As the conclusion of my tenth and final semester of my undergraduate career nears (yes, tenth) the distinction between scholarship and practice has begun to emerge from the fog. At some point in our lives, we have all attended a lecture and thought retrospectively, “When am I ever going to use this in the real world?” Perhaps if the focal point of your undergraduate scholarship is to be a statistician, accountant, astrophysicist, or nuclear engineer, sure, this question seems rather arbitrary. “I’m going to use this the second I graduate to make lump-sums of cash,” your conscious will tell you. However, as a communication major, the age-old question we all find ourselves asking in courses we feel don’t pertain to our future doesn’t have such a straightforward answer.
The transformation from a former student-athlete at a Division III college hoping to springboard to basketball fame and fortune (shoot for the stars they said) to an average Joe at the University of Maryland was the first step toward clarity. It may not have seemed like it at the time, but after an introductory communication course taught by a brilliant professor, I thought, “I should be a communication major. Even if I never use most of what I learn in college in the real world, I will at least know how to communicate.”
After six semesters of courses covering persuasion, negotiation, research methodology, interpretation of strategic discourse, health, intercultural, cross-gender, and organizational communication, I knew the ins-and-outs of communicative theory. Still, I wondered, when does theory become practice? That’s when I was granted the opportunity to begin an internship at START with the Risk Communication and Resilience team.
Back to the question: “When am I ever going to use this in the real world?” One month away from graduating with a B.A. in communication, I was still doubtful that the material I learned in my classes would be helpful in the professional sphere. For a project at START, I began researching the role of meteorologists as crisis and disaster information sources, specifically regarding tornado detection.
I knew how to research, how to write, how to interpret communicative discourse, but I didn’t actually know what a meteorologist does. I mean, think about it, what is a meteorologist? Does the term evoke a mental image of Ginger Zee on Good Morning America? Does the pilot of the Titus truck from the movie “Into the Storm” come to mind? (Pardon my naïve remarks if you happen to consider the distinction between a meteorologist, research meteorologist, operational meteorologist, or climatologist common knowledge.) How do these individuals assist the general public in preparing for weather disaster? More importantly, why, after three years of undergraduate scholarship did I not have a textbook answer to an issue of such prominence?
At this time, I’d like to acknowledge the three italicized words in this post: this, theory, and distinction. The answer to the age-old question is a matter of semantics. First, the word this. Nine times out of ten, your innate doubt about the applicability of a specific concept is, well, warranted. Should this be a surprise? I do not believe so. Why?
That brings us to our second italicized word, theory. Education provides the theoretical framework for real-world application. Consider Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity (the one that explains the phenomenon of gravity…don’t worry, I looked it up too). You don’t have to know the name of the theory to know that your new iPhone will shatter if you drop it without a case and why that is.
Third, distinction. As students, we often find ourselves fixating on a single concept, lesson, or course as a tool to craft an internal storage bin of in-the-moment answers. We want our brains to be psychoanalytical search engines capable of immediately producing every answer to every trivial question that may arise. In layman’s terms, we want to be Google. When our future employers ask us to perform a task, we feel initially uncomfortable seeking clarification. “I should have learned this in class,” we think to ourselves. But what do we really know? We know how to integrate our seemingly useless textbook knowledge with our strenuously augmented ability to think critically. We know how to figure it out. At face-value, a textbook can only teach you so much. Be wary to fall into the “this material is useless” trap. You might not have thought you were learning much when you earned a C minus in Calculus, but one day, the smallest piece of information sitting in the back of your mind from that class might help you out.
My time as a Risk Communication and Resilience Intern has opened my mind to the opportunities that come with ”choppy waters.”’ I caution the reader to take these conclusions with a grain of salt. Many undergraduates (and I imagine many START students) find a seamless transition from scholarship to practice. However, for those who have experienced a similar incongruity, know you are not alone.