen.

This past summer, Deighan used her STEP funding to further her research for a drug that had never been studied in regards to glioblastomas. “[Glioblastoma] is pretty much the worst brain tumor you can get diagnosed with,” says Deighen. “When surgeons go in to resect it, because it’s so embedded in the blood vessels, they can’t remove all of it… these cells will grow back, and the patient is probably going to die within five years.” Currently, there is only one drug that is specialized to glioblastoma so Deighen and her fellow researchers are investigating it. The particular drug she is studying is an anti-malaria drug, Deighen says, but they have found that this drug also inhibits cancer DNA from repairing itself.

With a goal of becoming a nurse practicioner, Deighen looks forward to continuing this research throughout her undergraduate career. She is grateful for the opportunity to research and study in two different fields, oncology and English, while at Ohio State. “I originally came in as a neuroscience major, but English, at the heart of it all, was my passion, and I missed it far too dearly to not be studying it. Science and research is something I want to spend the rest of my life doing, but English is my passion, so that’s what I want to be doing during my time [in college].”

By Madalynn Conkle and Avery Samuels