My Op-Ed draws Syracuse grad’s wisdom


After my Op-Ed, “Choosing college more art than science,” appeared in the Providence Journal on April 19, 2015, I received the following email from Bob Benchley, an alumnus of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. I’m grateful to Bob for allowing me to share his wisdom with you.


It was nearly 50 years ago that I decided to go to Syracuse. I had grown up in a Boston suburb (Wellesley), was on the school paper, loved writing stories, and I wanted to be a journalist. Kids are so much smarter now about schools than I was back then, and the admissions engines run so much hotter and faster. I just had a guidance counselor, a few catalogs, modest grades and some attitudes that were mostly instilled by others. I flew out to Syracuse for a weekend with an older friend who had gone there after working with me on the high school paper. I stayed in his dorm, drank beer (18 was legal then in New York), went to a concert, had an interview and figured it might be cool to go there.

So Syracuse it was. Newhouse was just one building then, print was everything, and you did your assignments on manual typewriters, on which you also had to pass a speed and accuracy test to graduate. I was a magazine major, and the guy running the department was fairly fresh out of Newsweek. When he talked to us in class, it was always “when” you go to New York, not “if.” And I did, working there 15 years before heading back to Boston for another 10 years, then here to Miami in 2000.

In retrospect, I should have gone someplace farther away and very different from Boston. It would have exposed me to so much that was new culturally, geographically, yet I don’t know what my life would be without Syracuse. It’s sort of like what if you hadn’t had one of your kids, but a different one instead. You can’t imagine the tradeoff.

I wish your daughter well. Tell her that her degree will always stand her in good stead. They say that your college degree gets you your first job, and your first job gets you your second job. That’s true; at some point you’re a professional, not a former student. But if she picks and stays with a career in some form of communications, there will be dozens or hundreds of times that someone also in the biz will ask where you went. When you say “Newhouse,” there will be a quiet little nod of recognition, and you will be elevated a notch in the respect of the person you are speaking with.

You have “adv” in your email address, so I suppose the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. This stranger from far away sends best wishes to both of you. It is a joy to be able to turn information and ideas into consumable visual imagery (that doesn’t sound very sexy, but you know what I mean); to spend a life being paid for it is even better.

Bob Benchley

Choosing college more art than science


As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, April 19, 2015.

My daughter and I arrived at the University of Miami winter-weary and sun-deprived. It was mid-April – two weeks before Julie had to decide which college she would attend. Coral Gables blew us a tropical kiss – palm trees swayed and skateboarders in shorts breezed by. We strode past the double Olympic-size outdoor pool in the middle of the campus, and Julie said, “I could get used to this.”

The University of Miami gets high marks for its School of Communication, and that is why we were there. Julie already knew she wanted to study graphic design. From an early age, she regarded just about everything as a canvas for artistic expression – the walls of her bedroom, the pages of her assignment books, the rubber toes of her Chuck Taylors. Now she was ready to sharpen her creative skills in college, and that had put us in the crosshairs of higher education’s potent marketing machine.

Schools lure families with rankings from U.S. News & World Report and amenities worthy of exclusive resorts, while burying astronomical tuition fees deep in their web content. And people get hooked. They travel to campuses in search of the “right” school – an academic silver bullet that will guarantee success. Teens submit applications by the dozen and wait to hear back, fingers crossed.

Our trip was living proof of all that.

In his New York Times bestseller, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, Frank Bruni writes that there are many educational paths to success and personal fulfillment – private schools, public schools, schools you’ve never heard of. More important, Bruni believes that the student is at the center of his or her success, not the school. He suggests that, for some, college may not even be part of the success equation: “Education happens across a spectrum of settings and in infinite ways, and college has no monopoly on the ingredients for professional achievement or a life well lived.”

Thank you, Frank. I recall the mounting pressure Julie felt as she filled out applications in our kitchen. To counter the frenzy, I told her she would become a graphic designer no matter which college she attended. “The school doesn’t make you,” I said. “You make you, with the school’s help.” Julie remained glued to her laptop, typing at a feverish pace.

My own experience of education informed my view of what college could and couldn’t deliver. I went to Brown and my degree, along with a spec portfolio and the kindness of a family friend who headed up a well-known Rhode Island ad agency, helped me land my first job as a copywriter – though initially, it was more an audition than a job. The firm agreed to pay me “enough to live” for three months, at which point the creative director would decide whether or not I was hired.

I majored in English and American literature at Brown. Studying advertising hadn’t even been an option. On my first day at the agency, I felt badly outmatched by the writers and designers around me. I watched Tony, the associate creative director, present one clever headline after another with an assuredness I could only wish for. I had twelve weeks to learn how to produce good copy – or else.

For Julie, the decision came down to Miami or a school at the opposite end of the thermometer. When we visited Syracuse University, my daughter quickly warmed to the campus vibe, weather notwithstanding. Following an information session at the Newhouse School of Public Communications, she announced, “This is the place for me.”

