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Emerald Wright-Collie climbs the stairs to the enter the auditorium at Allegheny College’s commencement ceremony on May 14, 2016 in the Wise Center. Wright-Collie graduated with a bachelor of arts in communication arts and a minor in journalism in the public interest. Photo by Cheryl Hatch/c. 2016

Outside the Box, by Cheryl Hatch, Copyright 2016

Each semester in our news writing class, I give students an assignment to interview a professional journalist. Below are the opening words of the assignment.

Have fun and aim high. This assignment is for you. It gives you an opportunity to network and learn from a professional journalist. Be bold. Prepare well. Ask thoughtful, intimate questions.

 I then ask a few students which journalist they’d like to interview. In my first semester at Allegheny, a woman in the back of the class said Anderson Cooper. A few students laughed, snickered possibly. I asked the student why she chose Cooper. She’d followed his coverage of Katrina. She admired him and his work.

She sent emails and called his office. She wrote a letter that I passed from a friend to a friend to a relative of Cooper’s. She worked all semester to score the interview. She didn’t get it. She did get the assignment and made the most of it. As a professor, I value and encourage that kind of failure.

That’s Emerald. She swings for the fences.

During our “Story Next Door” journalism conference in 2014, Emerald studied the work of the speakers and made sure to meet each of them. She didn’t know about f-stops and exposure, but she knew she wanted to learn more about photojournalism. She sought out Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Michael Williamson of The Washington Post and spent an afternoon with him on the Ernst Trail, learning to see light and moments.

At our conference this year, Emerald took a point-and-shoot camera to Erie and documented the arrival of a refugee family from Somalia and the neighbors who welcomed them to their new home. Her photo of 8-year-old Adna Hirsi ran in the Erie Times-News.

When she was exploring media relations as a career path, she followed a lead and contacted an Allegheny alumnus who worked in marketing for the Miami Heat. She met with him over her summer break. When she wanted to learn more about sports reporting, Emerald contacted an Associated Press reporter who covers the Marlins and studied him as he covered a Major League game.

Emerald also swings and misses. She missed deadlines. She missed classes. She missed appointments.

We started meeting every Friday.

We talked about the internship she was completing at The Meadville Tribune. During these conversations, I realized Emerald was up against some tough odds and demanding circumstances. Allegheny can be a challenging environment inside the classroom and outside it. Each year, nearly every semester, Emerald had an obstacle to surmount outside her college life—outside her control. She persevered.

There were a few semesters when she wasn’t sure she would return. And she always returned.

People think I’m stupid, Emerald said, during one of our conversations. They act surprised when I say something intelligent.

I assured her that I’d had the same challenges in my career. I told her I consider it a tactical advantage when people misjudge and underestimate me. I carry Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote in my head for just such occasions: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

As an educator now, I follow the example of professors who made a difference in my college career. Dr. Rob, who died earlier this year. When I was knocked off balance and off course my sophomore year, his words and strong presence helped me right myself.

And Jim, my adviser and photojournalism professor. I got a B+ on one of my first photojournalism assignments. I asked him what I had to do to get an A. He asked why I wanted an A. Because it’s there, I thought. Because an A is the best score, I said.

He told me my prints were too flat, not enough contrast. No true white or true black, not enough tonal range. I spent hours in the darkroom and went through boxes of photo paper on each assignment. By the end of the semester, I knew how to print. And I earned that A.

That’s one of the reasons I treasure Emerald. She never gave up—even when the going got tough. She pursued her education with grit and gusto.

I tell students that how they show up in the classroom is how they’ll show up in life.

Emerald shows up. She keeps showing up.

She reminds me a bit of me. I swing for the fences, too.

Emerald has smarts. No doubt about it. She also possesses the skills and qualities that I can’t teach, skills I deem valuable in a career and life. Emerald has moxie. She shows determination, resourcefulness and undaunted initiative. She can read a room and read people. And call b.s. from a mile away.

With her family in attendance, Emerald will graduate on Saturday with a degree in communication arts and a minor in journalism in the public interest. With her senior composition, she tied together all her interests: media studies, journalism, basketball, social justice. In her comp entitled “James the Savior: An Analysis of the Construction of a Cultural Myth in his Return to Cleveland,” she analyzed the messages that LeBron James embodies in photographs.

Emerald’s got game. And she’s got a job. After graduation, she’s moving to New York.

While she’s there, I bet she’ll score that interview with Anderson Cooper.

 

Note: I offer my congratulations to the 2016 Allegheny College students who’ll graduate Saturday. I want to especially acknowledge and thank Emerald, Christina, Meghan, Becca and Chloe; we all started at Allegheny together, and it has been my privilege to work with and learn from you. Congratulations to the parents, family members, friends, professors and staff who helped you cross the finish line, the stage and the threshold to your new lives and careers.

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Emerald Wright-Collie greets President Jim Mullen as she receives her diploma at Allegheny College’s commencement ceremony on May 14, 2016 in the Wise Center. Photo by Cheryl Hatch/c. 2016

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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