February 02, 2022
Erin Waters-Trasatt '08
Erin is a 2008 graduate of the professional writing program. She currently serves as Communications Director at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT).
Why did you choose KU?
I chose KU for several reasons. I started as an elementary education major and knew that a state school would be a good option in that realm, and I knew KU was a strong education school. Luckily for me when I changed my major, it was also strong for professional writing. I was also interested in keeping my athletic career going; I was on the volleyball team and the track team. And I loved the campus. I was encouraged by how cohesive the environment felt.
What made you enroll in the Professional Writing Program?
Dr. Elaine Reed, my advisor, really helped coach me along in what I wanted for my future. Educators are doing important work, but it wasn’t what I ultimately wanted to do, and I’ve always loved writing. I was fortunate that we had a strong coursework and strong professors in that realm that really made me interested in it and able to see paths to a career in it. So then after my sophomore year, I became just a professional writing major.
How did you get your job and what do you do?
I’ve been at PennDot since graduation in 2008. I was a flagger for PennDot for three summers during college to help me pay for school. I’m passionate about PennDot’s mission, and my passion, along with some of my varied writing samples and experience, especially with the PR side of our program – press releases and speeches – and the service-type angle I was focusing on in my coursework, came through in the interview process. I’ve been fortunate to work with supervisors and leaders within my organization who have advocated for me along the way and helped me believe in myself. My former boss recently retired, and I was fortunate to get my current position because of that retirement, and because I work really hard, and I’m grateful and passionate for the work that we do.
Day-to-day, I work on the department’s statewide strategy. That’s everything from internal communications to media relations to our digital strategies to helping with our regional communicators – the people who are putting out a lot of what most people see as PennDot. Most people think of PennDot as licensing and vehicles or plowing and construction work. There’s a lot more that we do, and there are a lot of people who need to help tell that story. At the highest level, I oversee the strategy and messaging and assistance with that messaging. There’s really not a typical day. There’s monitoring and strategizing on hot topics. Right now, there’s a lot of talk about refreshing and talking about winter tools, but also evaluating this past year’s communications and public sentiment for the next year’s maintenance and communications. Transportation funding is another big topic right now, so a lot of digital and other content strategy surrounding that. It really varies.
How did your degree prepare you for your career?
Having such broad experience with the public relations side of writing was helpful. One of the things that has been most helpful is learning about synthesis - figuring out how to most efficiently pull together the core of what people want to understand about a topic and what they really care about. We learned about that from an overall writing perspective but also in a public relations format for press releases. I have worked with colleagues who have told me that they didn’t learn some of those things in their educations. You don’t necessarily realize it while you’re going through it, but our program was incredibly well-rounded and supportive. The program really helped to fight through the academic part of writing and the traditional research portions to get to styles of writing and ways of thinking about the audience and how to frame your writing, which is crucial, especially now with people’s limited attention spans and huge competition for messaging.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
I have an amazing team. Something that was very important to me professionally, no matter where I ended up, was to be in something service-oriented and to make a difference and serve a purpose. I love knowing that there’s a mission every day, and I’m incredibly fortunate to have a fantastic team. If you don’t have good partnerships, no matter how large or small your team is, it’s not going to function well, at least not in the long-term. It’s really the relationships and people. No matter what your industry is, you need to connect to like-minded people professionally. The network that I set up when I first moved to Harrisburg 13 years ago from where I grew up in Northeast PA are still people I look to as mentors and friends today. So independent of my day-to-day job, that’s one of my favorite things about the profession: the opportunities to network and leverage that network both personally and professionally.
What advice would you give to incoming students?
Find something to be involved in. It doesn’t matter what it is, but you will get out of Kutztown, and really any experience in life, what you put into it. Most of the time it doesn’t matter what the name is on your resume or what groups you joined. You need to think about what you are going to get out of those opportunities. Some people might encourage you, but your internal motivation and advocating for yourself is what will get you the most out of whatever the experience is. Be open; don’t dismiss things, because you don’t know how they’ll turn out for you positively in the future. Put yourself out there. I know it’s hard. It can be something small to start, but you need people around you who will know what you’re going through, and who can empathize. You need people in your corner.
Careers evolve, but part of advocating for yourself is being honest with yourself. I encourage people to listen to their guts if something doesn’t feel right as they’re going through school. Be brave enough to make changes if you need to, even if it’s a complete reversal of what your major is. You are your own best advocate.