Alum Spotlight: Natalie Marie Salsbury

November 1, 2019

Natalie Marie Salsbury graduated with a B.A. in English and a minor in Creative Writing from VCU in December 2018. She is the Administrative Specialist in the Dean's Office of College of Humanities and Sciences.

Natalie Marie Salsbury smiles in front of a teal wallMany of our students are “nontraditional” in that many folx don’t start at VCU. You were a transfer student from a community college; what was that experience like?

I only have fond memories of my time at Tidewater Community College. In my opinion, community college is the best option for people like me who finish high school but have no idea what they want to study (not to mention it saves you tens of thousands of dollars). The classes themselves were not as challenging as they often are at a four-year institute which had both a positive and negative effect on the transition to an undergraduate degree. Positive because it gave me free time to find the things I loved to study, which laid the groundwork for my decision to become an English major later down the road. On the other hand, when I originally transferred to Old Dominion University I had a terrible time keeping up with the workload and ultimately landed back in TCC. This ended up being a blessing in disguise because I was linked up with the team in the Open Door Project who provided me with academic/career advisors, offered workshops for school/life balance, helped me choose VCU for my undergraduate degree and catering my course load at TCC so that all my credits transferred. One of the advisors was even using her own personal connections to get me a job on-campus before I moved up! The people at TCC’s Open Door Project were incredible to me, and are the true unsung heroes of that place. 

When did you decide to be an English major?

I should have known that I was an English major from the very beginning. Before I had been a business major and a philosophy major, yet no matter what classes I was taking I would always find myself trying to rush through (or ignore) assignments so I could spend time wandering the library stacks reading poetry and fiction. One evening as I was climbing the steps inside the library at ODU with a bookbag full of books that had nothing to do with my classes, and I thought to myself, “why don’t you just study English?” 

It was around this time, too, that I was taking a “Philosophy of Technology” course. I did really enjoy the class, however, towards the end, I was failing it horribly with only one paper left to write. I decided that since I didn’t have a chance at passing that I would submit a short story instead of a final paper (we had read a number of fiction pieces during the semester and it seemed like a good idea at the time). I believe the story I turned in was something about a deer and a rabbit that worked at an accounting firm, and I made sure it covered much of the philosophical theories we discussed in class. The professor said they enjoyed it, but still gave me an F. It didn’t matter to me though because when I finished writing the story, silly as it is in retrospect, I knew that I’d rather be in an English program.

Did being an English major had an effect on your journey as a queer/trans person?

I sometimes like to tell people it was James Baldwin who “turned” me gay. In my second semester at VCU, I was taking a course with Professor Michael Hall and he assigned Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. I began reading the novel and slowly realized that it was more than just a good story that drew me to stay up late into the night reading and re-reading particular lines. It became a safe way for me to explore the early stages of my queer identity without using dating apps or going out to bars. Plus, Giovanni is so beautiful that who could not fall in love with him?

By the time I walked into Professor Jennifer Rhee’s senior seminar, I was already presenting androgynously and using he/they pronouns. When it came time to start working on our capstone essays, I choose to write about Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues. Because the main character of Feinberg’s novel was someone who goes from one side of the gender binary to the other and back again, the research surrounding Feinberg’s novel allowed me to develop a more nuanced understanding of gender that ultimately helped me define my own gender (these days I like to think I am a binary trans womxn who doesn’t believe in the gender binary). 

I cannot stress enough how grateful I am to have had Dr. Hall and Dr. Rhee as my professors at these key moments in my life. Their guidance and genuine care, from in-class discussions to feedback on my essays, are some of the finest I have ever encountered.

You now work in the College of Humanities and Sciences in the Dean’s Office. How was the transition from being a student and working part-time into a full-time job? 

