Rethink Professors

We're All Here Seeking Answers

Matt Waite is a professor of practice and a 1997 alum of the College of Journalism and Mass Communications (CoJMC). Along with teaching courses on reporting and digital product development, he leads the Drone Journalism Lab where he and his students explore the ethical issues around using drones as newsgathering tools. Before he returned to teach at NEBRASKA, he had an award-winning career as a journalist and started the Pulitzer Prize-winning website, PolitiFact.com.

As one of the most popular professors on campus, we figured we'd pick Prof. Waite's brain for the advice he'd give soon-to-be college students.

What is the most valuable thing the college experience gives students?

Honestly, it's a space and a time to figure out who you are, what you want to do, and what you want to be. And the great part, and a thing you don't realize until later on, is that will change. And that's fine, but this is your first opportunity to be out of the house, be away from your parents, and be your own person and just sort of grow into that. You get to see cool stuff, you get to learn new things, you get to make mistakes, and you get to stub your toe and screw up. Which is part of the deal. I mean, that's life.

College is a great place for that to happen because there are bumpers on the outside to keep it from going completely off the rails. You're in a sort of slightly constrained environment where there are people to help you, there's stuff to do, and there's a direction to go. And those are all great things to have.

For me, the great part about college was that I got to look around and realize I was the one charting my destiny here. I was the one who got to decide what I liked doing, what I wanted to do, and where I wanted to go. And sometimes that's really simple things like, "I feel like going to the grocery store." You can just do that.

So it's that space to grow into yourself, be who you are, and find out what gets your blood pumping. It's a magical, magical time, and the reason people remember college so fondly is everything to do with the moment you realize who you are, what you want to do, and how you're going to live the rest your life.

What would be the best way for students to figure that out?

I believe you've got to get out and do stuff. College and life is not sitting in your dorm room playing video games all day long. Go to class (I've got to say that as a professor). Go work out. Go join a club. Go join five clubs. Get jobs. Lots of jobs. Weird jobs. Jobs you can tell stories about later on. Meet people. Talk to people in line at the Dunkin Donuts.

Try to experience as much as you can every day, because you never know who you're going to come in contact with that will have an impact on your life. You never know who is going to be a mentor. You never know who is going to help you out when you need it.

You just don't get experiences and opportunities like this very often in life. Because most of us graduate from college, we get a job, and, good lord willing, we get to keep that job for a long time and we work with the same people every day for years and years and years. So it's a chance to explore and meet people and have a built in commonality that means you can start a conversation with just about anybody. It just does not happen again in your life. It's right here on campus. So get out and see and be a part of all of this stuff.

You're not going to be in an environment like this ever again. And to waste it doing nothing, to waste it not meeting people and doing things and experiencing everything that the campus has to offer is just a tragedy.

Yeah, this is really the only point in life where you have these opportunities.

Yeah it really is. I mean, I have kids and when they were little, I always just wished that adults could make friends like little kids make friends. You show up at a park, there are kids reasonably your age and you go up and say "What's your name?" "Sally. What's your name?" "Billy." "Want to be friends?" "Sure!" Off they go.

That's all that it takes in college too. And it never happens again.

It's a shame because meeting new people when you're older and when you've got a job and responsibilities and bills to pay, people you have to look out for, and your own kids, that just doesn't come along. So friends that you make here in college end up sticking with you for a really long time. They're some of the best friends you'll ever have and you ought to do that. You ought to expand that social circle as wide as possible and do stuff that you wouldn't normally do. Try new things. Don't say no to an opportunity that comes along. Make it work.

Do you think enough of your students do that?

No. Because it's really easy not to do that. It's really, really easy to get comfortable. I would argue that your brain and your biology is really trying to make you comfortable. But it's a mistake. Particularly in these years. It will benefit you mightily later on in life if you're OK with things not going totally according to plan. You can absolutely benefit from being around people who are not like you, don't talk like you, don't look like you, ain't from where you're from. And just be fine with that. Actually, be sort of great with that.

We're rapidly approaching that middle of the semester and the sleep is getting harder to come by, the work is getting to pile up a little bit, the grind is really upon us. That's when it goes out the window. That's when people start kicking into survival mode, and survival mode is get up, eat, go to class, do homework, go home, go to sleep, and maybe work a job somewhere in there to pay rent. Then that's it, that's all that's on your mind. It's inevitable, it's not like you can live everyday like it's a three ring circus, but that's when it has to be conscious on your mind.

Do you notice big changes in your students by the time they're seniors?

