Jeff Rankin  |   Published May 19, 2016

Melissa Scholes Young ’97

From first-generation college student at Monmouth to professor
  • Melissa Scholes Young ’97
As a teenager growing up in the small Missouri river town of Hannibal, Melissa Scholes Young ’97 watched barges plying the Mississippi, dreaming about one day becoming a lawyer. Little did she imagine that she would instead follow in the footsteps of hometown legend Mark Twain and pursue a literary career on the East Coast.

Now a veteran writer and novelist who teaches college writing and creative writing at American University in Washington, D.C., Scholes Young says she had her eyes opened to previously unimagined possibilities when she enrolled at Monmouth College.

The game-changing nature of her experience at Monmouth was at the heart of a recent essay Scholes Young wrote for The Atlantic, as part of a series titled “Next America: Higher Education”

A first-generation college student who had breezed through her high school studies, Scholes Young recounts how her naiveté about collegiate academic expectations landed her in a history professor’s office, where she was kindly but firmly informed about the shortcomings of her work.

“I sat in the library for hours reading a composition book [the professor] loaned me,” she wrote. “It was a guide for how to write for college: essay structure, thesis statements, rhetorical arguments, outlining, citing research. These are skills I teach daily as a first-generation-student-turned-faculty-member because I know what happens if you come to college without them.”

The lessons she learned at Monmouth caused her to not only reassess her perceived skills, but also to change one of her majors, and her career path away from the law.

The change in majors came about unexpectedly when as a freshman she accidentally wandered into a senior-level Russian Cultural History class with Professor David Suda. “I was too embarrassed to raise my hand and explain that I was in the wrong classroom,” she said, “so I stayed. I enjoyed the class so much that I switched my major from business to history.”

Suda would later figure prominently in her intellectual development, when she enrolled in his senior capstone course “Poetics of the Self.”

“He taught me to think,” she said. “He pushed us to question our identities and the world around us. He challenged us to live consciously.”

Scholes Young said that the realization that a professor could actually teach students to think helped drive her to her current occupation.

Her decision to abandon law was equally fortuitous.

“As a junior, I spent a semester in the local prosecutor’s office,” she said. “It involved a lot of paperwork, which I didn’t expect or enjoy. I’m grateful for that internship opportunity, because without it I would probably have gone the business route and law school.”

Scholes Young said her inexperience in the ways of college continually played to her advantage at Monmouth.
“I didn’t know what you could or couldn’t do, so I just kept trying new things,” she said.

Those included joining a sorority, playing in the wind ensemble and serving as a resident assistant. A passion for government also led her to add a government major, run successfully for student body vice president, and enroll in American University’s Washington Semester program, which would have a life-changing benefit.

On the morning after her 21st birthday, she met her future husband, Joe Young, while standing in line at American University’s D.C. campus to get student IDs. They were married the following fall, and 20 years later they found themselves standing in line to get IDs again – this time as AU faculty.

While participating in Washington Semester, an internship in AU’s International Business & Trade program further refined her aspirations.

“I learned that I liked the ‘international’ part but not so much the ‘business and trade’ side,” she said. “The businesses I learned about were focused on profits, and I was more interested in people – especially in culture, history, languages and social justice. But I do think the experience solidified my decision to move overseas.”

After Monmouth, Scholes Young earned a master’s degree in education from Stetson (Florida) University. She and Joe then both taught at the International School in Brasilia, Brazil, for several years. The couple then took turns pursuing graduate degrees, and Melissa earned an MFA in creative writing at Southern Illinois University, where she was an assistant editor for Crab Orchard Review.

The writing bug didn’t seriously bite Scholes Young until after her first child was born; motherhood fueled her creativity. Today, her work appears in The Atlantic, Washington Post, Narrative, Ploughshares, Huffington Post, Poets & Writers and other literary journals. A novel, which is set in 1993 in her hometown of Hannibal, was a finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship and is currently awaiting publication.

For more information about Scholes Young and her work, visit MelissaScholesYoung.com.
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