Guest Viewpoint: Thank you, Alex Tizon

This piece reflects the views of the author, Karina Michelle, and not those of Emerald Media Group. It has been edited by the Emerald for grammar and style. Send your columns or submissions about our content or campus issues to [email protected]. I almost dropped out of college my senior year. …

This piece reflects the views of the author, Karina Michelle, and not those of Emerald Media Group. It has been edited by the Emerald for grammar and style. Send your columns or submissions about our content or campus issues to [email protected].

I almost dropped out of college my senior year. I was a few credits away from officially graduating, actually.  

I was frustrated with being in school for the fifth year, in debt and uncertain of my chosen career path. I was lost and thought giving up was probably the most viable option. (Didn’t Bill Gates drop out of college to pursue his calling?)

I had walked at my graduation ceremony but I still had 20 credits left — which meant summer school and putting off what I considered starting my “adult” life by getting a job and generating income by pursuing a career in entertainment in L.A. (Didn’t Brad Pitt drop out one semester before graduating?)

There I was, at a crossroads. Do I pay $3,000 of tuition and forfeit my summer to finishing my education or do I buy a one-way ticket to L.A. and jump into the abyss of entertainment and adulthood? Thank god for fear. Because of it, I chose to finish what I started nearly five years and three educational institutions ago.

SOJC professor Alex Tizon died in his sleep last Thursday night. He was 58. (Courtesy of AroundtheO.)

That was the summer I met Alex Tizon.

There were nine of us in his journalistic interview class, something you would call a “boutique” setting. We were very lucky. There are a few professors in the School of Journalism with a reputation which precedes them, and Alex Tizon was one of those professors. Having won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism in 1997, there was a kind of unsaid understanding that because he was a part of the faculty, he was one of the contributing factors (of which there are many) that give the School of Journalism the credibility it’s known for. That summer his introduction to class was, “Welcome to journalistic interview! Who here has read any of my work?”

We all bowed our head in embarrassment. Of course, there was the one student whose hand shot in the air. Internally I was rolling my eyes, but mostly, I felt insecure that I hadn’t even bothered to read his Wikipedia profile before coming to class knowing he was a big-shot professor. Clearly, this was a sign I should be in L.A. and not in this classroom.

“I’m not surprised most of you haven’t,” he said with humble disappointment. “It was a long time ago. Besides, most of you are probably here to finish up your credits. It is summer school after all … But you should probably read my book anyway. Just a tip to one journalist to another, you should always come as possibly prepared to an interview as you can be.”

The class started off tremulously for me. It was hard to hide my anxieties of being there in the first place. On the one hand, I wanted to do well and show up with a good attitude, but on the other, I wanted to give up entirely and move on with my life. Alex knew this was the case for many of us trying to get through our last semester of college. He didn’t take it personally when he asked me what my interest in journalism was and I responded with, “I’m actually more interested in cinema and entertainment … I just, um … yeah … I need to graduate and I um, I do love journalism, but, umm … ” I could have rambled on forever. Could I be any more unprepared? Was I really trying to claim a journalism major right now?

“Well then, let’s get you out of here so you can start your life!”

There was something about professor Tizon where you just knew he got it; life, if you will. He was wise and surprisingly laid back for a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist. He let us call him Alex. He seemed genuinely interested in our lives and pursuits and less interested in grades and bureaucracy, although he did grade us accordingly and was a fierce editor. I felt like he showed up to every class ready to pull out the potential in us. He really saw us for who we were and who we wanted to be — the sorority girl with dreams of being on the Food Network. The star running back with his eyes focused on the NFL. The former model with a deep interest and understanding in astronomy and physics. The former Beaver with a vision for sustainable agriculture. The fellow Filipino with the internship at the local news station.  The overachiever with her own anxieties of an uncertain future. The frat guy with an inclination for ESPN. And me — the transfer student with a giant question mark hovering over her and an “interest” in entertainment … whatever that even means.

I felt like he showed up to every class ready to pull out the potential in us.

It was four weeks of intensive journalistic interviewing, borderline uncomfortable at times. He asked us hard questions and made us ask hard questions, such as, why does anything matter? He taught us how to show up prepared, how to find the angle of a story, how to determine if a story is worth covering in the first place, how to use spell check. He made us think. I still use these tools in my everyday life.

The last day of class he very coolly suggested meeting at the campus bar for beers and tots. I was nervous because I’d never been casual with a professor before (was being drunk in front of my professor going to affect my grade?). I’d always been formal and put on a kind of mask of professionalism, but he really wanted to get to know us outside the classroom. We were there for nearly five hours sharing personal stories, laughing at past career mishaps, failed relationships and family. He was the only professor who ever asked about how my father died the previous summer and how I was managing grieving and school. It meant a lot to me. He was genuinely curious about our lives. He was equally open and showed us photos of his two beautiful daughters, gushing at their talent and beauty of which they both had plenty of. His youngest is my age. I remember him showing us a photo of her somewhere in the Mediterranean; she looked so free and beautiful. I remember thinking they had the same smile.  

Now I live in New York and am an apprentice at one of the top acting studios in the city. I got my wish of starting my “adult” life, and man … be careful what you wish for, right? There are days where I would love nothing more than to be sitting back in the classroom, before I had bills and real responsibilities. If I could do it all over again, I would be more present and less whiney. Getting a college degree is a privilege and sometimes I had the worst attitude about it. In my pursuit of higher education, I’ve been to three universities and one community college. I’ve taken over 250 credits, sat in hundreds of classrooms and listened to dozens of professors. I’m several thousands of dollars in debt and used to questions if I was the type of person college is “right” for. There are only a few professors who I can genuinely admit made the college experience worth all the work, the stress, the debt. That sitting in their classroom and learning from their minds changed my thinking process and helped me grow not only as a student but as a human being. Alex Tizon was one of those professors.

When I think of what a mentor typically looks like, I always think “Good Will Hunting” (go ahead and blame my “interest” in entertainment), and feel inadequate that a professor never showed interest in me the way Robin Williams showed interest in Matt Damon — that I wasn’t a genius, or special, or that I wasn’t the next Pulitzer-prize winning journalist. In fact, I got a B- in his class. But that’s exactly what Alex Tizon was to me and to all of us that summer. He was a guiding light.

Please consider donating to the Emerald. We are an independent non-profit dedicated to supporting and educating this generation's best journalists. Your donation helps pay equipment costs, travel, payroll, and more!