Tony West: How Ball State’s English Department Redirected My Life

In our latest post, alum Tony West discusses how he learned about the various opportunities that are afforded by a college education. With the guidance of several instructors from Ivy Tech State College and Ball State University, Tony was able to earn his college degree and then advance to law school and eventually to a position in an Indianapolis law firm. Read below to find out how Tony took advantage of Ball State’s English degree to steer his life out of the factory and into his current career as a lawyer.

*Photo provided by Tony West

In 1994 I had the good fortune of encountering a Ball State professor of English and philosophy when I veered into general education classes at Ivy Tech State College while pursuing studies in industrial technology.  The industrial tech classes that I was enrolled in were part of the Department of Labor and the United Auto Worker’s apprenticeship program that would culminate in my earning a journeyman’s card in machine repair.  Earning my card would secure me a less strenuous, more prestigious, more lucrative, and more stable job in the automobile manufacturing industry.  I neither suspected nor intended that veering into academic learning would lead me to Ball State’s English department and out of the factory.

Dr. Cooksey’s Intro. to Philosophy was much more than the name portends.  She was a thinker, inspiring educator, a writer, and a critic—to name just a few of her admirable characteristics.  I wrote papers for her, and she returned them riddled with what looked to be my blood.  Among the many pieces of academic advice she gave me, the most fundamental one, in my view, was when she told me that I should “Speak the way you write.”  What she meant to say, I am sure now, was “Learn to write and then speak the way you write.”  What she knew then and what I know now is that our first impressions are most often made with our speech rather than our writing.  An educated mind is recognizable by our speech, and converting from lazy, undisciplined, colloquial speech develops a more deliberate speech that results in ideas being articulated more clearly.  It is this practice that has served me well in and out of academe.  Doctor Cooksey and, later, many other professors in Ball State’s English Department were willing to take the time and initiative to do more than simply instruct on the topic at hand and grade my papers and return them, but they also would sit and explain and discuss the material in email—this allowed me to get more than a degree, but also a quality education.

Near the end of the Ivy Tech spring semester, Dr. Cooksey invited me to come to Ball State to continue studying philosophy with her in a summer seminar she was conducting there, which I accepted.  Wading through the dense material she assigned and her criticisms of my writing illuminated for me my deficiencies in reading and writing.  By the time the course concluded, I had decided to correct an omission of my youth and get an education at Ball State.  I needed to choose a major.  Because I believed that academic success was dependent upon being a skilled reader and writer, and I thought my skills in those areas were not sufficient to succeed, I chose English.

I could not have made a better decision.  The professors I encountered as I progressed through my coursework reinforced the advice I had received from Dr. Cooksey in addition to helping me learn how to read and write.  Those professors who contributed most profoundly to my education were in the English Department:  Dr. Stedman, Dr. Felsenstein, Dr. Stern and Dr. Hanson, in no particular order.  I often recall and recount for people a quote from Dr. Stern that echoed Dr. Cooksey’s advice to me: “An education is one of the few things that Americans are willing to pay for and not get.”

As I was finishing up my bachelor’s coursework, I began thinking about how I could best continue educating myself after graduation.  Graduates of English studies seemed to go on to graduate level studies in English or to law school.  My first choice was the former, but the advice of the professors above was unanimous: better economic opportunities will arise from a legal education.

During this same time period, the Chrysler plant in which I worked was sold, and I knew that I would be laid off from my job and perhaps never have it available again.  Because of my professors’ advice, I decided to apply to law school and let the Admission Committee make my decision for me.  Due, in no small part, to the skills and education that I had gained and honed at the wheel of Ball State’s English Department, I was accepted to law school.

Long story short, I graduated law school and now practice law in an Indianapolis law firm.

Sometime after graduating from Ball State, someone once said to me, “People know you are smart as soon as you open your mouth.”  It is maybe the best compliment I have ever been paid, and it gave me the fullest sense of accomplishment that I have ever had.  I knew in that moment that, if it was true, it was true because of Ball State’s English Department.  I like to think it is true, and that this observation has opened economic doors for me and that it helps me gain credibility with my clients and others with whom I engage in the legal system.  I know not whether there is another department at Ball State that could have helped me so quickly improve my ability to read, speak, and communicate well and to allow others to see in my speech the education that informs it.  I do know that it can happen in Ball State’s English Department.

My experience in the English Department prepared me for a future that I had no inkling was ahead of me.  The English Department helped me develop critical thinking skills and the ability to communicate ideas clearly in both the written and spoken word.  These skills are present in every good attorney.  Ball State’s English Department helped me prove the age-old adage that luck favors the prepared.

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