An English literature students finds success after stretching her boundaries.

Out of the Comfort Zone

Jessica Loeb studies English literature at New College of Florida, and her senior thesis analyzes works by Conrad, Montagu, Achebe and Mernissi to examine the ideas of colonialism and resistance.

And that, oddly enough, explains why she spends three hours each week helping people sift through their finances and prepare their income taxes.

Loeb volunteers with the United Way, working with a range of people from retirees to college students, wealthy and poor. She says math and finance is a better fit for humanities students than you might think.

“At New College and through my studies, I work so much of my right brain, I do some many things creatively and conceptually, I’m always trying to work more of my left brain,” she said. “I think that New College has really helped me do that. A lot of people hear ‘liberal arts’ and they just hear the ‘liberal’ and the ‘arts.’ But to me, to study English well, you have to be logical and critical, and that’s given me the impetus to go outside of my comfort zone.”

She became comfortable with forms and figures while working in the College’s financial aid office, verifying families’ financial data and assisting them over the phone. But to become a tax volunteer, she had to complete a training program and pass an online certification test – not what one normally expects from a literature student. “The training and test were hard, but I like doing things that are hard,” she said.

“If it’s a good challenge and a challenge I believe in, I stick through it to the end.” She works from 3-6 p.m. once a week at offices on Second Street in Sarasota. She often sees four or five people during her shift, and some of them require multiple visits. Loeb recalled one woman who had a difficult financial situation – she can’t discuss details – but they eventually worked through her problems.

“I really felt like I was able to help her,” Loeb said. “And it really helped me see that I can do this. It makes me feel capable and confident. A lot of the times, when people come in with a whole mess of papers, I don’t feel confident, and I just have to ask questions and work through it slowly. It’s a good challenge.”

In that way, tax counseling is a bit like her coursework or thesis, she said – deciphering how social and governmental systems work, well enough to guide someone through. “It’s not glamorous, but it’s a way you can really help people who are struggling, by letting them know about how these complicated systems work,” she said. Her supervisor, program manager Holly Bullard, said many of the volunteers wash out when they see how hard the work is.

But she said Loeb has rare qualities. “It takes a special kind of person to do this,” Bullard said. “Jess has been outstanding in her people skills. She has that ability to connect that not everyone has.” “You have solidarity with people,” Loeb said. “There’s only so much I can do for people, but I’m that person who can be empathetic and can help people hold on. You can give people hope.”

Loeb’s talent for communication comes from her two passions. One is traveling: She has been all over the U.S. and Canada, and visited Costa Rica, Peru, Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany and Morocco. Her parents, though not wealthy, believe in travel as a way of learning, and so would constantly save for trips abroad.

At age 13, instead of having a bat mitzvah, she went to Israel. The other passion, not surprisingly, is volunteering, something she’s done since ninth grade in Hollywood, Florida. In her time at New College, she has tutored at the Robert L. Taylor Community Center, Booker High School, and Saint Stephen’s Episcopal School.

She trained as a Health Care Navigator to assist people with the Affordable Care Act. She worked at Planned Parenthood. And on campus, she has been one of the student government’s representatives who assist students on academic probation. “I just don’t feel right if I’m not volunteering,” she said. “It’s like exercise for me. It’s just something that I need to do out of the comfort zone.”

Her volunteer work now has her considering a career in social work. But for now, she’s bringing her passions together. After graduation, she’ll travel to China for a paid position teaching English to children in a Montessori school in the coastal city of Xiamen. She said it wouldn’t have happened without her experience at New College. “New College was the only school I applied to,” she said. “It was my dream school. It definitely was the college that changed my life.”