Danielle Duggan-Bringing Creative Writing Training into Social Work

Faculty Shout-Out by Dr. Steve Rachman: “Danielle’s acuity with a text was immediately evident in the class she took from me and the independent study we have conducted virtually during the pandemic. Her analytical intelligence was seamlessly combined with an emotional intelligence in such a way that thought and feeling were always present in her papers and comments. She likes to write short essays that pack a punch and is working hard in the “fourth genre” of creative non-fiction. The work she has done can be searing, as she is writing about the pandemic, but it is animated with telling details and tremendous heart. Her writing has taught me so much and always makes me think and feel. I look forward to reading her in print as she goes on.”

How would you describe your time as an English or Film Studies major at MSU?

My time as an English major at MSU was enlightening. I came to Michigan State as a pre-med neuroscience major, but I quickly realized that my heart and mind belong in the grey area that literature and creative writing afford. I loved the challenge of creating new ways to express universal experiences. I loved celebrating the brilliance of my peers. Most of all, I loved the sense of safety and community within those spaces.

Which classes, instructors, or experiences particularly stand out for you and why? How did they prepare you for the next phase of your life?

I am grateful for all of my English professors. I could dedicate a paragraph to each of them, but in lieu of that, I will pay tribute to the three whom I most directly credit my outlook on humanity. Professor Ray Levy taught ENG 223, “Introduction to Creative Non-Fiction Writing.” Both the content and the professor changed the course of my undergraduate education. Spring 2019 was Professor Levy’s last semester teaching at MSU, but halfway through the summer I received an email that included a nine-page reflection on my final project for their class. This dedication touched my heart, and I will always be grateful to them.

Professor Divya Victor taught my advanced poetry writing course during the entirely virtual semester. Not only did she vastly improve my understanding and appreciation for crafting poetry, she also encouraged us to be kind to ourselves – a lesson I really needed to hear. One week, after a particularly difficult assignment, her feedback read “I am sensing that your heart was not in this assignment. Let’s have a meeting and figure out why.” Instead of punishing students for struggling, she took the time to meet with us and offer subtle changes in perspective that softened the world a bit.

Professor Stephen Rachman taught ENG 210 and then worked with me on my senior thesis project. Of the many ways he has prepared me for the next phase of life, his patience and empathy are the things I will carry with me the most. When I felt defeated and uninspired – quite common feelings during the pandemic – he understood that suffering and helped me use it to create something. I could not have written at all this year, if not for Dr. Rachman’s gentle encouragement and insightful perspective on the human condition.

What advice would you give future English or Film Studies majors, based on your experiences in the department?

Be open to new experiences and perspectives. I took a creative writing class for elective credit my freshman year, and I ended up creating a senior thesis paper from the work I did in that class. Anything can change your perspective; anyone can change your life. You just have to be willing to learn from it all.

What coursework-related projects were/are you working on this year, and what interests or excites you about them?

I am currently finishing up my honors thesis. It is a creative nonfiction portfolio about the experience of attending college during the pandemic. What excites me about this project is its honesty. It is an unfiltered look into my own experience as well as the experience of my peers; hopefully it is one that many could engage with and feel less alone in a world where loneliness threatens to consume us.

What are your hopes and aspirations, post-graduation?

Eventually, I would like to attend graduate school for mental health social work and work with children in schools. Before that, I would like to save up and see as much of the world as possible. I want to speak to people with experiences different from my own and see places that make me question my perspective on humanity. My hope is that by the time I return to school, I will understand my purpose in this world and have found the drive to get me there.

If you’re interested in doing so, please reflect a bit on the strange experience of being a graduating senior during the ongoing pandemic. What resources have been most useful to you in navigating this unprecedented situation?

Each time something unprecedented happened over the last two years, we were told any change would be temporary. We were conditioned to crave this unachievable “return to normalcy”; however, I found that the most useful tool I had at my disposal was my perspective. Once I started treating each new experience as a new challenge, rather than a temporary setback, I was able to live my life in its new state of normalcy. My cat joining my Italian zoom class became a daily occurrence. Morning coffee and reading in the living room became roommate quality time because we didn’t have to commute to campus. Figuring out the ways in which we could benefit from this changed world allowed us to reclaim a sense of control that we had lost.