Embracing Change and Uncertainty
By Nicole Martorana (‘07)
Growing up, I imagined that my future career would just magically materialize, fully-formed and with a corner office and power pantsuit. As a SMAD student at JMU, my imaginings became more focused: attend a master’s program in film directing and pursue work on an independent film set or documentary crew in far-flung parts of the globe. But as graduation began to loom large, the plans I envisioned for myself no longer felt like the right fit.
Thus began the journey of jobs, in everything from nonprofits to small businesses to universities and governmental departments. I pursued opportunities that provided new experiences and contributed to the community in a meaningful way. But I also struggled with a gap between the creative self I had pursued in school and the work I was doing in my day jobs.
At 24, I sought to resolve this disconnect and figure out how to transform my wistful dreaming into a concrete career. So I left my job and went to Europe for six weeks to work on a farm, explore new places, and create a travelogue of photographs.
(To read more, check out my article, “Lessons in Italian Pig Herding,” for JMU’s Be the Change blog.)
When I returned stateside, I came back to Harrisonburg and a whole new slew of jobs, but with each one, I was getting closer to remedying that disconnect. Outside of work, I began exhibiting photographs I’d taken in Europe, creating new collections from further travels, and collaborating with other local artists. I got involved with a local film festival. And a position opened up at an organization I’d had my eye on for a long time.
In my new job, I worked closely with local restaurants to organize farm-to-table events and food-focused promotions. This closely connected with my Italian-American heritage, where the centrality of food to life was second-nature. My family also had a strong entrepreneurial bent and I grew up admiring the struggles and successes of small business owners. So it was that working with the food scene of downtown Harrisonburg began to meld my professional pursuits and personal passions. But it wasn’t until I attended a marketing event for work during a period of time when I was also searching for a short film idea that things started to come together.
At the event, I met Linda Trainum and we began talking about Autumn Olive Farms, the heritage pig farm she owns with her husband Clay and their three sons. Linda and I chatted about their animals and I mentioned my time working with heritage pigs in southern Tuscany. Linda was incredibly friendly, intelligent, and dynamic and enthusiastically agreed for her and Clay to be guest speakers on a farm-to-table panel I was putting together for work. When I went home, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Trainums’ story and realized it would make a great short film topic for the festival. The Trainums were gracious enough to agree and, through those two experiences, we soon became fast friends.
Working with the Trainums revealed how my degree and professional work could come together. Around the same time, I had stumbled upon the site, GoodFoodJobs.com, and read about how one of the founders attended a master’s program in food communications in Northwestern Italy. For some reason, the possibility of doing this myself didn’t occur to me until several months later when I was reading an interview with the same founder on another site. This time, it snagged in my brain. I began researching the school more closely and decided that this was the program, experience, and future career for which I’d been searching.
Thus followed an intense year of learning, exploring, and living in a foreign country amidst many different cultures. It was the first time I went somewhere I’d never been without knowing anyone. And it was the first time in a very long time I felt completely at peace and with direction.
Throughout the year, I not only soaked up the experiences and coursework and friendships, but also researched careers and companies for after graduation. I had been hearing a lot about the growing food scene in Richmond, Virginia and spent the summer after graduation meeting with people and companies there that I admired. The Trainums had a number of Richmond contacts they were generous enough to connect me with and one of them happened to be hiring. I was thrilled to begin training as a guide for a food tour company but knew I needed a second job in order to move to the city and make rent. While attending an art exhibit in Harrisonburg, I ran into a local business owner I’d previously worked with and he was so excited to hear about my Richmond plan that he blurted out, “I should introduce you to my high school prom date! She owns a cidery there!” And thus my second job was soon secured.
I’ve lived in Richmond for over a year now and often reflect on the long and winding way that led me here. While often frustrating and confusing, each step brought new experiences and a greater self-awareness. Each job taught me new skills in different work environments that I draw from in my current career, and the creative interests I pursued alongside these jobs introduced me to a supportive community of people that are now some of my closest friends.
My time at JMU is not something I see as in the past or at the start of my career journey, but rather a presence in my life that is ongoing. While I was a student, I thought my most meaningful experiences as a Duke would occur while I was an undergrad. But it wasn’t until years later that I realized student life was only the beginning.
JMU doesn’t just teach you to be the change in the world around you but also provides the skills and passion to become the change in your own life. I don’t just bleed purple; I live it every day.