Jessi Hanson

University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public & International Affairs PhD Candidate and Teaching & Research Assistant

Playing to Live International Co-Founder/Technical Program Director

BA in English Education at CSU, 2003


You have been doing such amazing, diverse work in the world. Can you tell us more about that?

I joined the Peace Corps after graduating CSU. While serving, I saw how much children face when afflicted by poverty and marginalized and at risk. I decided to pursue my masters in International Education Policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2006, so that I could work in international development helping improve education and child protection in developing countries. I lived and worked abroad for 9 years, particularly in the Dominican Republic and Liberia (post war and during the Ebola crisis). I have now worked nearly 14 years in this field, and have traveled to about 20 countries doing educational programming, like teacher training and literacy programs.

Jessi with Ebola Survivors in Liberia

How did your major prepare you for the job, the life you have now?

At CSU, I look many courses focused on literacy and reading acquisition in the Department of Education, alongside linguistic courses in the Department of English. I learned so much about how people (children and adults) learn, particularly a new language and the science behind reading. The joint program study helped me apply my knowledge to developing and supporting programs for adults and children who had little schooling and poor literacy acquisition. It was wonderful prep.

What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishments (both personally and professionally)? How did your experience in the English Department help you with these achievements?

One of my greatest accomplishments was helping design and implement advanced literacy training curriculum for Liberian youth who, due to the long civil war, never got to attend school and couldn’t read. The English Department’s courses on linguistics, poetry and adolescent literature helped me and my team develop a robust and engaging curriculum, where the Liberian students were not reading boring ‘A for Apple…B for Ball’, but instead singing their alphabet, reading simple but beautiful poetry and literature/stories that were relevant to their age development. We included classical poetry that is celebrated around the world, and even had them write their own stories. We taught them about proper grammar and writing, including how there is both formal and informal English, and they are all forms of self expression.


What did you like about the English program? Why did you choose to study here?

I am a native Coloradoan, so I wanted to study at CSU since I was a kid. I love literature and knew I would want to study English. I was blessed that the department at the time had incredible professors who inspired me, like Dr. Sebek, Dr. Garvey, and Dr. Robinson. They were so moved by literature and language, and that inspired me to continue free writing even on top of my job. I published my first novel a few years ago, In the Silence of the Sun. I am working on two more currently, including one about the lives of Ebola survivors. If it was not for professors like them, my motivation to write would not have been so great. Also, because of them, I am going after my second dream which is to be a professor. I am studying at the University of Pittsburgh, and can’t wait to teach students as they taught me.

In the Silence of the Sun Cover
Jessi’s novel In the Silence of the Sun

Do you have a favorite or funny story from your time with the English Department? Or something you particularly miss?

I miss getting to do literature as ‘life.’ Not all careers allow a ton of time for reading the classics and new exciting literature. Getting to read as a student, and read all the time, was actually one of my favorite memories at CSU.

Was there a specific class, professor, advisor, or fellow student who made an impression on you, helped you, or inspired you when you were at CSU in the English Department? Do you still keep in contact with your classmates or professors?

I have kept in contact with several professors since university. When I am in Colorado, I try to visit campus and grab a coffee with them. It is wonderful to keep long connections with such incredible mentors.

What would you like to tell prospective and current CSU English Department students?

Take a variety of classes, and go beyond what is required to graduate. By taking a range of classes, you discover new literature that you never thought you would like. I learned that I loved Shakespeare, magical realism, and Hemingway.

What was the last piece of writing you read or wrote? OR, What are you currently reading, writing?  

I am working currently on a novel based the true stories of female Ebola survivors and their lives after discharge from Ebola Treatment Units. I spent the last year there working on the emergency, and had the humbling fortune to meet these incredible heroes. I am always reading, and carry a book in my bag or purse (never got into electronic reading…too old). Currently I am re-reading A Movable Feast.

What are your hobbies or special interests, what do you enjoy doing with your free time?

In my free time I run and write. In a PhD, there is little free time, so when I can do both in a day, it is a really good day.


Where will we find you in five years?

Hopefully I will be a professor in a lecture room. Also, hopefully my organization, Playing to Live, will also be expanded to numerous countries which means reaching more children in need through play art therapy, which includes story time.