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Christopher Hellstrom ’15D.A.

Alum Connects Passion for Humanities with Community Arts Projects

Amid ongoing public conversations about the value of doctoral degrees in the humanities to fields outside academia, Christopher Hellstrom ’15D.A. is living proof that, with an open mind and some professional savvy, a doctoral degree in English is a path to a fulfilling career beyond the tenure track.

Hellstrom was recently appointed executive director of Staten Island Arts, a nonprofit organization that promotes public humanities and arts programs throughout the borough. He oversees initiatives such as securing grants for local artists and cultural organizations; Folklife, an initiative to preserve local art traditions; and Arts-in-Education, which partners with the borough’s schools to maintain arts education by purchasing musical instruments for students to learn to play.

He is also responsible for programs the organization sponsors, including the Culture Lounge, an exhibition and program space in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, and a Teen Creative Writing Workshop series that helps local youth develop their talents and skills in prose, poetry, spoken-word recording, and audio-engineering technology. In this role, Hellstrom aims to make the arts more relevant to the various constituencies of Staten Island, especially seniors and young adults.

Before coming to Staten Island Arts, Hellstrom was development director for the Greenbelt Conservancy, where he not only worked toward the conservation of natural spaces around the borough, but also used those venues to help the community engage with the arts. Hellstrom enjoyed staging a free production of the William Shakespeare play As You Like It—one he studied in the class of Steven Mentz, Ph.D., an English professor and director of graduate studies at St. John’s. After staging the play in the High Rock woods, Hellstrom started to think about aligning with an organization focused exclusively on promoting the arts.

Hellstrom came to St. John’s while working as the New York State Publishers’ representative for Oxford University Press. He met Stephen Sicari, Ph.D., professor and chair of English, who convinced him to enroll in the then-Doctor of Arts program (recently converted to a Ph.D. program in English).

“Right from the beginning,” said Hellstrom, “Dr. Sicari really encouraged me to get involved in the doctoral program, to help my career in publishing and to show other students the potential for publishing and nonprofit work. I felt welcome here, even though I didn’t have academic career goals. Being in the program helped me better understand my own role in the arts community and make informed choices. My background in the humanities has definitely helped me be more successful.”

Though his career path has been outside the traditional academic trajectory, Hellstrom stays connected to the research he did as part of his dissertation, entitled “Alpha Geek”: Neal Stephenson, the Emerging Third Culture, and the Significance of Science Fiction. He occasionally contributes articles for the Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA) and attends conferences related to his research.

Mentz, his dissertation advisor, originally encouraged Hellstrom to pursue the obscure field of Stephenson research and connect with Jon Lewis, an assistant professor at Troy University. Lewis is one of the only other Stephenson scholars in the field and served as outside reader on Hellstrom’s dissertation defense committee. Hellstrom also credits his graduate work at St. John’s with cultivating the “academic curiosity” that he has applied to the professional fields of publishing and nonprofit work. Said Hellstrom, “I enjoyed being part of St. John’s because it took a person without a great deal of academic background and encouraged me to find myself in and beyond the coursework.”

Hellstrom returned to SJU’s Staten Island campus on Friday, November 20, 2015 to talk to a senior-level seminar class in American literature taught by Robert Fanuzzi, Ph.D., associate professor of English and associate provost for academic affairs. Hellstrom advised students on exploring and preparing for alternative academic careers. He encouraged the students, many of whom are currently considering pursuing graduate studies in English, to consider nonprofit and publishing careers because these fields are always in demand, whereas the academic job market fluctuates.

He recommends that current undergraduate and graduate students in the humanities take a class or workshop in grant writing and gain experience with that skill, which he says is always in demand with employers. “Students don’t know they could have a career as a grant writer,” Hellstrom said. “It’s interesting and engaging work, and they’ll easily find work in the nonprofit and academic spheres.”

“Christopher’s success is living proof that humanities graduates really do make a difference—not just in the classroom but in every sector of our economy,” said Fanuzzi. “As leader of Staten Island Arts, he’s the perfect person to make sure that the humanities make a difference as well.” 

Hellstrom hopes that his success will be a helpful example to other humanities students considering alternative academic careers. “I’m proof that you can have a doctoral degree, still do performing arts and music,—and express yourself in a way that is similar to academia but outside it,” he said. “With an open mind, you can find a fulfilling career.”