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On Being a Colum Alum September 23, 2011

Posted by Patricia Ann McNair in Blog posts, Things and Stuff.
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Today starts Columbia College Chicago’s Alumni Weekend, and I am delighted to be part of the event. Tomorrow, Saturday, September 24, artist and adjunct faculty member Philip Hartigan and I will be teaching a workshop (Story and Sketchbook) based on a class we teach in the Fiction Writing Department, Journal and Sketchbook.

But that’s not what this post is about.

This post is about my thoughts on being an alumnus of CCC. Do you know this school, Columbia College Chicago? You should. It is a vibrant arts and communication school (with a solid liberal arts foundation) in Chicago’s ever-changing south loop. I won’t give you the statistics of how many buildings we have (around twenty) or how many students we serve (somewhere near 12,000) or what programs of ours are among the biggest and best in the country (film and video, art and design, fiction writing, arts & entertainment media management.) Let me just say that we are a place that is part of the world’s vital discourse about art and culture and creative industry, and that we have Oscar winners, national book prize winners, Emmy winners, NEA awardees, etc etc etc among our alumni, faculty, and staff. Wow.

But what is most important, is the student body. I know. I count myself among them. Because even though I graduated from Columbia in 1988 (and again in 1995,) I still spend an awful lot of time at Columbia learning.

I first came to Columbia in the early eighties as one of those nontraditional students who had already gone out to work in the world, was rather successful without a college degree, but who felt a distinct and aching hole in my identity without said degree. This was fueled a little bit by the knowledge that certain careers would always be closed to me without the credential, but more so by the understanding that there was more I wanted to know, to practice, to experience. So on my way toward my thirties, I stopped in at Columbia College Chicago.

I came here as a radio major. My mother always wanted me to be Barbara Walters, but I knew I was getting older, and by the time I finally got my degree (going part-time as I needed to because of my full-time gig first as a manager of a restaurant and later as a back-office manager at a commodities firm) I thought I would be too old to be the next fresh face on television. So radio. That would do. I could write stories and talk to people and be on the air; and my mother would be proud.

But then, I had to take a writing class in order to fulfill a requirement. And one summer evening, I found myself sitting in a semi-circle of strangers, undertaking word games and telling bits of stories and writing. What a complete and total joy! I had always loved writing, but having this weekly workshop (with the emphasis on “work” not “repair” as many writing classes seem inclined to do) was like a magical thing for me. My anecdotes became stories, my rants became essays, my work became publishable. Oh, and that wonderful, unparalleled feeling of first seeing my work in print! (HairTrigger 9, I think it was…an edition of CCC’s FictionWriting Department student anthology.) I cannot tell you how exciting and edifying that was. It was in these classes that I began work on what would become my newly-released story collection, The Temple of Air.

I switched majors. The Fiction Writing Department, and its Story Workshop® approach to the teaching of writing, developed by John Schultz and fostered by Betty Shiflett, did just exactly what Columbia College Chicago’s mission promised me it would do; it helped me to “author the culture of [my] times.” In fiction writing classes—and in the other classes I took to finally finish my degree (twelve years and three schools after I started) I sat side-by-side with students from all backgrounds and skills levels. There was such a diversity of voices and stories at Columbia, that every class offered each of us new ways to understand the world simply by being part of its complex vastness. One of the things I was unhappy with at my other schools was how very much like high school they felt. And not just any high school, but high school in the suburbs of the seventies. Very white and relatively privileged (I can count myself among this demographic) with a world view that was remarkably similar to my own. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the white-kid-from-the-suburbs’ point of view, but by this time in my life I had lived in Honduras where I gave vaccinations and dental treatments; I had run a gas station in a relatively poor area in an Iowa city; I had bartended in a small town tavern near cornfields; I had sold pots and pans in trailer courts. I’d done community theater and commercials, I’d slung burgers and beers. In most of the classes I took at my other schools, my fellow students hadn’t had jobs other than at McDonalds or babysitting, and most of those were part-time; many of these students were at college because their parents said they had to be. At Columbia, I felt part of a wider world, a place where people worked to support themselves, and went to school to become what they dreamed of being. Writers. Artists. Filmmakers. Dancers.

Today Columbia’s student body has shifted somewhat. By doing what we have always done well (I say we here, because I am honored to teach at Columbia, my alma mater, and to be acting chair of the Fiction Writing Department this year,) offering students education in the creative industries and arts, we have become increasingly a college of choice for kids from the suburbs. We used to be a commuter school primarily, many of us working full-time, learning part-time, taking the CTA home late at night after class. Now we have dorms and lots of deeply engaged full-time students of traditional college age. What we have gained in numbers we have lost some in diversity, it’s true, and I am sorry for that. But what we have earned in reputation and dedication as a college is a good thing. Our students still come to Columbia to pursue those careers and educational paths that are hard to find at more traditional schools. They want to make art, many of them;they want to fill the world with music and words and images and new ways to think, to share, to be. They want to, as I do, author the culture of their times.

And I am thrilled to still be part of this. This pursuit, this education, this passion. This school: Columbia College Chicago.

Images from the internet, WBEZ and Columbia College Chicago. Thanks for reading. -PMc

 

 

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