Alum Jane Allred’s Endowment Helps Give Voice to Future Generations of Writers

Issue Date: 
November 21, 2011
Jane AllredJane Allred

Whenever Pitt graduate Jessica Szakos (CAS ’10) had a case of writer’s block, she knew the cure: Spend a Friday afternoon at the Writers’ Café, where composition exercises and fellowship helped her rediscover her voice.

“I always thought of it like a therapy session,” jokes Szakos, a budding novelist who majored in fiction writing and was a regular at the café, one of several facets of the Writing Center in Pitt’s Department of English. “It was very refreshing. They really try to encourage you to get out of your mind, which is one of the biggest things you need to do as a writer.”

Considered one of the hidden jewels of the Pitt campus, the Writing Center is home to peer and faculty tutors, workshops, and other resources designed for both reluctant and experienced writers. Launched as the Writing Workshop during the 1960s, it was originally housed in the Early American Room of the Cathedral of Learning before moving to the Cathedral’s fifth floor, then to Thaw Hall, and ultimately to its current quarters in the O’Hara Student Center.

Now under the direction of Geeta Kothari, the center reaches close to 9,000 students through its various programs and employs anywhere from 21 to 35 tutors, including both faculty members and peers.

“We’re just there to show them they have the knowledge already; we’re not there to give it to them,” explains Kothari. “Eventually, they don’t need us anymore. That’s the way we like to think of the Writing Center. We’re teaching students strategies for approaching their own writing.”

Geeta KothariGeeta Kothari

For Jane Allred, who earned her Pitt BA in creative writing in 1971, the center turned out to be the perfect beneficiary of a six-figure University endowment that she funded after selling her business, Allred Marketing Inc., in 2004. In the back of her mind  was the idea that she could help solve a paradox that she had seen repeatedly during her career: People who understood technology often didn’t have the ability to communicate its benefits.

In conversations with N. John Cooper, Pitt’s Bettye J. and Ralph E. Bailey Dean of Arts and Sciences, and Allison Quick, executive director of principal gifts in Pitt’s Office of Institutional Advancement, she learned about the Writing Center. Not only did the center help young authors like Szakos polish their craft, it also gave confidence to nonwriters who needed help completing compositions, research papers, presentations, and essay questions for graduate school applications.

“I thought, ‘Wow, I could take that initial endowment and really do something special with it,’” recalls Allred. “I thought that kind of contribution would make a huge difference. They [Cooper and Quick] were really excellent in helping to guide my thoughts.”

Under the terms of Allred’s gift, the principal remains part of Pitt’s capital campaign, while the Writing Center receives the interest. Allred says she felt personally connected because she credits her writing education with launching her career. Early on, a boss tapped her to help build a corporate communications department, an opportunity that put her on the path to eventually owning her own company.

“I learned how to think when I was at Pitt,” she explains. “I learned how to extrapolate and extract from very complex technological pieces that were developed for engineers.”

But despite that personal connection, the magnitude of the gift did not really hit home until the fall of 2010, when Allred toured the center with her husband and sister on a trip to campus.

She walked in to see a tutor working with an engineering student on a term paper, organizing thoughts and guiding the flow of information from premise to conclusion. “That opportunity to be engaged with the students right at the functional level of the center just made my heart sing,” she recalls. “I didn’t expect that. I thought I was going to do my duty, walk through, and say, ‘That’s nice.’”

But because writing is so dear to Allred, seeing the staff open those floodgates for other people “was beyond any expectation that I had,” she says. “As adults, we get into our careers and we forget those moments of awakening that happen to us at places like Pitt. We tend to forget that that was a time of great discovery for us. When you are in the midst of young people who have their whole lives and careers ahead of them, that is very rewarding.”

Gail Kim, a biology major who expects to graduate in 2012, has used the center for everything from freshman compositions to the personal statement she is using in dental school applications. Because Korean is her first language, she is still not completely certain about her ear for English, although she admits, “after I go see somebody at the Writing Center, I feel more confident.”

Peer tutor James Spears, who graduated from Pitt in 2011, has worked with enough nervous students to develop a technique for putting them at ease.

“I let them know that I don’t have all of the answers,” he says. “Writing isn’t some kind of gift. I don’t work here because I’m exceptionally talented. I wasn’t born a writer, but anyone can do it. I make mistakes, too; I have the same questions. I grab a dictionary or a reference book. Once they see that this guy is human too, it gets a lot more comfortable.”

Initially a math major, Spears switched to literature as a freshman and now plans to attend a graduate school of education. In November 2010, the Writing Center sent him to Baltimore for the International Writing Centers Association conference, where Spears presented a paper that discussed how to use metaphors to work more effectively with students who are not English majors.

That is the kind of work that Allred sees being done with her gift, and she believes she has been rewarded tenfold.

As for her advice to other alumni, Allred says: “If they have something that is very dear to their heart—whether it might be something in memory of a parent who helped finance their education or, as in my case, want to make a difference in the life of someone else—there are really some wonderful ways to be involved.”