Armed with a love for Shakespeare and a degree in languages and literature, I graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2009 amid the Great Recession. I applied to doctoral programs in English, thinking, “I am going to be a professor!” Never mind the warnings that the job market for college educators was collapsing, with more PhD graduates than tenure-track positions. I would be the exception (I hoped).
What sold me on Northwestern — and sustained me through seven years of study — was the school’s motto: Quaecumque Sunt Vera, a Latin phrase that means “whatsoever things are true.” I was inspired to pursue truth wherever it led. And I found studying literature to be the ultimate pursuit of truth.
The PhD program was difficult. Three years in, I choked on a qualifying exam, putting my status in jeopardy. The department let me decide whether to continue or call it quits, essentially saying: “Stay if you believe in this — but don’t do it for the sake of maintaining inertia. Search your soul, because it will only get harder.”
Staying was the right choice. I buckled down, and four years later I was a doctor of philosophy. I was hired onto the core faculty for the McGaw Bioethics Clinical Scholars Program at the Feinberg School of Medicine. Despite the odds, I was finally teaching at a university. But what surprised me even more was that, somewhere along the way, Northwestern’s interdisciplinary excellence had made me an entrepreneur as well — without me even realizing it. I had a side hustle as a writer for folks who wanted to tell their life stories. This gig evolved into a business, and Northwestern had given me the skills to run it.
Years of graduate research taught me how to cut through noise to find truth. Presenting at conferences alongside physicians, philosophers, political scientists and playwrights prepared me to repurpose insights from one field to another and pitch ideas to diverse audiences. Writing a dissertation trained me to identify gaps and stake claims in the marketplace of ideas. The path toward a PhD, like entrepreneurship, requires inexhaustible stores of self-motivation. When nobody is dictating how to invest your time, you must find direction within.
In an age deluged with information, discerning what is true is essential. As a storytelling species, we find truth by sharing authentic stories that emerge from experience. If we lack resources to tell our tales, we risk forgetting who we are or letting others misrepresent our experience. Autobiography is the power to speak for oneself. Once I understood this, I wanted to share this magic with the world.
In 2018 my brother AJ and I cofounded Biograph with a mission to empower everyone to tell their own stories. We write, design and publish custom biographies for families and organizations. We also created a free storytelling app that guides folks to create family history collections that include visuals, voice recordings, texts and intergenerational conversations.
We’ve had the privilege of hiring Northwestern students and alums. And we’ve partnered with Northwestern’s Center for Civic Engagement to design an intergenerational storytelling project, training undergraduate and graduate students on best practices of oral history.
As Biograph continues to grow, I remain a student of truth. In the end, Northwestern has given me many avenues to pursue it.
Aaron Greenberg ’12 MA, ’17 PhD is co-founder of Biograph and teaches at Lake Forest College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He wrote Recorded Time: How to Write the Future. He lives in Chicago.