Learning communities help students flourish

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I've found that college learning communities are essential to getting a step ahead on a career path.

Let's rewind about four years. I was one of many University of Detroit Jesuit High School seniors who had been accepted to Wayne State University. But there was only one person I could count on not only to say hello when we crossed paths, but also to text or call me and schedule get-togethers.

Before then, my last major transition -- from elementary school to middle school -- had not gone so well, and it wasn't until eighth grade that I made more than one lasting friendship. I was determined to begin adulthood on a better foot, but my options were limited.

I didn't want to join a fraternity; the hazing and stigma that go with the Greek lifestyle didn't (and still doesn't) appeal to me. But I had to find a collection of like minds if I didn't want my college years to feel as lonely as my high school years.

And then, voila: I came across the Journalism Institute for Media Diversity, a learning community/scholarship program at WSU.

"Members of racial, ethnic and other underrepresented groups are particularly urged to apply as is anyone interested in studying the importance of diversity in the nation's media," according to its WSU web page.

To be honest, the main reason I joined the institute -- sometimes called JIM for its earlier name of Journalism Institute for Minorities -- was for its scholarship money. It took me some time to get used to not only its time and work commitments, but also its members' strong senses of companionship.

I may have gotten a lot of scholarship money from the institute, but I've profited from it in more ways than that.

First off, the relationships: With the exception of the summer in Pittsburgh, I've had almost constant contact with the institute's members and director. It was refreshing to be around people with similar interests and goals as mine.

We in the institute like to call the organization a "family." We're always helping each other -- passing on information about work opportunities and advice on internships and classes, giving each other rides to professional events.

We also have (tame) parties, lunches, the whole shebang. Basically, I'm getting exactly the kind of companionship that I need at this early stage in my professional life. I'm not being sidelined by silly and wild events, but I also have plenty of breathing room in which to enjoy myself and plenty of people to spend my free time with.

Although the "family" phrase may be pushing it, our saying that the institute is a "brand" is spot-on. Professionals throughout the country know what "the institute" or "JIM" means, and they know to expect a lot from the people associated with the organization.

I've met a lot of people (and even interviewed former White House reporter Helen Thomas) at institute-sponsored events, opening a lot of doors for possible future work.

Those who make it through the institute have to remain dedicated and work hard. I'm always tempted during the annual summer retreats to tell newcomers to look to their right and their left because only one of those people will be graduates of the institute.

It may seem drastic, but that's the case. In a good year, half of the new recruits will last in the community, others leaving mainly because they cannot meet various expectations.

Being in the institute has inspired me to meet, and even exceed, the accomplishments made by past and current members. This has been driven not only by my desire to not be one of those who have been kicked out, but also to set myself apart from those members of the institute who are successful.

Surviving -- and, lately, excelling -- through my college career and becoming a senior member of the institute have become sources of pride for me.

In high school, my talents were complimented by my parents and teachers -- the usual suspects, in other words.

But in this learning community, I was earning respect from people outside of my box whom I looked up to, professors and senior institute members alike.

Now, I wouldn't have had this developing success story if I weren't dedicated to journalism. It's essential to find out what you want to do in life before you make the big step of committing to a learning community.

But joining one is easily one of the best decisions I've made. And with all the knowledge and connections that have come with my membership in the institute, I'm sure it is one of the wisest decisions I will ever make in my life.

By comparing the numbers of those who enter the institute and those who graduate through it, it's safe to say learning communities aren't for everyone.

But everyone who is passionate about a career owes it to himself or herself to at least try a learning community experience in college.

Isaac Elster, who was a summer intern at the Post-Gazette, is a senior majoring in journalism at Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich. He can be reached at localnews@post-gazette.com .


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