Toward the end of my time as an undergrad, I started working as the Assistant Business Manager at the Student Media Center (SMC) and worked some hours in University Academic Advising at their front desk. This was a little under thirty hours a week total and when I graduated I just switched over to roughly the same hours only at the SMC. All this is to say that it was a smooth transition going from being a student full-time to working full-time as far as my daily schedule was concerned. It may have been easier in some ways because I no longer have to rush off to the library at odd hours trying to finish papers. I think working part-time jobs while in school is actually a fairly common story at VCU, and it makes transitioning in the “real world” much easier because we’ve already been in it.

How do you think being an English major prepared you for this position? 

Sometimes I feel I take for granted all the ways being an English major has benefitted me not only in my current job, but in many of the other administrative jobs I have worked over the years. The ability to communicate clearly via email is a skill not many people are taught. As we all know, English majors academic careers depend on our ability to be coherent and concise in our written communications that by the time we graduate it comes more naturally to us than people who study in other fields. For the record, though, I almost always had points taken off of my papers for spelling and grammatical errors.

What do you do in your current position and what is it like working where you went to school?

As the Administrative Specialist in the Dean’s Office, my primary responsibility is scheduling appointments for the Associate Deans’ and greeting everyone who comes into Blanton House. In addition to this, I often lend a hand on some of the projects the Associate Deans are working on. For example, I help Dr. Katherine Bassard, Associate Dean of Faculty Affairs and professor in the English department, with the administrative half of this year’s faculty promotion. I really enjoy that I get to work at the same University where I finished my degree. The library perks are amazing compared to when I was an undergrad, I get to see my old professors, and after working in a handful of locations on-campus it really feels like I am a part of a community at VCU.

Where do you see yourself in the future?

Aside from literature, one of my other lifelong loves is skateboarding. I skated from about 16 till about the year prior to me coming to VCU. Being a skater didn’t fit into my idea of being a Serious Writer so I stopped and focused on more Serious Work. This was a fine idea until other parts of who I thought I was began to change. As I mentioned elsewhere, toward the end my degree I began socially transitioning and presenting more androgynous/femme. An unforeseen side effect of this was that I was spending more time inside my apartment. I was too nervous about what people might think of me to go outside. Then I slowly but surely I started going out to skate around the neighborhood or through downtown. As a trans person I feel like I am hyper-visible wherever I go, so the invisibility I felt on a board became something I craved. Plus, skating is just a barrel of fun!

Mainstream skateboard is mostly cis straight men, but there are groups and organizations out there trying to make space for queer, trans, and womxn’s skating. It is these groups (Skateism, Quell, Skate like a Girl and many others) that continue to inspire me to skate whenever I am feeling isolated from other skaters. As of yet, I have not run into any (openly) queer/trans skaters and there are rarely any other girls at the skateparks. I hope in the future I can be a more active member in the community whether through joining the organizations that already exist or maybe one day starting my own. Whether skateboarding is a sport, art form, hobby, or something else entirely is a highly debated subject in the community, but most everyone on a board can agree it is a huge positive in their lives.

I’m also thinking of continuing my study of poetry in an M.A. or M.F.A. program. Since graduating, I have really come to miss having a group to regularly talk to about poetry and having the mentorship provided by professors. I have always pushed back against the idea that English majors have to twist what we’ve learned to fit into some other sort of career as if the knowledge we gained was not valuable in its own right. Whatever happens in the future, I know I will continue to read, write, and evolve my relationship to these practices for the rest of my life because without them I would be voiceless, untethered.

Now that you can choose your own “reading list,” what are you reading these days?

Though I loved every minute of my time studying English, if there was one thing I would change it would be to read less cis straight male authors. Since graduating I have reversed this and focused on reading works by authors of minority genders. It wasn’t really a goal I set for myself; I was just only interested in reading non-cis male writers, specifically cis and trans womxn. Some of the writers I have returned to again and again since graduating are J. Jennifer Espinoza, Michelle Tea, Allison Benis White, Mary Oliver, Natalie Diaz, and Imogen Binnie.

Okay you got me, I tried reading Stephen King’s It but only made it about halfway through before I got too scared.

Thanks for catching up with us, Natalie!

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