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Renee Olstead Headshot

The College Professor I'll Never Forget

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I've drawn a lot of inspiration in life from music, books, and art, but lately the greatest inspiration I've found is from a college professor who challenged me to really think. I've never been the perfect student. I've been known to occasionally miss class for work or hand in a paper that I finished the night before, but sometimes a teacher comes along who you feel you can connect with and who makes you want to excel. My English professor Joan Eyles Johnson has done just that, and has single-handedly inspired me to be a better writer, citizen, and human being. I've been attending Mount Saint Mary's in Los Angeles for a couple semesters now, after transferring in my credits from a couple years of scattered college classes. I've been fortunate enough to find a way to work school into my Secret Life shooting schedule -- a task that will be much more difficult next semester as I try to juggle shooting both SLOAT and the upcoming movie The Midnight Game -- but most mornings before school I find myself sucking down a couple sugar-free Red Bulls on my way to campus. English is my first stop of the morning and on the first day of class, I sat in my seat while my new professor called attendance, feeling very drained and wishing I was still at home in bed.

I was pleasantly surprised, however, when the hand-outs started circulating. Our first lesson was on propaganda (a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position) from a variety of eras and sources. We were asked to determine the audience, the message, and use of icons and color in the piece. Professor Johnson then challenged us to find the propaganda in our own everyday lives. The lecture inspired me and I began looking for propaganda in advertising, in print, and on television. How many times do we let the media set our own expectations for ourselves? Shows like Gossip Girl convince us that our own teen experience pales in comparison to the high-fashion, high-times of high-school debutantes. Diet pill commercials show us shameful "before" pictures and victorious "after" shots. Perfume ads and lingerie commercials show us the products we can purchase to make men love us. One of the biggest lessons I've learned so far is that the mission of advertising is often to convince us that we are NOTHING without their product, when in reality, the consumer is everything to the company.

I want to speak up and tell you that mascara and clothes don't make you cool, neither do name-brand handbags, but being a leader can. Every day we can choose to challenge what we "know" and go on our own quest for answers. As teens, you have the ability to channel your thoughts and inspirations through the power of social media, to connect with one another and start social movements for change! Find something you care about -- social injustice, animal rights, international war crimes, human trafficking, or women's rights -- and make a statement. Connect with one another, take a stand, and spread the word.

I encourage all of you to seek out teachers and mentors that challenge you to think for yourself and guide you to find your own voice. It could be your high school teacher, a guidance counselor, or a college professor who inspires you and makes you excited to learn about the world around you.

And I love hearing from you all. I love hearing your causes and what you're excited about. Tweet me with your thoughts or ideas for upcoming pieces at @Renee_Olstead. I just might feature your question!