The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

January 26, 2013

Conversation reveals parents are influential teachers

By Nerissa Young

— The young man stepped into my office just as the phone was ringing. I motioned him into a seat while I fielded the five-minute call.

He sat patiently and quietly while I chatted. He had a most earnest look on his face.

I am the academic adviser to freshmen students in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. The young man had come to talk about changing his major.

Competition for students is fierce among college departments because so much of state aid depends on butts in the seats. I walk a difficult line between encouraging students to find and pursue their dreams while also encouraging them to consider the many doors that a journalism degree can open.

“I want to help people,” he said.

I smiled, remembering the many reasons I had chosen journalism as a second profession after teaching for a couple of years. Helping people, or giving voice to the voiceless, was one of those reasons. I believed then and still do today in the power of journalism to change people’s lives for the better.

I was also struck by the seeming contradiction of the scene I was enjoying.

Every other day, it seems, a 20-something white man picks up a gun and goes into a crowd intending to kill everyone there. But here, in my office on this day, a young white man wanted to know a job he could get that would let him help people.

Wow.

So we talked about some of those: social work, education, ministry, journalism.

I told him that he’d never get rich doing any of them. He never flinched. He told me both his parents are teachers.

Then I knew why he wanted to help people. He’d been taught by their example to serve others.

When students talk about careers with me, I never mention salaries. It’s true that money can’t buy happiness. It can buy distractions from unhappiness, but it can’t buy happiness.

I always encourage them to find a career doing what they like and what they are good at. I further encourage them to learn all they can in every situation so they can take advantage of the next big thing that comes along.

Finally, I give the soul speech. Often, students who are attracted to journalism as a career have a social justice component to their personalities. They want to make a difference. While journalism is not the career for everyone, students can certainly find a way to make a difference whether as a vocation or avocation.

They may make widgets by day and volunteer at a homeless shelter by night.

“What you decide to major in is your choice. It has to be,” I conclude. “But whatever you decide to do, you’ve got to find a way to feed your soul. That is what makes you successful.”

The young man thanked me for my time and said he’d think about our conversation.

I don’t know whether anything I said will help him find a way to feed his soul. I do know my encounter with him fed mine.

— Young is a Register-Herald columnist. E-mail: ynerissa@frontier.com