Dawn Sandoe-Henshaw is the perfect poster child for the concept that it's never too late to pursue a graduate degree. The former advertising copywriter and creative director is now enrolled in Saint Leo University's MA in Creative Writing program.
"I admit that I'm one of the oldest students in the program," Sandoe-Henshaw says with a laugh. "But I'm so incredibly blessed and fortunate to have this opportunity."
A Career of Writing & Educating
She spent two decades working in advertising, including writing for fashion clients.
"I learned a lot in this field," she says. "I started out as a retail copywriter and worked up the corporate side of advertising and public relations to become a creative director. After I became an executive, corporate advertising wasn't nearly as fun." She later transitioned to teaching elementary and middle school students in private schools before returning to corporate advertising.
"I would come into a private school to teach a language arts unit when it included poetry writing," she explains. "I taught many students with ADD, ADHD and other learning challenges. it was so interesting how girls would package themselves up by 4th grade, easily making words sound pretty AND rhyming. Boys express their unconscious feelings through their poetry of witness. Poetry empowers them to talk about how they are ostracized and how they are treated differently in school because of their learning challenges. They'd bring their parents to tears at poetry readings. They are very gifted creatively."
In addition to penning metaphors and imagery, Sandoe-Henshaw operates a clean water charity with her husband, an environmental engineer., called Water for Empowerment.
An Unanticipated Path to Saint Leo
While the Indianapolis, Ind. native and resident had an unusual initial introduction to Saint Leo's creative writing program, she says it was something unique about the curriculum that attracted her to pursue it rather than one of the other options out there.
"I thought a former writing teacher, Tom Jenks, had recommended me to Saint Leo because he'd published Steve Kistulentz in his magazine," she recalls. "I thought it was a sign. Turns out, I was just on a mailing list. But because I'd received the invitation to apply on my birthday, not long after my mother had passed away, it seemed like divine intervention." Once she explored it further, she was immediately sold. "I looked at several different programs," she admits. "Saint Leo's program was odd and quirky enough and looked really interesting. The fact that it crosses genres and is a two-year program were big selling points for me. I honestly didn't know if I had three years in me to do this. Also, I must say the resume of Dr. Steve Kistulentz stood out to me. Finally, the mission to allow military personnel and others to use the creative process as therapy for PTSD
seemed like good therapy for me and was similar to my work empowering children to speak up about obstacles in their lives."
The married mother of four earned her bachelor's degree in English and History. She felt that fiction writing was where she'd had the most difficulty in college.
"I thought to myself, 'I can't go to my grave until I can write fiction,'" she confides.
Experience in the Creative Writing Program
According to Sandoe-Henshaw, the depth of her work in the curriculum has been well worth every minute of it.
"My work in the program has been the hardest thing I've ever done – and the most satisfying. The curriculum is well designed because the homework has been my best training. The honest critiques and encouragement by professors have been worth more than any other training I've ever received."
She adds that being a remote student in the online program has worked out just fine.
"I had never done online classes before," she says. "But with this program, it's not really too heavy on the online work because we get so many materials during the week we spend in the summer residency on campus. I started out writing ads on a typewriter with carbon paper. So if I can handle an online program, anyone can."
While she does miss some of the in-person interaction within a traditional classroom setting, she says writing itself can be a bit of a lonely venture, but she and her classmates connect well on a Facebook group for the program. Plus, the on-campus weeklong residency each summer is extremely beneficial.
"We all have a lot of camaraderie when we get together, and I honestly feel like I can let my guard down and really enjoy everything. The students in this program are so fascinating."
Dr. Patrick Crerand has been her mentor in the program.
"He's been exceptional," she says. "He takes a great deal of time and addresses all of us with audio recordings of his feedback and makes comments on our manuscripts. He's always available for his students, and the humility he shows us is kind of extraordinary."
Creative Career Considerations
While she believes her age is an advantage, she still has several creative aspirations she'd like to pursue following graduation.
"After I finish my novel for my thesis and get my degree, I'll focus on trying to get my novel published as well as short stories, essays and poetry. I'll draw from faculty and cohorts in the future for networking and encouragement."
Perhaps one day we'll see her novel or poetry on the shelf of a local bookstore – or popping up onAmazon.com's recommended titles.
Photo credit: The photograph of Dawn Sando-Henshaw is used with permission.