It was the best, most positive convocation I can recall in the past 15 years as a faculty member at Northwestern University’s Medill School. More than 150 undergrads and close to 100 masters graduates met in Cahn Auditorium to face the future. And they were well-prepared. Their first words during launch were well-considered, well-crafted and welcome. It was a morning filled with “real hope and real optimism.”
Commencement speaker and 1988 Medill MSJ grad Evan Smith charmed and informed the faculty, parents and students with his take on the future. The ceo and editor-in-chief of the newly launched The Texas Tribune told the crowd “greatness is not a byproduct of timidity” at this vibrant time of “news entrepreneurship.”
He urged the students he called iGrads as the “first generation of digital natives” to understand that this is “a great and exciting time to be looking for a job in journalism and its related fields.”
Recognizing that “the state of the media business– by this I mean the sad, sorry, unsettled, listing, sagging state of the media business– creates unprecendented opportunities for smart people” to create and launch innovative ideas.
It is a time when students are “able to be not just an intimate witness, but an active participant” in the revolution that is changing media forever, Smith said.
Smith offered three pieces of advice similar to what I often give my students in Reporting & Writing as well as Multimedia Storytelling.
1. “Build and burnish your personal brand.”
2. “Embrace risk.”
3. “No ingraved invitations.”
This year at Medill we have started teaching students how to begin to build a professional brand as a journalist, an idea that was unheard of just five years ago. We teach students to use social media to create a professional identity that will set them apart from so many others as hungry as they are for a position in the evolving media landscape.
A few weeks ago I told the students in my last spring class of Multimedia Storytelling that the single most important thing they can do at Medill and in life is to try. Enter into a challenge not with trepidation but with the eagerness to learn something completely new. Approach a challenge not with dread but with excitement. You cannot learn unless you try and you just might fail.
Try. Fail. Try. Succeed. Repeat.
I often tell students that no bad grade, no good source and no graceful sentence will land on them when they open a window. You must seek it all out. You earn a poor grade, just as you earn a good one. You find the sources and the evidence you need to back up your story. None of it lands on you like inspiration from some fictitious muse. You must create the opportunity.
Saturday was an uplifting morning. I met the parents of students who have been in my classes and have been my advisees for years. I have written several hundred recommendations for the members of this class of 2011.
I won’t call anyone out by name, so as not to slight anyone, but I told several parents that they can be proud of their son or daughter. The student was respectful, enterprising, bright, engaged, eager and diligent.
It was a day to celebrate. Just as I did for my son Weldon at his graduation last month from University of Wisconsin-Madison, I was celebrating for the students who have sat in my lectures or panicked in my office over classes to register for the next year. Some of them hated me for the current events quizzes and the AP Style tests, but I know they all learned a great deal. They learned how to report and to write. They learned to meet a deadline. And hopefully they learned that anything they dare to create is possible.
Try, I keep saying to students. The secret to succeeding in the real world? The same as it is in a class on Monday and Wednesday 9 a.m to noon.
Try. All you have to do is try.