Assistant director draws from unique professional and academic experience to help UI students become better writers
Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Deirdre Egan understands pressure. She knows what it’s like to juggle different responsibilities and deadlines. She knows the grind that comes with working toward a degree. She understands the obstacles that can stand between students and their academic goals. She even knows what it’s like to be caught in the middle of an international conflict.

Egan, who is the assistant director of the Writing Center at the University of Iowa, has experienced life in a way many people can’t even imagine. Her academic and professional journey has been unconventional to say the least, with plenty of dramatic twists on her way to the UI.

Twists like not being allowed to leave Baghdad, Iraq, after that country’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

While working as a physical therapist for what was supposed to be a six-week stint at an Iraqi hospital, Egan, a native of Dublin, Ireland, was among many international civilians held in Iraq after the borders were closed and flights were grounded in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s ordered invasion of Kuwait. Her six-week stay turned into a 13-week ordeal.

“The hospital staff were never directly threatened, as far as I know,” says Egan. “At some point, Hussein had used (international civilians) close to military installations as ‘human shields’ to prevent bombings, but we weren’t part of that. We were never moved. We didn’t leave the compound, but we felt pretty free compared to some of the other international workers who were there.”

Learn more about the Writing Center and its services here.

They were free, aside from the fact that they didn’t know when they’d be able to leave. Eventually, the Irish government negotiated for the release of the hospital workers. Egan returned home to Dublin just in time to begin a new program of studies, this time in political science, at the University of Strathclyde, in Glasgow, Scotland.

From there, Egan’s winding road led her to the UI on a yearlong exchange program. During that year, Egan met her husband and eventually Iowa became their permanent home.

Fast forward to today: Egan uses what she downplays as an “eclectic” background to help students at the Writing Center. Part of the Department of Rhetoric on the first floor of the English-Philosophy Building, the Writing Center provides free assistance with all writing projects for anyone in the UI community, with the goal of helping its clients become better writers, readers, and critical thinkers.

“We see students and faculty from across campus,” says Egan, who earned a PhD in gender, women’s, and sexuality studies at the UI in 2016. “We don’t turn anybody away. That means we have to be able to work in different disciplines and across disciplines.”

The Writing Center works with students from various backgrounds and with different levels of academic experience—from first-year students who are new to the academic challenges they’re facing at the university level to international students writing in English as a second language. The center also sees graduate students working on dissertations, grant proposals, and academic articles, as well as plenty of personal statements, cover letters, and scholarship applications. Students can bring non-academic writing as well, like creative pieces or personal letters, and Writing Center staff are increasingly called upon to help with multi-modal projects, such as blogs and websites.

Adaptability is key, but Egan’s advantage is in the diversity of her academic and international experience and her ability manage a lot at once.

The Writing Center is located in the English-Philosophy Building, Room 110.

Schedule an appointment here.

Writing Center staff also review work at the Iowa City Public Library from 4 to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays throughout the fall.

After starting her career as a physical therapist, obtaining a degree in political science, traveling the world, and eventually getting married and having kids, Egan says she realized she still wasn’t quite done with her education. At age 37, she decided to pursue a PhD and started coursework just three weeks after giving birth to the youngest of her four children. The juggling she had to do to finish her PhD makes Egan a particularly empathetic resource for students trying to find time to write.

“Having been a graduate student myself, I understand the difficulties, especially the various other demands that compete for the time you need to write,” Egan says. “Many students are trying to balance things like teaching and a family or a full-time job with writing, so there are all these other responsibilities.”

It ultimately took her 10 years for her to complete her PhD at the UI. That was despite continuing to work, sometimes on a full-time basis, and raising a family. There was also a year-long period where her husband was deployed overseas with the National Guard, leaving her to care for their children on her own. Egan also took a six-month break to travel back to Ireland to care for her mother, who was dying of cancer.

Completing a doctorate requires persistence in even the most ideal of circumstances, but this was another level.

“Like a lot of graduate students, many times I thought, ‘What am I doing?’” says Egan. “But at that point, I had put in a lot of time and effort. My advisor, Ellen Lewin, my boss, Carol Severino, my committee members, and my wonderful friends and mentors from across campus were very supportive and very convinced that I would get it done. That made all the difference.”

Egan now helps energize others to do the same.

Carol Severino, a professor in the rhetoric department and the director of the Writing Center, says she has long admired Egan for her organizational skills, intelligence, and her ability to be sympathetic and empathetic to those seeking the center's help.

“Very often we’re working with people who haven’t experienced life yet,” says Severino. “If you’ve experienced life like Deirdre has, and you’ve got four teenagers, you can put problems into perspective and not blow them out of proportion. She sees problems as challenges. She’s a good role model for even me in that way.”

In addition to Severino and Egan, the Writing Center relies on a staff of about 30 graduate students and more experienced undergraduates who serve as tutors. Students can sign up for appointments, register for a regular weekly program, or submit work to the online system. Satellite centers open across campus after Labor Day, increasing the number of appointments available as students get busier and demand increases. The Writing Center also collaborates with the Iowa City Public Library to provide services to community members every Tuesday evening.

After all of the twists and turns she experienced along the way, Egan says she believes she ended up right where she was needed most—doing a job she loves while providing an essential service for UI students.

“This is a place where there is this really vibrant, fascinating, and constant exchange of ideas,” Egan says. “Part of being a writer is bouncing ideas off people. It’s not just about the mechanics of writing here. It’s about the ideas and the organization.”