Archives For Emerson College

One Chapter Closes

November 14, 2013 — Leave a comment

magnoliasEvery few years, in late spring when I’m marveling at the pink magnolia trees in Boston’s Back Bay, a vivid memory surfaces… It was my very last day at Emerson College, on the old Beacon Street campus in the stately brownstones. I had a meeting with my senior seminar professor, turned in some graduation paperwork, and was finished. My college days were done, and I enjoyed the sense of relief and accomplishment.

It was a sunny, warm afternoon. Spying an empty classroom, I sat in a big open window and looked down at the lively street scene that had been my life for three years. I loved Emerson and living in the city. At my father’s insistence, I’d started college at UMass Amherst, in the rural western part of the state. Aside from one semester in a high-rise dorm with a bunch of smart, funny, crazy friends, I hated my time there. I’m a city person; a college town in the woods felt like prison.

Transferring to Emerson — on my own dime — was the best decision I’d ever made. I learned a lot, felt validated for my creative talents, met some great people, and came into myself. So my feelings sitting in that window were bittersweet. A wonderful chapter in my life was coming to an end. Yes, I was young and had a whole future of possibilities ahead. But something in me wanted to sit in that spot and hold onto that moment forever, unwilling to close the book and walk away.

But I still lived in the city. And by the fall I would start my first job as a copywriter for a small agency. Emerson had been a big, bright spot in my life — but it wasn’t my everything.


This week Mtuseni’s on-campus chapter comes to an end. It’s amazing how fast the time went. It seems like just yesterday he visited the school for the first time and — against my instructions — took the entrance exam on the spot. I remember my complete joy when the administrator emailed to say he had done well and was accepted, and his excitement when I told him the news. For me, that moment began a three-year stretch of tuition bills, arguments with school staff, searching for extra resources, and intensive coaching with Mtuseni on many levels, including some I never anticipated.

Boston+Media+House+class+laptopFor Mtuseni, these three years have been nothing short of transformational. Although his first-term transition from a poor farm school to a college in South Africa’s wealthiest neighborhood was rough, we got him through those “darkest days” and he flourished. He has many friends on campus and loves being among a crowd of young, dynamic, ambitious peers.

I’ve always dreaded Mtuseni’s extended breaks from school, because within a day or two he becomes a bear. He’s bored out of his mind. Grouchy. Snappish. Miserable. Because unlike my college experience — where I went home to a vibrant life in Harvard Square, Mtuseni goes home to the settlement — where he is the first person to attend college. Where nobody understands him or feeds his mind or inspires him. Where, as he says, “people sit outside every day and just watch the sun cross the sky.” And where their main concern is not creating a professional radio demo tape, but putting food on the table and keeping their kids alive.

Boston Media House 2013 Open Day Campus Team

Boston Media House 2013 Open Day Campus Team

The closure of my Emerson chapter was sad for me, but the closing of Mtuseni’s Boston Media House chapter will be much harder on him. He’ll lose touch with many of his friends; daily face-to-face interaction supplanted by the emptiness of Facebook wall comments. The mutual peer support and friendly competition to succeed will vanish, with my custom blend of loving support and parental whip-cracking left to fill the gap. The busy street life of campus and Sandton’s corporate HQs and luxe malls will be replaced by the sullen atmosphere of poverty and dashed hope in Mtuseni’s settlement.

I’m a little worried. Going to college has been a rejuvenating elixir for Mtuseni. Without it, his community environment of despair can be a strong brew that pulls him backwards. Our work is not done; he still needs to find an internship — and I feel in some ways perhaps my toughest challenges lie ahead. Still, I will celebrate his — our — accomplishment this week. And try to keep his head and heart filled with a future of rich possibilities.

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So Mtuseni had his “interview” for a US visitor visa yesterday. Rejected again. Yesterday was not a day to get on my bad side.

We did everything right this time. His application listed all of his school, church and social activities to demonstrate those vague “strong local ties” that prove he would return to South Africa. Because he can be shy and gets flustered under pressure, his college counselor coached him on interview strategies. He had letters of support attesting to his responsibility, character, and commitment to school and family. I actually allowed myself to feel optimistic Wednesday when I wished him luck before he went to sleep — set to enter the Consulate fortress the next morning.

Like last year, Mtuseni watched a parade of white people ahead of him be granted visas and told to “Have a nice trip.” But when he stepped up to the window — similar to a US Department of Motor Vehicles setup, in all aspects — he was quickly rejected. Even though his reference letters had been faxed to the Consulate earlier this week by my Senator’s staff, Mtuseni had copies and I had told him to be proactive in making sure the clerk read them. He said “they didn’t even want to.”

