St. Louis Behind the Scenes
A Visit to the Home Campus: Reading Between the Lines of Extravagance and Promises
So this is it. St. Louis, home city to our home campus. The connection we have with this city seemed so remote back in Vienna, but suddenly, it dawned on me: this was the very place it all originated; "Connections," course codes, grading guidelines, tuition increases.
It seemed almost satirical that this Hollywood suburbia, with its endless isles of "house-lawn-mailbox-garage-driveway" setups, surrounded the enormous Webster campus, like billions of stars orbiting the sun. Before I could wrap up the thought, a red bricked colossus, guarded by multi-national-flagpoles, rose up into the sky.
"Webster University World Headquarters!"
Wow! It wasn’t the size of the building, nor the well kept lawn with the heavy brass sign in front of it. It was the sheer principle that if we in Vienna were the guarding outpost, I was about to enter the belly of the mothership.
The Webster St. Louis campus can in no way be compared to our campus, it’s just massive in size and numbers. It generates extracurricular activities entirely on its own, like a planets gravitational field will attract other smaller planet’s that then begin to circle it. Webster has sports & debate teams, computer clubs, open mic evenings for artists and its own radio and print facilities. It truly feels like a small city. Democratically elected structures organise and manage these various ambitious clubs, and anybody with an interest in dish-washing can open a club and become president of the "Webster University’s monthly dish washing club."
Although I’m being jocular, these presidencies, memberships and rankings of the respective teams are quite a serious matter to the students here. A team will automatically have cheerleaders (or the equivalent), tasks to fulfil and trophies to win. Students are expected to approach the clubs they join with just as much professionalism as their studies, and count on recognition for their efforts at the end of the day. That way they not only learn to multi-task, but act like ants giving back their colony some of that education it supplied in the first place.
Let’s take the advertising team. It came 2nd in last years U.S. national competition, and first in this year’s state wide event promoting a new postal vault. Not only did the students learn how to create a stunning ad campaign, Webster also got to show off their educational achievements in that field.
It’s really the give and take between students and university that struck me most when I got there, and continued to strike me throughout my entire visit. The autonomous interaction does a lot of the "housekeeping" we put up with on its own – promotion of the institution, teaming up students, building a competitive and challenging environment in the students’ fields of interests.
I was going to be accommodated in a hotel along with someone from the Geneva campus whom I met in the strangest way possible. While I arrived at 17:00 local time, Marc still had a 5 hour delay ahead of him. So, I had time to unpack, get acquainted with the 129 channels and check out the hotel pool. At 22:00, exhausted from travelling, I fell asleep.
Marc arrived at the hotel at midnight. I’d left the lights on but was sound asleep when he entered, carefully tiptoeing around my stuff to sink down in the double bed next to mine. I woke up the next morning realising the awkwardness of meeting someone at the break of dawn, sleepy, with the lights still off. Just as I contemplated different scenarios of how to start, he broke the silence:
"Hi, I’m Mark" stretching out his hand into complete darkness.
As much as we felt honoured to have been invited to see the home campus of St. Louis, the staff and faculty couldn’t have been more excited and friendly to us. At this point I have to mention Susan Napoleon, the assistant to the dean of the school of communications, who made it her job for those 6-7 days to care about every one of Marc and my concerns, at times stretching her day until 23:00 hurling us into the next dinner so we’d get some food before sleep.
She had us over for Easter dinner, where we got to know her extensive family, a picture-perfect example of American culture and hospitality. There were beers and burgers, moms and daughters, grandma and the neighbours, and the shy kid from 2 blocks down who came over to visit the equally shy daughter.
I really didn’t expect the extent of friendliness and openness that we experienced during our short visit. I had many impressions of mid-western USA, however, it’s definitely the calm openness of the people that I have taken back with me.
Of course, I met stereotypes as well. One named Chris embodied the limits of critical thinking the U.S. government sets for its citizens. A well-trained man in his early 20’s, who had just enlisted to the Navy, was head shaved, athletic and loud. And he couldn’t tell Switzerland and Sweden apart.
