Jenny Sandler ’09
Though she declared an English major because she “didn’t really know what else to study,” Jenny Sandler ’09 has leveraged the transferrable skills she gained in the English department on the Hill to carve a new path into a career in the emerging field of artificial intelligence, which has allowed her to change the lives of countless students and families.
Jenny Sandler ’09 laughs when she says, “I didn’t really know what else to study, so I went with English. But English is arguably one of the most versatile and useful degrees because it’s applicable in a lot of different contexts.”
Sandler initially declared a major in English because she loved reading and talking about what she read. She even thought she might become an English professor herself. “The fun part about literature is that you can have 15 people read the same book and get 15 different perspectives on it informed by their own experiences in the world and their own understanding,” she says.
But it was her varied experiences while at McDaniel — and a little push from Professor Pam Regis — that led her down a different path.
“I was a peer mentor for two years for Dr. Robert Kachur, I worked in the Writing Center, and I was a Student Ambassador in Admissions,” Sandler says. “Pam said to me, ‘You’re always talking about that work, about helping your peers. Have you considered a career in higher ed administration?’”
Sandler didn’t even realize that was an option until that moment, but it changed the course of her life. After graduation, she worked as a financial aid counselor at University of Maryland, College Park for two years, where the field became a passion of hers. “I thought that if I wanted to work with college students, particularly first-year students, financial aid might be the way to go,” Sandler recalls. “In addition to the amazing community and faculty at McDaniel, I made my decision for school based on the amount of financial support I got, so that seemed like a meaningful way I could help.”
After taking a year off to earn her Ed.M. at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Sandler got back to her roots at another Colleges That Change Lives institution, St. John’s College, first as assistant director of admissions and then as assistant director of financial aid. She then went on to serve as assistant director of financial aid at University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), where she managed all front-office financial aid operations and customer service for the 14,000-student campus.
In that role, she was introduced to a company called Ocelot, an AI communications and student engagement platform providing multilingual chatbots to more than 500 colleges and universities. At the time, Sandler was feeling a bit of burnout and discouragement at the inability to provide the level of service to students and families that she thought they deserved.
“If you’re spending all your time answering the question, ‘How much is my bill?’ or ‘How do I file my FAFSA?’, that leaves you a lot less time and emotional bandwidth to help students in high-need situations where they aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from,” she says. “Those students deserve your best; they deserve 100% of you.”
She recalls that at UMBC, 85-90% of the walk-ins, phone calls, and emails they were fielding were those “tier-one” inquiries. “I realized that if we got software like Ocelot’s, it would change my life, the lives of the people I supervised, and the lives of the people we helped because we would have so much more capacity to go so much deeper with them,” she says.
Ultimately, UMBC did not buy the software. But Sandler kept thinking about it — and about how all she ever wanted to do was help people. So, she took a chance and reached out to Ocelot to express interest in working for them.
“About a year later, a position opened up on the artificial intelligence (AI) conversation design team,” Sandler says. “I went from managing a financial aid front office for a school with 14,000 students to writing and managing content and training for AI-powered chatbots with more than 24 million interactions in the past four years.
“The content and the chatbot I work on helps us to engage college and university students where they are when they need it. If a student can use artificial intelligence to access information 24/7, that makes their lives much easier. To be able to help on such a large scale is a dream.”
Sandler credits her success — and the ability to make this career pivot into an emerging field like AI — to the versatility of her McDaniel English degree.
“Artificial intelligence is a blank slate in a lot of ways. It only knows what we train it to know, so my ability to communicate effectively is what makes me a good AI conversation designer,” she says. “Technical fields are increasingly going to need people who understand language and understand how to communicate. Having a solid set of critical thinking, analytical, and language skills that you learn when studying English makes you really adaptable.”
Her adaptability in moving into this industry is what she considers her greatest professional accomplishment to date: “I’m really proud that I leveraged my transferrable skills and my subject matter expertise to enable me to scale the number of people my work was serving by an order of magnitude. That’s really cool.”
Career: AI Conversation Design