Brennen Gray graduated from The University of Tulsa in 2020 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and creative writing. After completing his studies at TU, Gray spent the summer working as the volunteer services coordinator for the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, helping distribute food to people during a time of pandemic uncertainty. This exposure to the nonprofit world led Gray to explore other opportunities in the nonprofit sector and, in October 2020, he joined Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma as a grant writer — a job that draws together two of his major interests: nonprofit community service and writing.
We recently sat down with Brennen to catch up on what he’s been up to and hear his thoughts on how TU helped shape his career trajectory.
How did you end up at Catholic Charities? What has it been like?
I was hired on as a grant writer even though I had never written a grant before starting the job. So, they took a bit of a risk in hiring me, and they weren’t shy about that either. But it has worked out well!
With grant-writing, you need someone who isn’t just good at writing, but someone who also understands some rudimentary numbers and how to tell a narrative. I knew how to use Excel and having majored in English made me a good fit for the job. And that was that.
Looking back at your time at TU, what were some of the most valuable skills you took with you into your career?
If you dedicate yourself to any field for a decent amount of time, there are certain skills you will pick up without even realizing — whether you are making furniture, doing accounting or writing essays. Between writing persuasively, writing creatively and writing for The Collegian, I picked up writing skills that translate to my current position. It’s the little skills I honed through writing all those essays, especially with really tight deadlines, that have been extremely useful. In a lot of ways, grant-writing is just a list of deadlines to meet.
The other thing is that, when you work at a nonprofit, you have a mission to address some specific issue in the community, so you must have a good understanding of what is wrong in order to fix the issue. My TU education gave me a great base for understanding the issues we are trying to solve at Catholic Charities and how to tell a story about that solution and the people whose lives are made better by it. Being able to understand what good writing looks like and how to articulate solutions in order to connect emotionally with donors has been essential to “understanding the assignment,” as the kids say.
What advice would you give current English and creative writing students?
First, make sure you understand the context behind people’s advice. I’ve heard a lot of sage words from people about getting jobs or other life things like buying a home. And, usually, what they’re referencing is when they did it, which is usually a different time from when you are trying to buy a house or get a job.
I mean, people who are equally as intelligent, equally as successful, with equal amounts of experience will give you different pieces of advice, and a big reason for that is because they are saying, “This is what I learned when I did it.” You have to think about context.
I believe it’s always good to listen to others’ counsel and it can be good to take advice, but with the pieces of advice that you act on, it’s important to understand where they’re coming from, because it’s probably not exactly where you are coming from.
My other suggestion is to not be afraid of hard work. Equally, though, don’t burn yourself out! Between work, school and extracurricular activities, it can be easy to overwork yourself. So, give yourself some grace and try to prioritize a healthy work/life balance.