Zach Petroff | Opinions Editor
I still remember the anxiety that filled the pit of my stomach when I walked into the newsroom for the first time. I was meeting with Zoe Stratos, the opinion’s editor, to work on my first story for the Duquesne Duke. I had no ideas what to expect, so naturally every repressed insecurity bounced around my head as I embraced myself for ridicule.
“What are you doing here?” the voice inside my head asked in third person. “You are way too old for this. These young people are going to eat you alive.”
It did not take long for Zoe to put my worries at ease. She was kind, thoughtful and patient as she provided the type of feedback I had been looking for since starting my higher education journey. As we worked, I remember feeling a sense of comfort as my insecurities melted away.
I‘ve embraced the fact that I’m an outsider. Growing up, it was hard to find somewhere I felt like I belonged. Before I turned 18, my siblings and I had moved over a dozen times as my mother was searching for her place in this world. Even with the manufactured brotherhood in the military, I could not help but feel like I just did not belong.
For years I tried to be like my friends, who had found happiness in settling down and enjoying a more typical lifestyle. Despite the valiant effort to find happiness in suburbia, I could feel my soul rotting.
I may never find the place where I truly belong. What I hope to find instead are the moments where the world around me melts and I feel, even if it’s only for an instant, like I am exactly where the universe wants me to be.
My time at Duquesne has been filled with moments just like that. The irony is not lost on me that a poor, class-conscious atheist found part of themselves at a private Catholic university.
From the moment I applied, I have felt embraced by the faculty, staff and my fellow students. I fondly remember coming to the Bluff for the first time for “Welcome to Campus” events. I felt so awkward as I walked around campus by myself as the incoming students toured the facilities with their parents.
Several times during my tour, I was asked if I was excited for my kids to be going to college here.
My ego is still recovering.
It was not long before Don Maue, who likely noticed me wandering around, approached me and gave me a tour of the new broadcast center and put me with several members of the media department. His genuine kindness made me feel comfortable with my decision to attend Duquesne University.
I am also pretty sure I’m still running on the contagious energy he bestowed on me that day.
Attending a university is a privilege. And while there are plenty of things that are fundamentally wrong with higher education, which Duquesne is by no means immune to, there is something to be said about the amount of effort that the staff and professors put in to see the success of students.
I can easily say that whether it was a random question for the Student Success office with Bridget Ventrice or needing a last-minute quote from Communications Director Gabe Welsch, no matter how annoying the request, I feel like everyone at Duquesne has a vested interest in seeing students succeed.
It has been my experience that there are not many places with that type of genuine support.
College, especially when you are in your (early) 30s, can be intimidating. There have been plenty of times where every ounce of my being was screaming that I don’t belong or that I am in over my head. I remember taking the elevator in College Hall and having an earnest conversation with myself on why I should drop out, go back to Ohio and sell cars.
Then I go to class.
There have been a few times when I felt my existential crisis was getting the best of me, but after sitting through Dr. Walck, Dr. Dillon or Prof. Patterson’s lectures, I find myself leaving more inspired than when I walked into the classroom.
Their passion, war stories and commitment to the craft lingers. When I sit down to write I can hear their voices saying “Show, don’t tell” and “Kill your darlings” or the classic “Zach, why are you so bad at spelling?”
But as the years go on, and time is put between me and my experience here at Duquesne, it will not be the lectures that I remember. What I will forever engrave in my heart is how these professors believed in their students, even when the students may not have believed in themselves.
And of course, one of my fondest memories when looking back at my time at Duquesne will be the newsroom. For two years, I had the privilege of writing for this publication, and it has been surreal. Five years ago, I would not have imagined being able to write for an engaging audience, let alone have the ability to share my, sometimes radical, opinion.
The fact that the best journalist in Pittsburgh and part of a Pulitzer-Prize winning team Paula Reed Ward read and edited my stories is hard to fathom.
Paula has been an excellent mentor. She is soft when she needs to be and strict when she must be. To see someone who is not only successful in the industry but also so excited about journalism is so refreshing.
Just learning from Paula Reed-Ward, who I never had for a class, is worth the $23,245 a semester.
And while the Duke has opened up so many opportunities for me, it more importantly allowed me to work with some incredibly talented writers. Again, I’m an outsider – an (early) 30-year-old who rarely understands the references, has a totally different set of priorities and cannot spell to save my life, but that didn’t matter to my fellow Duke editors.
From Capri Scarcelli’s kind words to Bella Abbott’s ruthless sense of humor, I have always felt that I was welcomed in a room full of talented young people.
And of course there are the bonds that were created as we huddle around the table late Wednesday nights. The stress of hitting deadlines, the embarrassment of messing up a story and the lack of sleep drew us together.
I could not ask for better editors-in-chief than Luke Henne and Emma Polen. And while their styles are drastically different, I could not ask for two better leaders and friends. Luke is the most organized person I have ever met. He has a cage for a memory and the patience of a saint. Emma – one of the most talented creative people I know. They are are a major reason my time at the Duke has been so special.
And if I didn’t mention you, it’s most likely because I hate you.