REPOSTED From Dec. 10, 2014:
This series will be a two-part review of Ryerson University’s journalism school for the class of 2018. All posts are based upon my first-year experiences as a full-time student in the program.
Year 1, Semester 1:
Skip back to the summer of 2014 and I thought I had it all set out. I graduated high school with a 90% average and I got accepted to Ryerson’s journalism program, the realization of a four-year dream. Leading up to school, I spent my break hiking, working out and shooting documentaries on the daily. I knew that when I arrived in Toronto, I was going to be ready for any challenge the city had to throw at me. All was bright and sunny in my future.
But then I got injured while training for a weightlifting competition, and before I knew it, university was here. I was high on medications, in crippling pain and was generally out of my element. Things were not looking good and j-school hit me like a 20-ton truck. I entered this race at half-speed, so it’s worth noting that my perspective is somewhat biased.
With that said, I’ve loved almost every second of the program. Never in my life have I met so many fascinating and inspirational people in such a short period of time. The amount I’ve grown as a person over these last twelve weeks is something I am very proud of and wouldn't trade for anything. It is would be a lie to say this program hasn’t changed me for the better.
One of the first things I am going to note about my time in the journalism program is that it doesn’t feel like school – not in the traditional sense. Aside from non-journalistic electives, all the work I’ve done as a first-year student has been almost 100% hands-on and immediately applicable to real scenarios.
There is little to no book work in the program and when there is, it’s probably something you’re already doing if journalism is something that interests you: reading the news. You're not writing essays, this isn’t English (although you do have to take two entry-level English courses). The true test of your ability is going to come from reporting news – period.
Whether you're typing articles, taking photos, sending tweets or making timelines, the one common theme is that you are always a journalist. The school doesn’t make up stories or have you imagine news; there is no curriculum to teach this kind of thing, it’s just about going out there and doing it.
For those not familiar with the program, the two main journalism courses you’ll be taking first year focus on different applications of the craft.
JRN 100 is based around a lecture and lab period, with the lectures usually being a dialogue between the professor, occasional guest speakers and the students themselves.
You'll hear from journalists and other sorts of professionals who know their shit, all of whom have valuable information to share. Sometimes you'll have to utilize that info in an assignment, but often times you’ll just bank it in your mind for future reference. For me, hearing from working professionals was extremely potent. It’s the kind of stuff that gives you a richer understanding of journalism and what you can do to succeed in the field.
JRN 120 is your bread-and-butter reporting class. This is the class that looks scary on the schedule when you first open it up (eight-hour days consisting of a two-hour lecture and a six-hour reporting period). This is truly going to be a love it or hate it situation. You're going to be sent on assignment to go cover events in the city, do streeters (interviews in the streets), as well as write the occasional test on Canadian Press style or the week’s news.
It’s a class that keeps you on your feet and burns you if you don’t dance fast enough. Your professor will be your editor and depending on who you get, he/she could put you a little closer to the flame than you might be comfortable with. If there’s one thing you can count on with this class, it’s that it will make you a better journalist/writer. Your prof is there to show you your errors. As long as you’re willing to take that criticism in stride, you'll do just fine.
The one thing to keep in mind is that no matter who you get stuck with, all of the professors the school has on board are top-notch. Not only do they know what their doing and have the experience to back it up, but they’re actual human beings. These guys aren't going to bullshit you or treat you like a PR case. They’re going to give it to you straight. If your teacher’s name is Tom, you’ll call him Tom – not Mr. Doe. This doesn’t mean that your professors going to go hit the club with you, but they will definitely respect you and treat you like an equal. It’s a refreshing feeling from coming out of high school.
The program has a lot of opportunities meant to keep you on your feet. You will be routinely visited by editors and writers from different publications asking to get you on board. They want you to start your portfolio from day one. This doesn’t mean that you should feel rushed – quite the opposite.
Take your time, but be curious. See something you think is interesting? Ask about it and take notes. You might just find a story worth pitching. Sign up for publications as a contributor, take as many stories as you feel comfortable writing. If that’s once a week or once a month, doesn’t matter, just be proactive and you’ll start to see the changes in your writing and the amount of people willing to open doors for you.
There is one outstanding issue with the program and it is something that can range from a minor annoyance to a huge problem depending on how thick your skin is. The fact of the matter is that some of the people you will meet while in the program are incredibly hostile, meaning both fellow students and some of the speakers/guests/professionals you will run into along the way.
If you're not used to being criticized, prepare for that to change quickly. Editors from big media will cut you down, others will give you hope, and many will just tell you the truth of the matter: to get a job, you have to be good, so be prepared to live outside your comfort zone for the rest of your life.
The way this sense of urgency and competitiveness is introduced to many students is quite abrupt. In JRN 100, chances are that, in the first few weeks, you're going to hear from speakers or former students whose work ethic will blow your mind. Some are modest, others not so much. It's key that you learn from these people and not let the feeling of responsibility to write your ass off crush you. Take it slow, but do have a goal. The students who spent the four years of this program cruising almost always regret it. Alternately, the people who burn out first or second year aren't doing themselves any favours.
But I digress, this problem is in no way exclusive to the program. All industries where the path to success is more interpretative and entrepreneurial are bound to be hostile in one form or another. More than anywhere, Ryerson’s j-school tries to create an environment conducive to growth. There are a lot of great mentors there to coach you and people willing to give you opportunities to shine, and that aspect far outweighs any negativity that can be felt on occasion.
There’s a saying that you'll hear a lot when you start the program: “You’re a journalist.” And it’s true, you are a journalist. The degree is not a certificate saying that you know how to do journalism, it’s just another piece of paper. There's no license to write a good story. From the day you step into j-school, journalism becomes your life. It’s there when you’re walking your dog and want to know why the garbage hasn’t been picked up. It’s there when you see a disabled person being discriminated against. It’s there when the man sitting next to you on the subway tells you a story that inspires awe in every one of your bones.
The journalist side of you is always there because all of these skills are the very things that make us human: listening and expressing. If there’s one thing I've learned from this experience so far, it’s that to be a good journalist, you have to be a good human first.
There will be a follow-up to this post after I finish second semester.