Alumni Reflections: Alex Shaw

Heather Gaunt
Wednesday 31 March 2021

Alex Shaw

MA, Management, Class of 2017

Saints Rowing


From never having rowed before to a Henley competitor in just 2 years, Alex Shaw describes her great journey with @ustarowing, and how it inspired her career trajectory. 

My path to St Andrews, much like the rest of my life since, is rather unconventional. My first trip outside of the USA was to Scotland for my cousin’s wedding when I was 17 years old. The ceremony held in Sallies Chapel was stunning, West Sands took my breath away, and of course my first flat white from Taste really sealed the deal. I fell in love with the Bubble within 24 hours.

No recruiter sent to my high school, no prior interest in studying in the UK… only a wedding on a perfectly sunny summer’s day in Fife. Chucking in my application alongside the one other university I applied to (which is in Florida), I got my offer for a MA Management undergraduate degree and the rest is history.

I did not partake in any sport during my first two years of University and it was only in my third year that the idea dawned on me to try something completely new. Naturally, my unconventional thought processes came to the conclusion that rowing was a great thing to throw myself into, having little athletic experience beyond my dance background growing up. Thankfully, it was an excellent program to join as a novice. And thankfully, I survived.

Given my business-related degree, I anticipated moving into a more corporate path, leaving St Andrews with some kind of grad scheme at a big firm. Throughout the process of applying to jobs in my fourth year, it felt like slogging through mud trying to get excited at the thought of having a job that didn’t utilize my creativity. During my four years at St Andrews, I quickly developed my photography skills and was shooting any free chance I had. I had found a true passion of mine.  After enough rejections from a path that wasn’t feeding my interests, I took the risk to pursue the life of a freelance photographer and it has been the most rewarding choice I could have made.

My time with UStABC set me up for success based on the sheer amount of discipline I had to develop in and out of the boat. To do well during training, focus had to be unwaveringly sharp, much like sitting down to edit a set of 3,000+ images, looking out for every detail. With training sessions sandwiching my day of lectures, tutorials, meetings and eating (lots and lots of eating), my lifestyle gave little room for messing around when it came to meeting deadlines. That student athlete mindset has carried over into my day to day work life – freelancing comes with the amazing perk of freedom to schedule my life, but it comes at the cost of actually getting things done in a self-motivated way. Structure is critical for success, even when your day to day looks different. I owe a lot to being a rower in experiencing that firsthand. Showing up consistently to our 20+ hours of weekly training, even when I lacked the motivation, is what grew my capacity to persevere and developed my threshold for discomfort. Going from a novice knowing nothing about the sport to the top boat at Women’s Henley, making it to quarter-finals only a year and a half later, truly demonstrated the value of a persistent work ethic.

I photographed quite a bit during my two years with the team during the moments I wasn’t actually in the boat, giving me incredible experience with sport and action photography. Throw me into the launch during a cold, choppy, rainy day at Lochore to shoot and I undoubtedly learnt to control a camera in the most tricky of circumstances. My skills in capturing subjects in motion exponentially improved and the images I collected overtime even helped me to land a campaign shoot with Lululemon back here in the States.

Just like everything else in my life the past 8 years, I am open to the unconventional, the surprise, and the challenge of whatever opportunities come my way. Working in the creative sphere is a rollercoaster as the career path can be messy and undefined. Unlike entering a traditional career ladder structure, I had no idea where my course was leading me, but I knew what I valued and what gave me a sense of purpose. Instead of a linear growth, each new project takes me to a new set of opportunities, a new connection in my network, and sometimes introduces me to new risky creative endeavours. It’s fun. It’s rewarding. It’s scary. It’s all the things that make me excited to work! I can see a future beyond COVID restrictions where I am travelling with photography again, but meanwhile I am embracing the clients I have here in the States.

I look back at my time in St Andrews and involvement in sport fondly. The beauty of Scotland initially inspired my journey with photography, however I wouldn’t be where I am today without the incredible network of people that consistently encourage and celebrate the work that I produce. The community that you meet during your time in The Bubble has irreplaceable value and will always be the most cherished part during that period of life. I’m thankful to the boat club for giving me a sense of confidence that catapulted me into the “real world”. I will forever be grateful for my team!

If you have any interest in the creative field, I encourage you to maintain a routine practice of your craft, even if it means keeping it a weekend hobby or during the evenings after work. The more time you invest, the more you will likely get in return in terms of growth. It’s aggressively cliché, but I really do encourage you to follow your passions and dreams. Life is too short not to!



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