Elana Schrager ’17 talks to Maia Sauer ’22 about her path from NER intern to campaign manager.
Elana (right) during a recent campaign.
Maia Sauer: When did you intern at NER and what were some memorable aspects of your experience?
Elana Schrager: I interned with NER in the summer of 2016, between my junior and senior years. I had just arrived back in the US from my semester abroad in Dublin and was grateful to spend a whole summer in Vermont.
Interning with NER gave me the opportunity to think about writing, and short fiction in particular, in ways I hadn’t had time before. Reading from the general submission pile every week was different from reading the literature of the classroom. I was able to peer into the process of writing and the labor that goes into shaping stories, as they become greater than themselves when read.
Outside the work itself, I most enjoyed getting to meet and work with Carolyn, Marcy, and my co-intern, Natalie. As interns, we got invited to be part of their little on-campus haven, and it was a pleasure to get to know them and learn from them.
MS: Your career path has gone in a political direction, if I’m not mistaken. How did you arrive where you are today, geographically and professionally?
ES: That’s a story without much of a defined narrative thread, but I’ll give it my best shot. When I was at NER, I remember talking with Marcy about maybe wanting to go work for a lit mag after graduation, and then maybe going on to grad school.
I led backpacking trips the summer after I graduated and drove around the country. When September came, I started driving east and applying to jobs—I wanted to write. While en-route from Sacramento to Maryland, I got a communications and research internship with End Citizens United, a campaign finance reform group. It turns out that political communications and research is very different from the academic writing and research I’d loved at school, but my internship ended the winter before the 2018 midterms, campaigns were hiring, and I wanted to leave DC. So, I decided to look for a campaign job.
While I was visiting Midd for Feb graduation, I got an email about a finance and communications job on a congressional race in Southern Illinois, and I moved out there nine days later. After it ended, I decided that I wanted to manage a campaign, which I’ve now done twice, in Virginia and Minnesota, moving to a new city every year for a new race.
MS: What was a skill that you developed during your undergraduate years that has been beneficial to your current work?
ES: I couldn’t have dreamed up a job more different from the work I did in school. Still, there are so many skills I learned there that I use every day. School rewarded me for being detail oriented and able to produce work efficiently and without error—both of which are important for managing campaigns. But the skill I truly learned at school, and the skill that’s the most valuable to me now, is how to build and maintain relationships. I learned how to talk with professors as people, not just authority figures, and built friendships with classmates that have lasted for years. That simple skill has helped me as I’ve worked with different people all over the country.
Also, learning Photoshop by messing around with it in the Axinn basement is always worthwhile.
MS: I could imagine that working within our current political climate is, at times, incredibly frustrating. How do you stay motivated, inspired, and committed?
ES: Working in electoral politics—and House politics in particular, which is where I’ve spent most of my time—is very humbling. Each campaign takes millions of dollars, massive amounts of resources and effort, and when it’s done, the chess board is reset and it’s done all again. It’s also easy to get burned out, because campaigns demand your all. You’re playing a kind of zero sum game: you win or you lose. It’s the worst thing in the world to be on the losing side on election day, wondering if you could have given just a little bit more, and whether that little bit more could have gotten you over the finish line. It’s also, critically, not a game—the people we elect result in policies that affect the lives of millions of people.
So, I try to pay attention and give importance to the tiniest things that I tend to overlook: drinking a whole cup of coffee on a bright morning without receiving an email or a phone call; going for a walk with a friend; reading a long-form article or a book. There are moments when I can’t see the delight and importance of those small things, and that’s when I know I need to take a breath and get some sleep.
MS: What have you been reading recently? Do you find yourself gravitating toward certain genres or themes right now?
ES: Last year, I basically read Twitter, newsletters, article headlines, and ad copy. In the weeks since election day, I’ve tried to ease myself back into more pleasurable reading. I started by rereading old young adult novels while I was at my parents’ house for the holidays, letting myself slip back into stories that required no thought or effort on my part. Now, I’m gravitating toward gentle books outside of the here and now, and the struggles of today and tomorrow. I’m currently reading Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson. I let it pour over me as I take a breath and figure out what my next year will be, and what job I’ll decide to do next.
MS: Thanks very much for your time, Elana. It was wonderful to connect with you.