Alumni Spotlight: Jestine Ware ’11 (English)

Posted Feb 14, 2022

Jestine Ware
Jestine Ware ’11

Jestine Ware graduated from Otterbein in 2011.  She uses her English degree to combine passions for social justice and creative writing.  Currently, she works as a grant writer for Heartland Alliance, one of the largest nonprofits in Illinois.  She spends her days writing on behalf of the most marginalized people in Chicago to secure funding for her company to provide services, policy work, research, community organizing, healthcare, and advocacy.  After hours, she’s a creative writer who recently co-authored a 2021 collection called Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Real-Life Tales of Black Girl Magic.

She continues to write and edit her own work, coach kid-lit writers to make their books better, and write for publishing companies like Lunii, Rebel Girls, and Gibbs-Smith Publishing. Check out her (amazing) website here:

What were some of your most memorable experiences in the English major?

My most memorable experiences were not always in the classroom. Our creative writing classes took us all over Westerville to write in coffee shops, thrift shops, parks, outside in the grass. I taught poetry in a classroom with high-strung, high-achieving highschoolers who had NO idea how to make something of their own without memorizing for a test. It was a joy to introduce them to Pablo Neruda, music in Spanish, and freeform poetry.

I lived in the FreeZone house, went to Other Prom, and took an LGBTQAI+ literature class to learn more about my queer community and find joy in my identity. I went to a writing retreat with students, professors, and adult writers at Cuyahoga National Park for night hikes, writing at dusk, performing pieces in front of strangers, singing by the campfire, and churning out mythological-based fantasy short stories that became part of my capstone project. Though we were only asked for 40 to 60 pages for our capstone (either prose or poetry), I ended up with around 150 full of world-building mythological fantasy including short stories, reference pages, and poetry. The lyrical language and cross-genre writing skills I learned were the foundation for what I do now.

While you were a student, did you know what you’d do with your English degree?

I had no idea what I would do with my degree! I just knew I wanted to do something involving writing. I have always wanted to work for myself and live on my own writing someday. That dream seemed impossible. I had no idea how to get from point A to point B. Due to anxiety and a fear of failure, I was always afraid of submitting work or letting people read my work outside of my classes. I worked my ass off and mostly stayed in the background. I never thought I would be where I am today. I now use my degree EVERY day.

What twists and turns has your career path taken?

After Otterbein, I applied to a few MFA graduate school programs. All rejections!  So I headed back home to Rochester, NY to stay with family and became an administrative assistant at my old university. Financially, I knew that I would need a graduate degree to pay down my student loans and make a living. After I’d been working at the University of Rochester for a year, I started testing out classes in Higher Education Administration and Linguistics free of charge because I was an employee. I was also freelancing on the side as a Spanish translator for a freelancer doing neighborhood surveys. These didn’t excite me. I was always writing half-thoughts in my notebooks and bored in meetings and classes. I wanted to create something and to do a job that involved writing.

I met with a few of my old professors and mentors to discuss my interests, and decided that I should help other people learn how to write writing center director and applied to Rhetoric/Composition programs. I got it down to two programs, the Emerson College publishing program and the Rhet/Comp program at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. SCSU gave me a full scholarship with a stipend to work in the writing center, so I headed back to the chilly Midwest. I became a writing tutor and then got promoted to assistant director of a writing center for the rest of the program. I loved working one-on-one with students and making meaningful relationships to discuss the ins and outs of writing, but I wasn’t very good at teaching composition classes. I always felt anxious and drained working with people. The writing center didn’t seem like the right fit either even though I had a 4.0 GPA and learned a lot about the technical side of writing.

At SCSU, I picked up a phone call by accident from a scientific research team looking for a book editor. It was terrible. All in Comic Sans, riddled with typos, and full of plagiarism issues. I got paid $500, helped a team of very frustrating neuroscientists, and closed my first editing project. This was a rough project, but they liked me so much they hired me to edit their second book, too. It turned out to be my first editing credit on my website. As my English MA program came to a close, I decided I didn’t want to do a 60-page thesis, a huge test, find a permanent writing center job, or apply to PhD programs. I wanted to be in publishing where the writing happens. I decided to become an editor and create a digital portfolio of my work as my final project and a marketing tool to promote myself.

My first job out of grad school was at Cricket Media as an assistant editor in Chicago. I went through submissions, gave feedback, wrote pieces to get publication credits and learned all about how to write for different age groups of kids. I worked toward greater diversity and inclusion in the magazines (LGBTQ, BIPOC, ability etc.), but fighting all the time got tiring. I was promoted to the editor of Spider Magazine where I had more control over what I published. This still wasn’t enough! I freelanced doing anything and everything outside of work to keep myself busy: technical writing, grant writing and research, editing books and stories, and helping students edit their theses, grad school apps, and resumes.

I started applying for book publishing jobs and landed a gig at Timbuktu Labs working on the Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls series. I learned a LOT at Rebel Girls. I edited their chapter book series and podcast, traveled to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair to meet with literary agents, and wrote my own work in my spare time. The secret in editing is that editors actually do a lot of the writing. Unfortunately, I found LA and the publishing industry to be similar to The Devil Wears Prada or the kids publishing company in the movie Elf. Even though I was working for liberal folks doing the work I loved, I still felt marginalized, anxious, and isolated. I worked 12 hour days, dealt with constant over stimulation, and drank so much coffee I was shaking. My mental health hit a low point and I decided I needed a new career. I moved back to Chicago with no plans.

How did you come to publish this book?

After I left the Rebel Girls team, they approached me about writing a collection of immigrant stories. I thought hard about it. I didn’t have a job yet (although I was waiting for an offer from Heartland) and I had a lot of free time. I requested a publishing credit and that they hire another writer, hopefully an immigrant woman. But they refused my terms. I decided to write for their podcast instead with much better terms (a publishing credit and fair pay!). 

A year later (after the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor), they approached me about writing a collection of Black Girl Magic stories. I asked for three things: at least one Black writer with darker skin, at least one writer from an African or Caribbean nation, and a publishing credit. They met all my terms, so I signed the contract and wrote 33 stories of 300 words. I am incredibly proud of this book! It’s still a shock to realize how wide of an audience it has.

What career advice/ insight/ wisdom would you share with a current Otterbein English major?

• You might feel like your career is going backwards or sideways, but don’t be discouraged! There are multiple ways to get where you want to go. I changed my mind a bunch of times before I settled on what I love.

• Submit, submit, submit! Don’t be afraid of rejection. It happens.

• Revise, revise, revise! Editors can tell when it’s a first draft.

• Only 1% of work is ever published, so you’ll have better odds if you know someone in the business, have worked in publishing, or have a literary agent. Try to make connections, go to conventions, meet and chat with people. I’m a total introvert, but I can do it with practice and a hefty dose of alone time afterwards.

• Check out the market. It’s less likely that you’ll be published if there’s something similar to what you want to propose. Sometimes a rejection has nothing to do with talent and everything to do with what publishers think they can sell.