Last year, the interviewer said that if I had met Mtuseni in person, he’d have a better chance of getting a visa. That happened in January, and I noted it in my letter. This time… the interviewer told him that once he had more money, his application would be approved. (Does every person visiting the US have money? I think not.) What will they tell him next year if he reapplies, that he needs to be white? Yesterday he changed his Mxit status line to “no matter what, they don’t want me there.”

I understand that, on paper, Mtuseni looks like a “flight risk” — someone who would enter the US and vanish into the underground economy, perhaps doing jobs that Americans find too distasteful for our refined sensibilities while we thumb the TV remote and wolf down 3,000-calorie snacks. Mtuseni lives in a settlement camp in a one-room shack with no electricity or water. But his life is not a dead end of poverty, not with me by his side every day. He is going to college in South Africa. He loves his family. He is proud of his country, even defending aspects of it that I find counterproductive. I know this kid; he would spend ten days soaking up knowledge and experience in the US, then go back to SA full of ideas and motivation to make some changes that can help the country’s youth.

This is why we wrote the reference letters. From me. From his school. From my alma mater Emerson College, where he was going to visit and talk to peers about US and SA media. From John Kerry, one of the country’s most powerful senators. Applicants are allowed to bring in supporting documentation that proves their local ties, school being one of them. Yet the clerk refused to look at them. Didn’t even pretend to look at them. The die was already cast for Mtuseni: a young black male applicant living in a settlement camp. Rejected. No need to look at his character references.

I understand that many people apply for visas, and there are certain restrictions. But when the consulate staff will not even glance at letters supporting his application, it sends a clear message to Mtuseni: “Your kind is not welcome in the United States.” Maybe it’s an effective strategy for the State Department. Maybe potential “risky” applicants will become so frustrated and so disillusioned that they’ll stop applying, and tell their risky friends to do the same.

Both my senator’s and congressman’s staff told me that the overseas visa clerks are notoriously rude. The visa rejection bothers me, yes. But what angers me is the fact that the interviewer did not “consider all available information,” as quoted in a legalese-steeped letter from the Consulate forwarded to me by Sen. Kerry’s office. As a taxpayer… and someone who has now shelled out $440 for three failed visa applications… I pay that interviewer’s salary. I work hard and make many sacrifices to help Mtuseni rise above his situation. The bored civil servant at the window can at least muster the effort to review support letters, and offer this hard-working kid a little respect — both as a fellow human being and as a representative of the United States of America. It might have taken another two or three minutes, tops. Even if the result was the same.

I guess it’s easier to see a poor black kid, plop a big REJECTED stamp on his application, and yell “Next.”

My only solace is that Mtuseni will one day have a much better job than that.

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Media Blackout

April 14, 2012 — Leave a comment

From the beginning, there have been some strange similarities between Mtuseni and me that make us believe we were destined to meet. One of the strongest is our interest in communications and media. I studied mass communication and TV production at Emerson College in Boston. Mtuseni is studying media, with a concentration in radio — and at a college called Boston. Weird.

He’s been enjoying his studies. Mtuseni’s a curious kid, and the breadth of his classes provide windows into the world from various perspectives: from radio and TV to marketing and journalism. But now that he’s been in school for over a year, he’s recognizing the limits placed on him by his circumstances. The other day he texted that “I’m living in a media world but outside of it.” What he meant is that what happens in the media is discussed all the time in class, and on campus in general. He’s right to see that, unlike some subjects, media isn’t only theories in books — it’s happening all around us in real time. But with no electricity at home (or now in his community) and no laptop and minimal computer access, Mtuseni is not getting the same exposure. Many students at his school live in the townships, which are poor and crowded but at least have electricity. Mtuseni’s settlement is at the bottom of the economic hierarchy in Johannesburg.

In the US, we are awash in messages from television and radio and the Internet. Much of it is garbage, but it’s all part of life in the 21st century. But someone who doesn’t have electricity or Internet access is locked out of that experience, and can’t fully participate in the conversation. Having only a basic cable TV package, I get frustrated not being able to discuss the new season of Mad Men, and I flee when people want to give away spoilers before it’s released on DVD. But Mtuseni is in a virtual media blackout — while studying for a media diploma. If students are discussing a TV documentary or the value of marketing via YouTube, he can only listen and learn, but not put his two cents in. (And he has plenty of cents to put in about everything!)

Even when Mtuseni’s community had electricity, there was only a small TV showing limited channels at the creche. The public library near his college only has two computers for public use — a fact that boggles my mind given the corporate wealth that surrounds it. I’ve debated for a long time about getting him a laptop, but he has a problem with losing things and is not very computer-savvy. (Mastering his Blackberry is one thing, a laptop is a completely different level.)

This new lack of electricity and water bothers me from a health perspective — for his whole family. But studying media in a “media world” from behind a firewall impacts his success at school. And I don’t have a solution. The typical raising-a-teenager frustrations with Mtuseni I can handle. It’s the systemic issues that give me sleepless nights.

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