I found it ironic that someone with such limited knowledge of foreign affairs could be eager to defend his government’s policies with his own life. Chris had taken note of Marc’s dog tag, the usual recognition for having completed a military service. Chris was wearing his too; as he fiddled with it he seemed deep in thought:
"Hey Marc, didn’t Switzerland, like, get into trouble with Norway back in World War II?" The question startled us both, as we explained Switzerland’s neutrality in WWII and its lack of connection to Norway.
Chris, referring back to the dog tag, summed up his thoughts:
"Well, at least you served some kind of a country." And yet, Chris – willing to risk his life for a cause he never quite understood – was a nice fellow to hang out with.
But I too was about to go through something I afterwards would not quite understand: meeting Dr. Richard Meyers, President of Webster University Worldwide. When he had visited us in Vienna last year, the Vienna Review team had had a heated debate with him about our (non-existent) library. I remember what I asked him at the time:
"Dr. Meyers, after all you’ve heard you must realise we’re in bad shape here. What can you do after your return to St. Louis? What buttons can you push to improve our situation?"
He escaped the question by saying something like, he was going to do his best to come up with a result and delegate this very important issue to the people in charge. But I guess I was not the only one in that room who read between the lines.
All that in mind, I was now walking through corridors, buildings, going upstairs and downstairs, taking elevators, realising it must be hard for a man to stay in touch with his students, if getting to him was that complicated. It literally took us about 20 minutes to get to his office, and another 10 waiting outside. I wasn’t going to mention our library, I just wanted to give him a second chance to make a first impression.
This visit had made me realise how extensive his operating range was, so our cause really did seem like a minor bleep in the immense realm he was controlling.
Dr. Meyers came out, shook our hands, asked a couple of insignificant questions, and vanished back into his office.
After all the friendliness and exchange we had encountered, he was the one who didn’t even take the time to ask us into his office or just sit down with us for a couple of minutes.
Had anybody else in St. Louis displayed this kind of carelessness, I wouldn’t have noticed. The only thought left for me to express is that he is lucky to be leading a university full of such wonderful people.
But more important events were coming up: The Webbies, the one event we had been invited to, the one event announced on so many posters throughout the campus. Prior to my visit I was told I should expect a typically American "Oscar-style" award ceremony.
However, I had had no idea how well they would actually pull it off. Loretto Hall, where the "Webbies" took place, was a fully equipped auditorium that held about 500 people. Vince Morris was the host, he had appeared on channels like Comedy Central and brought a bit of celebrity flair to the ceremony. Despite a few technical malfunctions, the professionalism of the "Webbie" awards blew me away. The whole procedure did hold up to the "Oscar style" I had anticipated, with a professor declaring,
"And the nominees are…," showing snippets of the nominees work on the projector. The works ranged from photography to motion graphics, and every student got a chance to speak. Their works, although not shown in their entirety, were comparable to what our media classes are capable of producing.
Here I found one of the few disadvantages of the St. Louis campus. It seemed as if most, if not all of the participating students were locals or at least Americans. I felt that the lack of cultural diversity within the student body was inherent. The media work from our Webster campus has at least two nationalities co-operating on a project.
This is not to say our work is better; it will, however, have a more diverse perspective. For the record, the international student, flown in from Leiden also won in the three categories for which he was nominated. Leiden had also been the only international Webster campus to submit work to the "Webbies."
I had been told we were going to be called to speak briefly, underlining the "Webbie" awards as a project pulling the international Webster community together. We were introduced, people clapped, we got a word with the crowd and Debra Carpenter handed us an award, just for being there.
I don’t know whether it’s fair to compare us to the St. Louis campus, we just don’t compete in size, numbers or facilities. What makes our home campus stand out is not its size; not the number of top professionals on the faculty, not the extensive high-tech facilities.
It’s not even the budget. It’s the spirit among St. Louis students, who don’t come and go as if they were going to work; they stay. They walk around campus wearing Webster gear, they put the Webster logo on their work and compete in teams and clubs for Webster with tremendous determination.
All in all, there is a personal relationship between the institution and its students; yes, they have disputes, but when morning dawns over the Webster University campus, a small nation wakes up and prepares to serve their "kind of a country."