August 2012 Articles

The Unlikely Career of Alison Kosakowski

How a hijacking on the high seas changed  the course of one Mawrter’s life.

By David Volk

Alison Kosakowski ‘01 and husband Ransom Conant at the Conant family’s 1,000-acre farm, just outside Burlington, Vermont. Photo by Mia Moran.

Alison Kosakowski ’01 emerged from Bryn Mawr with a particular vision of success. “To me, this meant working very hard at demanding jobs and relationships until THE GREAT REWARD was revealed,” she writes on her blog “Diary of a Dairy Queen.” Within days of graduating, the English major took a job in New York City and began relentlessly climbing the corporate ladder in advertising and communications—changing jobs every few years for the next step up.

All that changed when Somali pirates hijacked the Maersk Alabama and held hostage the ship’s captain, Richard Phillips. Kosakowski, then a communications manager for Maersk, was dispatched to Underhill, Vermont, to help Phillips’ family manage the media attention stemming from the ordeal. By the time the crisis was over, the mountain views and tight-knit community had inspired her to quit her job, travel, and engage in some serious soul-searching.

Today she lives on a 1,000-acre dairy farm with her husband, a local farmer named—coincidentally—Ransom. In addition to embracing the life pastoral, from raising chickens to learning how to can, Kosakowski has been working as a marketing and communications director for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, where she’s been helping local farmers market themselves using social media. Here, she reflects on her discovery that success can be found in slowing down and dropping out.

Favorite Bryn Mawr Memory: Dinner at the home of Karen Tidmarsh, English professor and former dean of the undergraduate college. “She taught my freshman seminar, and at the end of the semester, she invited the class to her home,” Kosakowski recalls. “I remember feeling so grown-up and sophisticated chatting about literature in her living room.”

On the Decision to Make M(Ad) Money: Kosakowski isn’t shy to admit that she chose to go into advertising and public relations out of college because they seemed to present some of the more lucrative opportunities for English majors. “My priorities were different back then,” Kosakowski says. “My parents paid for my education, and I felt it was important to show them their investment had paid off.”

Strangest Job: Assigned to develop the strategy for a beer company’s brand makeover, Kosakowski was tasked with doing “qualitative research” at Lower East Side bars, which, she says, “basically meant sitting on a bar stool, ordering a beer, and watching how the locals behaved.”

Turning Point: Although Kosakowski’s job at Maersk focused on internal communications rather than media relations, she volunteered when the company was looking for someone to field questions from reporters camped at Phillips’ home. “There was a very strong possibility that he wouldn’t make it out alive,” Kosakowski says, “and the burden of knowing I was the one who had to break the news to his wife was killing me.” In the end, the U.S. Navy SEALs rescued Phillips, but Kosakowski stayed on in Vermont. “I was very attached to the family, and I told them I would be there as long as they needed me,” she says. “I was eager to see where this adventure would lead.”

Photo by Shem Roose

Riskiest Move: Quitting her six-figure job without a next step planned. “I have no idea where I got the guts to do it, but I had this really amazing couple of months,” Kosakowski says. “I went to Europe by myself, and I got a special visitation with President Obama in the Oval Office. When I met him I kissed him on the cheek. Afterward I realized it was really more of a ‘handshake moment,’ but he was very gracious.”

Current Project: Although Kosakowski plays a number of roles at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, one of the projects she most enjoys is teaching farmers how to use social media through conducting workshops, writing articles, and holding one-on-one counseling sessions. “I find this really rewarding because I am using the skills I developed over a dozen years working in advertising and corporate communications in a way that has an immediate impact,” she says. “I can empower farmers to share their stories, promote their products, and build understanding for agricultural issues in their community.”

Biggest Adjustment: Kosakowski had been living such a “hyper-scheduled existence” before changing course, she had to learn how to negotiate the “extra space” in her new life. “Stuck in traffic, checking email, running to meetings, working late, all while teetering around on impossibly high heels that made my toes numb—there was no time to think,” she recalls. Once she made room in her life for introspection, she began asking questions like, “Who am I?” and “What mark am I making in the world?” “It can be rather uncomfortable at first!” she says. “But in time, you find your rhythm and you begin to fill your time with purpose and meaning.”

Proudest Accomplishment: “I’ve been able to shed a lot of the misconceptions I once held about what I ‘should’ do with my life and choose a path that makes me truly happy,” Kosakowski says. “I am getting dirty and, most important, enjoying myself.”

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