Catching up with a grad:
Maggie Sowell, SVHS 2003
Maggie Sowell is a big believer in following your passion, and that success sometimes depends on a leap of faith.
Sowell graduated from Sonoma Valley High in 2003 ready to get out of town. “I love California, but for college, I wanted change, any sort of change I could find. I viewed it as part of my education – to experience culture shock,” said Sowell about her decision to go to college in Massachusetts.
“I had idealized New England as the place for higher education, a place where I would be pushed to my limits. While it is certainly not the only place to have this experience, I do believe leaving California, even just Northern California, expands your horizons,” she said.
Sowell wanted a wide range of choices and applied to 14 colleges – single sex schools, huge schools, tiny schools, she was literally all over the map. “I wasn’t sure where I would get in and I still wasn’t sure what I was looking for.”
What she did know was that she wanted a school with a rich history and a strong sense of tradition. She applied to most of the so-called “Seven Sister” colleges – a group originally founded so that women could compete on the same academic level as what, at the time, was an all-male Ivy League. She ended up at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., because, she explained, “Something just felt right. The campus was just the most beautiful, the town the most charming, the students the most energized, the traditions the most vibrant. It fit.”
Sowell planned to major in English literature and environmental studies. “That all changed the first day of my women’s studies course. I had, without realizing, stumbled upon a discipline that incorporated all of my passions: social and political identity categories, gender, race, class, sexuality, social and political theory, history, literature, and how all those categories intersected.” She described herself as “overwhelmed in the best possible way. I hadn’t known such a field of study existed.”
Sewell thought she wanted to be a writer, but didn’t give it serious thought until her senior year of college. She headed to Columbia for graduate studies in literary non-fiction and ended up teaching a creative writing workshop. After getting her master’s in fine arts, she was offered an adjunct faculty position at Dillard University, a small, private, historically black college in New Orleans. She dove right in, teaching English composition and remedial English. She also began working with a local program aimed at preparing low-income students for college.
“As most teachers will say of their first year teaching, especially in
under-resourced, urban environments, it was the greatest challenge of my life at that point, and the most rewarding and fulfilling. I’d never thought I’d love anything as much as I loved discussing literature and ideas, even grammar and syntax, with those students.”
Last year, Sowell moved back to Northern California and she is now the director of the High School Writing Center at Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland. Lighthouse was founded in 2002 in a renovated storefront and has grown from 92 students in K-6 to 700 students in K-12. The school is “dedicated to serving a student population that has been historically underserved by the traditional school system.
Said Sowell, “Being a teacher goes so far beyond a lesson plan. It is being a mentor to students dealing with circumstances far more complicated, violent, and emotional than I had ever thought possible. My life would be incomplete without some form of teaching.”