‘It’s a roller coaster … but for the most part, it’s been a pretty fun ride’

In Tuscaloosa, Ala., a crimson flag — seemingly out of place with its white cougar symbol — floated above the heads of excited fans on ESPN game day Nov. 9, 2019. 

Puzzled, Erica England asked her nephew about the flag. She realized it was the same logo as the university job she recently applied for, one that felt like the job description was written just for her. 

She knew where she was going next, and WSU’s Cougar pride simply sealed the deal. 

“A school that has that much pride that they are adamant, ‘Ok, you’re not coming to WSU, so we’ll basically come to you for all the game days,’ that just clinched it for me,” she said. “‘That’s the school I want to work at.’”

For six years, England has served as the WSU Libraries’ first-year experience librarian, helping freshman, transfers, and Veterans Affairs students develop research skills. Each year, professors bring their classes to the libraries for two days of instruction on subjects like topic refinement, evaluating credible sources, and developing research questions.

Before interacting with classes and working with students one-on-one, England said she likes to form a rapport with each instructor, meeting for coffee and joking with them in class. She believes it helps “knock down that wall of anxiety” and allows students to see her as just another person who does not know everything — simply where to find it. 

“I am no longer this person that they have put up on this pedestal of knowledge,” she said. “I am just a big dork, and they get to see that.”

Teaching Assistant Professor Jamie Flathers said her English 101 students are convinced they are bad at research and are nervous to interact with librarians. When they describe their research methods, it is obvious why: teachers expected their students to know how to conduct research without teaching them the proper methods. 

“When they have had an experience where somebody says, ‘Go do this thing,’ and they stumble, it makes them believe that they are bad at it,” she said. “When they learn these tools from Erica, they’re like, ‘Oh, this makes it so much easier!’”

In fall 2022, one of Flathers’ students was struggling with his research project, which had a vague concept of defining the “future of reading.” Flathers had a difficult time helping him narrow down his research question, so England spent hours helping him, finally finding an article by American author John Green on how the future of literature changes alongside the needs of its audience. 

Once they found the article, the student’s research was propelled in a new and more specific direction, helping “plant the seeds of critical thinking” later on, Flathers said. 

“Sometimes it’s just that one thing, that one piece of information, that students can grasp onto as they move forward,” she said. “That really stands out to me.”

England said she loves nothing more than when she overhears her students explaining her lessons to someone else, knowing they are sharing their “lightbulb moment” with others. 

She also has a knack for making students feel comfortable with her southern charm and tendency to bring in candy for her students, Flathers said. 

“I love it when we go into the library because I get to see her and give her a great big hug, and she gets to make fun of me for the way I say soda,” she said with a laugh. 

England has no fear of talking to new people after being an “army brat” and living in at least 12 different places. 

“I’m the annoying extroverted extrovert, where I look at the world as, ‘Everybody’s my best friend, they just don’t know it yet!’” she said. “That’s just who I am.”

Moving every three years, England said she gained a sense of appreciation for new foods, languages, and religions — the world was her hometown. In high school, she lived in Germany and was there when the Berlin Wall fell and the United States launched Operation Desert Storm. 

She watched German television, listened to German music, and spent weekends at her friends’ houses because her bus ride to school was two hours each way. England said she realized the world was much larger than most American teenagers imagine, and she gained much more independence.

Now, when she works with student veterans and dependents, she can relate to the different lived experiences of 22-year-old veterans compared to those of traditional 19-year-old freshmen. She said she holds a special place in her heart for veterans like her dad. 

England still gets an itch to move every three years, which will likely stay with her for the rest of her life, but lifelong learning is something that scratches that itch, she said. 

Flathers said England believes everything is interesting, an indispensable trait in a librarian. 

“She believes that improvement is always possible and there’re always more things to learn,” Flathers said. “She’s incredibly committed to discovering new connections between things, and thereby being able to help students do that as well.”

In May 2024, England hopes to finish her doctorate in Cultural Studies and Social Thought in Education through WSU’s College of Education. She studies equity, diversity, and inclusion issues within academic library collections and how “upholding the status quo of diversity” negatively impacts students and faculty of color. 

Part of her dissertation is to build a toolkit helping librarians solve these issues because many are operating under budget constraints and skyrocketing publication costs. She said a one-stop shop of independent publishers representing BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) voices, resources on how to conduct a diversity audit, and interviews from graduate students is essential for researchers to see themselves reflected in their institutions’ collections, she said. 

“One of the main missions of librarians is to serve our community. Well, if we’re excluding part of our community within the collections, are we actually really serving it?” she said.

England said balancing her degree, work, and parenting as a single mother was difficult. She had to intentionally carve out time for her sons and herself, but she loves learning, especially in the supportive research environment at WSU. 

​​“It’s a roller coaster — it’s had its ups and downs — but for the most part, it’s been a pretty fun ride,” she said.