Oh huge. Huge. They're completely different people. And that's good! I mean that's—well, let me rewind. At their core, there are some core principles that don't change. They're who they were when they got here. Your personality is who you are, but what they were uncomfortable with in the beginning is not an issue anymore.

Their ability to handle stress, their ability to handle responsibility, their worldview, their approach to things, is totally different. A lot of it is maturity, a lot of it is the stuff they learned here, their intelligence, a lot of it is the street smarts of just knowing how to keep yourself fed and clothed and housed. All that plays in. I would say by the time you leave, you're a much more relaxed person. You're like "Eh, you know what? I can handle it. I can handle most anything."

What is a good habit high school students can develop that will help them in college?

Discipline your time. Set time to do things like work out, go to class, do homework, work a job and go to bed at a decent time. And then stick to it. Every semester, I see the same thing. The work piles up, exercise goes out the window, eating habits go downhill and the emails from students asking for help get later and later at night (note: emailing your professor at 2:30 in the morning isn't likely to result in immediate help). And then students get sick because they're run down.

In college, you're going to be under stress. You're going to have to study and work hard. Disciplining your time so you can stay caught up really matters.

What common misconceptions do students have about their professors?

That we know everything about everything. One of my favorite moments is telling a student "I don't know, look it up" and watching their face. Sometimes the answer is "I don't know" and the thing I love about being at a university is that we're all here to seek answers.

Sitting there expecting your professor to know everything is a terrible way to go through college. If a professor says "Huh, I don't know" that should excite you, not shatter some idea that we know everything. We don't. Asking a question that opens up new lines of thinking means you're thinking at a high level. That's what college is all about.

Do you have any tips for how to approach professors?

Know this: Professors are people. We're not some terrifying Authority Figure. We have lives, hobbies, interests, families. And we absolutely love being around students. We love being in the classroom, we love being in the labs, we love it when people come in for office hours.

Every professor I know wants you to succeed. We're all human and we've all been a student before. If you're struggling, if you have something you're wondering about class or career, if you've got some life-changing opportunity coming up, talk to your professors. But do it before anything happens.

When I was a student, I missed weeks of class so I could go to Bosnia and cover the end of the civil war there as a student journalist. All of my professors recognized that was a huge opportunity and all of them were happy to work with me. They were as excited about it as I was. I was terrified they were going to be angry I was going to miss class. Couldn't have been farther from the truth.

What do you wish you had done more of in college?

I wish I did more different things. I came to NEBRASKA knowing I wanted to be a journalism major and I went to work at the Daily Nebraskan before classes even started. I went straight through college never wavering, and everything I did was aimed straight at being a journalist. Minors? Chosen specifically to help me be a journalist. Activities? Didn't do any because I was working at the DN all the time.

I regret nothing, it worked out fantastically well for me, but I wonder all the time what would have happened if I had tried some different things.

I did a story about an improv group on campus and had so much fun doing improv with them. And the story ran and I moved on and I never went back. 20 years later, it eats at me. Don't do that. Find things you've never thought about doing before and do them.

Join groups that do cool things. Take classes because they sound interesting, not because you need this credit or that credit. Go hear speakers because the idea caught your attention. Go to a foreign culture festival. Buy a membership to the Innovation Studio and learn to make something. There is something interesting and cool and fun and potentially life changing going on every day at NEBRASKA if you look for it.

Is there anything else you'd like to say to high school seniors as they start to move into their college years?

A lot. I think one thing that a lot of first-year students struggle with is that this is not high school. This is very, very different from high school and at first that's terrifying. But I'm here to tell you that it's OK. It's going to be fine. You're going to figure it out.

In a lot of ways, it's more relaxed, in a lot of ways there's a lot more expectation. It's just different. You're expected to be self-sufficient. The burden of labor falls on you more than it falls on your teacher. I find that the most successful students aren't the ones who are waiting to be taught, but are actively involved in learning and are more comfortable getting involved and are more comfortable in asking questions and probing ideas. Those are the ones that will handle this better.

This is not high school. These classes are not just boxes you need to check to get out of here. The sooner you get it in your head that you're invested in your education and you're involved in it and it requires substantial amounts of labor on your part to get the most out of it, the better off you're going to be. There's a lot of people who are here who just view college as the next high school, "It's just another four years that I gotta do. I'm going to take this class because I gotta take it. I'm just going to sit here and I'm just going to wait until it's done and I'm just going to hold on until it's over with." And that's just the wrong way to go about it.

I said it before and I'll say it again: there's just no other opportunities like this in your life that come along. This is it. This is your shot. So take it. So take it.