I came into college knowing that I wanted to be a writer, so I selected journalism as my major. I’d done some newspaper writing in high school and dug it well enough, and I was excited to try out for the weekly paper at my small school, a Penn State branch in Erie, PA.
The advisor for the paper, a communications professor, was very encouraging to me about the quality of the articles I was contributing to the paper. I would see her on Thursday nights when we had newspaper meetings (she would come for like 10 minutes and then bounce), and I would also see her in a journalism class I was taking.
To be frank, she didn’t teach me all that much — I learned more from actually working for the paper and from reading. She spent most of the class time blowing smoke up her own ass about all of her journalistic accomplishments as a big fish in a tiny pond.
By the end of freshman year I was editor of the student life section, and in my sophomore year the editor-in-chief selected me as his managing editor.
That fall, I had to decide whether I wanted to stay in Erie, or transfer to Penn State’s main campus in the middle of the state. Initially, I’d come to Erie to play for the basketball team, with the intention of staying for four years. After leaving the team (mostly because it was a terrible experience and because it took up so much time that I couldn’t work for the paper if I continued to play), I decided I would transfer to the larger school after my sophomore year, ostensibly to get a better education and to find more writing opportunities.
But then I thought long and hard about staying. My friend and the editor-in-chief was a senior, so his spot would be open at the start of my junior year. I wanted the position badly, because I felt like I should (though maybe I thought too highly of myself). And I felt like I should get it. I was already managing editor. That job probably would’ve been enough to get me to stay. At the time, I was still enamored with the “big fish / small pond” dynamic.
During this time at the beginning of the year, we tried to do interesting things with the paper, so that college kids would want to read it. The long and short of it was nothing worth caring much about happened very often on our campus, so there wasn’t much interest in hyper-local amateur journalism.
Apparently, the advisor took exception to this. She was old school — probably still reads print newspapers today and tries to come up with reasons why it’s better to get your news there than on the Internet. I bet she also listens to local talk radio. But she never had much of a conversation with my colleagues or myself. Instead, she started gravitating to a group of freshmen who she apparently thought would be a better fit to run the paper, for reasons I can guess at but will never understand, on account of the advisor not having a conversation with me about any of her future plans.
I decided I would stay if I got the editor-in-chief job, and that I would leave if I didn’t.
My friend Andy mentioned this to the advisor, and reported back to me that she had told him, without giving reasons, that I would never be the editor-in-chief of the paper. I briefly thought of confronting her, but decided not to. I doubted I could change her mind, and I didn’t want to run a paper supervised by a person who would make such a comment without a “why” (especially because she’s supposed to be a f**king journalist).
That weekend I went to University Park and signed a lease on an apartment. As soon as I did, I was happy I’d decided to do so. But I was still mad at what I viewed to be a major slight. I decided I would set out to have a better career and a better life than the advisor, and that I would do it on my own merit. That I would work hard to get better at writing and reporting. That someday I would show her that I was not only better than she had hypothesized, but better than she had ever been.
I landed an internship that summer in a beach town. Then I did more internships. Then I graduated and got a job. Then another job back in the beach town. Then I moved to New York City, where I write for a living about more interesting things than student councils or a dance fundraiser.
I shudder now to think what would have happened if I had gotten the EIC job, and if I had stayed in Erie. I have no doubt that I’d be in a worse spot than I am today. I might still be participating in local journalism, or talking about how awesome I am to students.
I’m nowhere near where I want to be yet, but I remain optimistic.
I learned more indirectly from that advisor by not getting the EIC job, and the way in which she went about making her decision, than I ever learned via her tutelage. I learned that you can’t depend on other people to notice your potential. And you can’t count on other people to not dismiss you outright just because you aren’t their favorite person.
You have to work hard and do things on your own.
And anyone who tries to slow you down can go straight to hell.