I don’t know that Miami was the wrong place for Julie. And the same goes for the other schools she applied to. What I do know is she’s thriving at Syracuse – and has never looked back. I suspect the anxieties she felt during the admissions process are mere footnotes in her story now, if they’re part of it at all.

Choosing a college is more art than science. There’s no single right answer. While a school may mold our kids, it won’t make them. That’s in their hands, no matter where they go.

From McCoy Stadium to the Carrier Dome: A Father-Daughter Journey



As published in the Syracuse Post Standard /, March 31, 2014.

We’re at McCoy Stadium, in 1999, with the Pawtucket Red Sox playing the Toledo Mud Hens. It’s the first time my daughter, Juliana, and I are at a game together. We’re celebrating her fourth birthday.

Julie eats popcorn and ice cream. She has her picture taken with Paws, the mascot for the minor-league Red Sox team. When the crowd starts doing the wave, she laughs and throws her hands in the air. By the sixth inning, she is yawning. And before we make it out of the parking lot, she’s fast asleep.

What was born in Julie that day, and reaffirmed in me, was a love of games. Every August, for fourteen years now, we have returned to McCoy Stadium to celebrate her birthday. We have gone to many other athletic contests, as well – from CYO basketball and high school football to college hoops and Major League Baseball.

At first, I took Julie to games because that’s what my father did with me. Eventually, I did it because being with Julie in the stands brought out an ease in me that I rarely felt elsewhere. The games suspended thoughts of work and money and house projects and everything else on the to-do list. The games gave us each other.

When Julie was looking at colleges, good teams and great school spirit were among her must-haves. I was thrilled when she was accepted at Syracuse University. Yes, it was exciting that she got into the Newhouse School of Public Communications. But my mind went right to the Carrier Dome – now we could go see Syracuse basketball!

I bought two tickets to the North Carolina State game, slated for February 15th. As I drove up the Massachusetts Turnpike on the morning of the game, Julie called to let me know that the start time had been moved from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. – North Carolina State had travel issues because of a snowstorm.

At the Syracuse Sheraton check-in counter, I mentioned the game time change to the receptionist and she pounced. “I hope it messes those kids up,” she said, referring to members of the North Carolina State team. “They didn’t get here until a few minutes ago. I’ll take any advantage we can get.” Her face softened as she handed me my room key: “Enjoy your stay!”

The receptionist’s gamesmanship didn’t surprise me. This was Syracuse, after all. While Julie and I were having lunch, I saw a guy in a shirt that read REAL MEN WEAR ORANGE. It could have also included REAL WOMEN, REAL BOYS, REAL GIRLS, and REAL PETS, for that matter. EVERYONE was rocking Syracuse orange that day, of course – everyone except me. I was wearing a Berklee College of Music pullover. Technical foul.

I mentioned my faux pas to Julie and we concluded that it was a minor transgression. Berklee was not threatening to crack the AP Top 25 Poll anytime soon.

At 6:15, Julie and I made our way to the Carrier Dome. The seats I had bought weren’t great. As we climbed up and up and up to Section 318, Row V, Seats 3 and 4, I thought of Felix Baumgartner’s dive from space. Once seated, we were looking down on what would qualify as nosebleed seats in a smaller venue. And as I watched others make the ascent, some stopping to catch their breath, I wondered if there was a Crouse Hospital medical station nearby.

But when the game began, I was struck by how intimate the Dome felt. Perhaps that’s what happens when 35,000+ disciples react as one – to bad calls (against the Orange), to good calls (for the Orange), to the guy who sank a shot from a recliner during a TV time-out.

It was an ugly game – and close from start to finish. As the clock wound down in the second half, it looked like Syracuse might, after 24 straight wins, lose its first game all season. That cursed Berklee sweatshirt – I was the jinx!

The basketball gods – and two key turnovers by North Carolina State – saved me from such ignominy. Syracuse won 56-55 on a C.J. Fair layup with six seconds left. (Alas, the streak would end four days later with a loss to Boston College.)

After the game, over dinner, Julie told me how much she loved Syracuse – the new friends she had made, the courses she was taking, the sorority she hoped to get into. “I feel like I’m becoming the person I want to be,” she said. That was clear to me – and I marveled at her nascent transformation.

Our first PawSox game seemed far away.

As we left the restaurant, I told Julie I’d walk her back to her dorm. “You don’t have to,” she said, but I insisted – always the dad.

The air was dry and cold outside. My ears stung – I had left my hat in the hotel room. When we reached the corner below the majestic Crouse College building, Julie said she could go the rest of the way on her own. We hugged and I watched, motionless, as she walked into the cold night. When she looked back and saw me standing there, she called out, “Dad, do you know where you are?”

“All set!” I yelled back, lost in thought.

The street signs said I was at the corner of University Place and South Crouse Avenue. But I knew better.

On that night, in that moment, I knew I was somewhere between Holding On and Letting Go.

Photo by Rob Walsh •

As appeared in the Syracuse Post Standard / on March 31, 2014.

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