One of my professors recounts an experience at another university where the Journalism school folded and the debate about absorbing those programs into Communication Studies “The faculty was like ‘Noooooo, we are not a skills based discipline’ ” he tells me. I look at him quizzically.
As soon as the University adds garland and multi colored bulbs to the lights around the Oval I am transported back to my first fall, my first holidays, my first year in Montana. I moved here a blank canvas to the Rocky Mountain West, with self imposed marching orders to understand environmental issues, and how to connect other people to them – through visuals, experiences, and powerful words.
I had a fully manual Canon AE-1 camera, probably the top of its line in the 1960s. I lived in the 9th floor of Montana’s (then) 4th tallest building. My dorm faced west, and served as sanctuary for hall mates with roomie issues and one of the best sunset spots in the city.
I spent most of my time in the darkroom. Having moved here FOR photojournalism I felt the pressure of performance and time to painstakingly pull my portfolio together. I HAD to get into the professional program that fall to stay on my bachelors in 4 years timeline.
So I shuffled across campus in the sparkling dark of Montana winter, under those multi colored Christmas trees hanging around the Oval. I knocked, entered the first dark room door, closed it, then entered the second to the red glow and chemical smell of the darkroom. Sometimes rolling, agitating and rinsing film. Sometimes cropping, burning, dodging, enlarging prints. I would pop the RENT soundtrack in my headphones and journey through some internal conglomeration of my photos and the story of starving, loving, striving artists.
I thought I had experienced winter as a southwestern Virginia native, but Montana taught me a new facet of this season. I learned scarves had a function other than fashion as I bundled up for minimum skin exposure. I hiked Mt. Setinel at night, surrounded by billions of tiny diamonds, breath freezing, frost dazzling.
This was my own creation story.
A dramatic absolution of a relationship I thought would take me into marriage and motherhood landed me in this new chapter, this new life path; reeling, wounded, open and hungry. One door, one future had closed, and here I moved through this new landscape, this new life, this new sparkling, striving facet of myself.
As I look onto the Oval today, thirteen years later, I feel thankful. I feel tired. I feel hopeful. I feel happy that my life path landed me on this campus those many years ago, and has brought me back to a place of genesis.
I’m never quite sure how I fit my graduate-level academic home. There are no negatives to print from and stories are told through literature reviews and data analysis instead of compelling visuals and graphic design. My hope is this different approach hones lasting tools to understanding the environment and connecting people to it through visuals, experiences and powerful words.
Last semester my cohort studied qualitative research methods. We learned skills and were encouraged to learn, memorize, practice and then reach a mastery that allowed for improvisation. These skills, among other tangible skills, resonate with me. The “doing” grounds me from the heady theoretical ether. And this place, this place, especially in this season, grounds me in everything I hope to achieve through higher education.
It is a tense, dynamic time at the University of Montana as higher ups stumble through financial, leadership and student number issues. I see a different side of the U as a graduate instructor and new relationships with faculty. It is every bit more tenuous and complicated as life at 32 compared to 19.
I look at my students, most of them in a similar life chapter to me all those years ago, and wonder what struggles and genesis they are going through. I hope they have a mixture of moments: unveiling the complications of the world around them AND feeling insulated within their own struggles of making friends and getting across campus in the cold and pouring their all into one project that seems like it will make or break the rest of their life.
I reflect on everything Journalism taught. There are many amazing things that training continues to bring to my life; the desire to connect people to each other and important issues, the ability to present information in interesting ways, investigating multiple points of view and the power of story.