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J-School Confidential: First Impressions

After week one within the j-school fray, our business-writer-to-be reports from Columbia

- September 14, 2007
Welcome to our new series, J-School Confidential, filed by media experts in the making. Our rotating cast of emerging journos will take on that great media debate -- to j-school or not to j-school -- while chronicling their tales of learning the craft both in the academic settling and on the ground.

In this week's edition, new Columbia grad student Beth Braverman assesses her place among her fellow students, revels in the camaraderie, and worries she'll become the "bridge-and-tunnel student who never goes out." And then there's the whole getting a job thing, too.

"Wow, I'm old."

As I arrived on campus last Tuesday for the first official day of classes, this was the first thought running through my head.

In order to get to the Graduate School of Journalism, I had to navigate a campus swarming with incoming undergrads. As I mentally went over the readings for my first Evidence and Inference class, I caught snippets of conversations revolving around dorm life and meal plans. But even as the undergraduate students outside of the journalism building appeared young and immature, my peers inside seemed confident and experienced.

All of the 40-some students in Columbia's M.A. program bring some real-world journalism experience, and my paltry five years as a local newspaper reporter and trade magazine editor seem to pale in comparison. My peers have broken major national stories, served as foreign correspondents in Lebanon and Iraq, and written for publications from The New York Times to the St. Petersburg Times.

We're all on a level playing field going forward until, of course, job-hunting season begins -- which is apparently now.

But despite the disparity among the resumes of incoming students, so far I have found my classmates utterly engaging and friendly. I'm sure that as the semester wears on, the inevitable cliques and alliances will form, but for now, everyone seems ready to make friends.

Already a few people stick out as quick to comment in class discussions, but I think others will join in once they get more comfortable with the group and with the classes. There seems to exist a shared understanding that we've all gotten ourselves into this extremely intense training program, and we have to get along in order to help each other through it. Also, despite everyone's background, no one really knows what to expect in the coming year, so we're all on a level playing field going forward until, of course, job-hunting season begins -- which is apparently now.

The dean told us during the first day of orientation to make an appointment and meet with career services as soon as possible. My own experience as a working journalist has shown me that publications generally do not advertise positions or start interviewing nine months in advance, but I definitely do not desire to be among the latecomers to the office. So I uploaded my resume -- which can use some tweaking anyway -- and requested an appointment.

One thing I have not done since arriving on campus is second-guess my decision to enroll. The curriculum promises to put strains on my time and skills, but it poses an appealing challenge that I look forward to meeting.

The syllabi for my classes appear in line with their online descriptions. They're heavy on academic reading, but they bypass rudimentary journalism skills like how to write a lede or a nut graph.

One curriculum-related disappointment is that business concentration students do not get to pick their electives. Instead, our professors "highly recommend" that we take accounting this semester and corporate finance next semester. While I appreciate the reasoning for the mandate (and can certainly use the education in business basics), I would have enjoyed taking an elective more closely aligned with my personal interests.

Almost all of our professors are published authors and many of their works appear on required reading lists for their classes. I look forward to reading these texts in addition to bumping up our professors' ratings.

Our professors have wasted no time getting started: We've already begun work on a group project for Evidence and Inference, and my business seminar professors expect us to have potential theses topics ready by the end of next week.

The commute from my new apartment in Astoria to Columbia has proven to take no less than an hour, regardless of what combination of buses and subways I take. This resulted in my tardiness for two classes in the first week of school, which mortified me but escaped the notice of anyone else.

The benefit of the commute starts and ends with a guaranteed two hours to catch up on classroom reading. To meet up with classmates for quick drinks on Friday took four hours from start to finish, and made me never want to do it again. I fear I may become that "old, married bridge-and-tunnel student who never goes out."

So my goal for this semester is to better schedule my social outings to coincide with classes and maybe find a way to lure some unsuspecting classmates into the outer boroughs. Oh yeah...and to become a business journalist.

Beth Braverman is a freelance writer and graduate student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She lives in Astoria, N.Y.

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