Things looked gloomy for Craig Heyne ’20 when the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic struck during his last semester at Illinois State. What he didn’t expect was to be living what feels like a dream almost one year later working for What Do You Meme?, a new-age company driven by the digital age and inspired by pop culture, in New York City.
Heyne, a creative writing major, knew he wanted to be a Redbird after his brother, Richard, M.S. ’16, raved about his time in Normal as a graduate assistant and Illinois State University Forensics Union coach.
The Illinois State Forensics Union is the oldest and most successful competitive team on campus, where students on the speech team can perform in interpretation, public speaking, and limited preparation.
As a junior in high school, Heyne visited the University and fell in love with the campus and the speech team, just as his brother did. With obvious talent in public speaking, he was able to obtain a generous scholarship from the Forensics Union.
“Not only was I able to develop my critical-thinking and communication skills, but the speech team allowed me the privilege to advocate for myself and others in competitions across the nation.”
One of Heyne’s fondest memories of his time at Illinois State is when the Forensics Union won the Hell Froze Over (HFO) tournament in Austin, Texas—one of the biggest tournaments of the year. He was, and still is, proud of his team for putting all their energy into crafting important messages and putting advocacy first.
“Speech was undoubtedly the reason I was able to attend ISU,” he said. “I put everything into that, and I am forever grateful that it paid off.”
Although writing was always important to Heyne, it was difficult for him to stay focused and motivated in high school. It wasn’t until one English teacher helped Heyne with his reading and comprehension skills that he developed a deep appreciation for language and poetry. He took that passion for language and poetry and made it the focus of his college academic career.
“I am indebted to many wonderful professors I met at ISU, but especially Professor Gabriel Gudding, Dr. Duriel Harris, and Ricardo Cruz,” Heyne said. “Their creative writing classes were pivotal to my growth not only as a writer but also as a professional.” Even after his time at Illinois State, Heyne still finds himself revisiting old college notes and folders from their classes.
“I believe the lessons they taught transcend the practice of writing and pushed me to become a more organized and driven creative in all spaces,” he added.
Heyne’s creativity pours out into many areas of his personal and professional life. Before graduating in 2020, he generated 1.2 million followers on his personal TikTok account, posting skits with his friends, and doing voice-overs. Eventually, TikTok noticed his presence on their app and reached out to Heyne to become a campus ambassador. A few weeks later, What Do You Meme? did something similar and asked him to be a brand ambassador.
“It was cool and exciting to have a job during school and get paid for my content,” Heyne said. “TikTok gave me the freedom to be employed and continue to do speech.”
In 2019, he was awarded What Do You Meme?’s Top Brand Ambassador Award. Heyne’s TikTok content was funny and entertaining enough to gain a large following and become an ambassador, but he was completely shocked with what came next.
The beginning of the pandemic initially led Heyne to the decision to accept a scholarship to pursue a master’s in poetry at George Mason University (GMU). When he emailed What Do You Meme? informing them that he would no longer be able to make videos for them due to schoolwork, he mindlessly added that if they had any positions at the company, he would be more than happy to look into them.
“A week of interviews later, they offered me the job of my dreams,” Heyne said. “I didn’t expect it! I deferred my acceptance to GMU for a year and accepted the role. Since then, I have officially declined the offer altogether and decided to stay with the company.”
Heyne’s role at What Do You Meme? is constantly changing because different content is always trending on social media. Some of his tasks include running various social media accounts, helping with marketing efforts for adult and family games, developing cards for the games, and making videos about the history of memes.
Since joining the What Do You Meme? family, Heyne has adjusted to a new normal living in a new place—very different from Normal or his hometown of Sunrise, Florida—and during a global pandemic, nonetheless.
“The move out here in itself was isolating, and I suffered some very personal pains that directly impacted my motivation,” he said.
Heyne found himself forced to reclaim structure and develop a new normal which included staying in touch with friends and family virtually, Netflix binges, learning to cook, working out, and journaling.
“I think the pandemic, and each life-changing moment that has resulted from it, has shown me the importance of investing time and energy into yourself,” Heyne said.
Another silver lining for Heyne has been his creative work with What Do You Meme?. His history of memes videos brought over one million new followers to the company’s TikTok account, and he continues to produce content that goes viral even when he doesn’t think it will.
“Obviously, I try to do what I can to make a video worthy enough to go viral, but at the end of the day as a creator, you must recognize that there are so many factors out of your control when it comes to going viral,” Heyne said. He has learned to create quality content that he is happy with, and if it goes viral, then that’s the icing on the cake.
Because creating social media content is a big part of Heyne’s job, he decided to step back from his own personal accounts for the sake of his mental health, saying that the internet can be a harsh and critical place.
“I’ve found that separating my work and my personal life has been extremely beneficial mentally,” he said. “I still get all the fun of social media at work, but when the day is over, I get to turn it off and walk away from it, which has been really important for me.”
Heyne’s work-life balance is a part of what has made him successful less than one year out of college, along with the confidence that he has in himself and his creative abilities.
Although he didn’t expect to land a marketing position with a creative writing degree, Heyne has learned that a writer must have the courage and perseverance to find new creative avenues to reach people—something he learned from his time at Illinois State.
“I learned very quickly the importance of a strong work ethic,” Heyne said. “ISU provided me with a distinct discipline that I hadn’t developed prior. I think my strongest qualities are my critical thinking and organizational skills, both of which were really defined in my college studies.”
The skills he developed and nurtured during college continue to empower him to stay focused on his work and pursue passions outside of work as well, especially during something as life-altering as a global pandemic.
For graduating Redbirds looking for what’s next, Heyne said, “First and foremost, you should always be giving yourself grace and time to do what you need to do for yourself mentally, physically, and spiritually.”
Heyne has found success in having a clear mind and a healthy body during these trying times when a lot of us are working in the same space where we live.
Even after securing his dream job, Heyne has learned to advocate for himself and to jump on every opportunity that presents itself because the worst thing that can happen is rejection, but with that comes new experience.
“I think all Redbirds know that they are equipped with a skillset from their studies at ISU but are naturally quick to assume that it is not enough,” he said. “But if you tell yourself that, you are completely missing an opportunity that could be in your favor.
“Each Redbird is worthy of the opportunities they seek and achieve,” Heyne adds. “They just have to remind themselves of it from time to time.”