Thomas MacAlpine M.Ed. '03
How did you get to where you are today?
It was all through networking. Right now, I’m a senior consultant at Lincoln Financial Group. I’m responsible for equipping the sales team with different technology vendors that we use and teaching them how they work, how they benefit our clients, so I am putting my English major to work along with my M.Ed. I was in teaching, but wasn’t sure if that was the way I wanted to go, so I got into benefits consulting by networking—just talking to people, learning about the business. And then I got involved on the technology side because that was up and coming. By educating individuals on how to use benefit platforms to enroll in coverage and educate themselves on employee benefits, I was able to morph that into being able to understand that language and break it down to end-users.
College was pretty tough for me—not from an academic standpoint but from a social standpoint—coming from an area where you grow up and you know everybody, going to UMass can be a bit of a culture shock. Whenever I get a chance I always brag about UMass and the education I got. I live in Atlanta, so when folks ask me where I went to school and I tell them, they’re like, “Wow, that’s pretty big, that’s huge—tell me about your time there,” and I just always credit where I am today to my college education. It really helped me launch.
Is this where you thought you would be when you first became an English major?
No, I still don’t know how I got here. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. My time at UMass was definitely one of growth, self-reflection, and understanding. I just majored in English because I enjoyed some of the professors, the content, and being able to express myself in writing. Because when you think about the sciences, they are very exact, where English is more broad and [you’re] able to share your own thoughts and expressions. That’s what turned me on to that and it’s really helped me where I am today to be able to articulate my thoughts to strongly communicate, but also to make sense—to really break down the macro of it into the micro.
Why did you decide to go to grad school and what made you choose education?
My sister and I are 16 months apart—I’m the oldest—and she was going to lose her financial aid once I graduated. My parents were helping pay for my education and they were like, “It would be really great if you could find a program...” So I said, “Alright, well, I’ll go get my master's.” UMass had a one-year program—it was called the 180-Day program where you taught within the Springfield, MA school systems—and I said, “You know, I’m still not quite sure what I want to do, but this might open some doors.” So, that’s why I did it.
What was your experience obtaining a master’s at UMass like?
It was very focused. Where you’re working on your bachelor's, you have your Gen Eds of course, and then you get more into your major. This was almost a step up from that. It was a practicum that was very focused on educational theory and the behavior of students. I think the first half of the school year we were shadowing different teachers and I taught at Central High School in Springfield during that time. You got real life experience—you come up with a lesson plan, you come up with assignments—you are the teacher. So, I was learning at UMass, but also putting it into practice at the same time.
What do you do now? What is a typical day for you?
So, 70% of a typical day in my role at Lincoln Financial consists of creating content that is going to help express the value of my company and this third party that we are working with to, at the end of the day, create efficiencies and bring these to brokers and our customers. You think of the different vendors we may work with or partner with, and what’s the value of that. So, creating marketing flyers, creating podcasts, creating just content for our training team to use or for our broker teams to use in terms of “break this all down and show us the value”—that’s a majority of my day.
I didn’t realize that your job is a lot of content creation. I see "consultant" and immediately think that means you’d be talking to a lot of people.
I rarely talk to anybody. I mean, I do—my individual team, my boss of course—but it’s really hands on. Then, the other 30% of my day is addressing questions as they may come in from the field, like, “Hey, I see you put this out there, can you help explain it to me so I can explain it to my broker?” I do a lot of creating Sharepoint sites that house information and going to conferences speaking on behalf [of the company].
How have any courses or teachers helped you in your career?
There was one professor, Ron Welburn—he taught Native American literature. He was influential in my life. I just remember that his delivery was very calm, very soothing, very non-judgmental, but constructive and helpful. Another professor I had—it was a course I took on Ernest Hemingway, and my professor, although blunt and although at the impressionable age of 20 I took great offense to it, he said, “You know, you speak better than you write.” And once you let the pride subside and you think about that—articulate communication is key.
What advice might you have for students who are interested in the job you have now?
I’ll break it down generally and specifically. Don’t get so concerned about specifics as it relates to “I’m going to major in English and all I can do is be an author or teacher.” I think now more than ever folks have a hard time expressing the point that they’re getting across. We live in an age where a tweet is a reasonable amount of information, or a Facebook post, or just a photo or emojis, but I think now employers are looking for folks that can make sense of things that might seem complicated and break it down in a comprehensive way. I think my time at UMass—especially in Bartlett Hall, like poetry classes, Native American literature, and African American literature—there can be such specific language that ties with that period of literature where you can kind of comb through and break it down. So, whether you're reading Robert Frost or Emily Dickinson, or whether you’re reading something by W.E.B. Du Bois, it’s really finding what the general message is and being able to repeat that if asked—I think that’s really important nowadays.
A lot of what I’ve done in my career has an instructional aspect about it as well. When you talk about education, again, you can broaden it. It doesn't have to be within the institutions that we have in this country, whether its public school or private school, but to be able to take the theories that I've learned and the practices that I've learned and to apply that today—you have to be able to articulate it. Know your audience—know that they maybe have the capacity to pay attention for five minutes. You’ve got to be on it.
Do you have any advice for English majors? Soon-to-be graduates?
In terms of a career path, the best advice I can give is just to always be open. Don’t have the blinders on; you just never know where your education can take you. I am living proof of that. When I declared a major at UMass and even when I got my master's, there was always a bit of reluctance and fear there in terms of “Am I pigeon holing myself?” I dabbled in [Isenberg, sports management, hospitality] at UMass when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I think one thing that’s so great about this country is that you don’t have to live in a box. You can take your education and go anywhere. Case in point: I packed my bags, left New England, moved down south, and just started networking and telling people what I wanted to do and also being open to learn. Your college education is not the end of your learning experience, and I think so many folks get like, “Well, I went to this school, I went to that school”—that’s great, but the learning cycle never ends, the continuum never ends, and as long as you’re open to that, the sky’s the limit.
As an English major, you’re in the heart of literature with Frost and Dickinson being in Amherst. Take advantage of that and use it to your advantage. It’s a launchpad. You can go get your MBA afterwards or whatever you want to do.
Interview by Cayli Armstrong, Digital Communications Intern