Things I Wish I’d Known in College

Cathleen Johnson contributes the third part of a series stemming from a panel discussion involving successful women graduates of Northern Illinois University who were assembled by Denise Schoenbachler, Dean of the Business School, on the topic of: Lessons from the Front:  If We’d Only Known this Back Then.

   Cathleen Johnson

Things I Wish I’d Known in College


In college, I fought hard to avoid math–I majored in journalism, and have had a very successful career as a result.  But I now have to admit that I regret my decision to avoid numbers and hide behind the writer’s shield at all cost.  Even writer types need to brush up on their math skills in business.  After all, for a PR professional to be truly successful, you have to be just as facile with numbers as words in order to develop a budget, understand a P&L and all that comes with it–quantify one’s value as a result of contribution to revenue and profit. 

My value to a firm lies not just in my ability to write a great program, but also in my skill in building a profitable group, manage expenses, manage my clients’ budgets, and understand the financial structure of my business and my clients.  That takes a fundamental understanding of, and respect for the “Dreaded Math”.  And don’t forget that as your success increases, so does your personal portfolio, and you’d better know what’s involved in your financial statement!


Another thing I avoided like the plague while in school was sports.  I tried tennis–and found I had no hand to eye coordination.  I tried volleyball and had serious issues with my long, red fingernails.  I tried fencing and loved it, but it was never one of those fun team sports everyone else was cheering for. 

I wish I’d known how the game of golf could have helped me make deals and alliances when I came as a stranger to work in Hawaii where so much real business is done on the course.  Or how the lessons of team sports would translate into lessons of team leadership in any business.  Had I kept up with volleyball or basketball, I would have known how valuable the lessons of a good coach could be in the corporate world.

3.  COLLEGE ISN’T REAL LIFE, BUT IT’S PRETTY DAMN CLOSE SO PAY ATTENTION.  Just don’t believe everything they told you! 

When I went to J-school we were trained for the “big time,” but no one mentioned that not everyone will be a reporter for The New York Times.  That was a cruel blow when I began looking for my reporter’s job, but I quickly learned that working for the college paper was probably the best training I could have received for any writing-based career.  Perseverance, attention to detail, proof-reading and patience are all skills I learned, that I use to this day.

I also learned to be determined to succeed.  PR was a fledgling field at the time, and I had one class.  On my final I received a c- and a personal note: “You have potential, but too bad you’ll never make it in this field.”  I didn’t believe that, and 30 years later, I’m still enjoying a very successful career in PR–and I’m glad I didn’t listen to that advice!

Cathleen Johnson is an Executive Vice President at Edelman Worldwide where she is General Manager of the Tourism Practice and Global Director of Education & Training.

One thought on “Things I Wish I’d Known in College

  1. An addition: I didn’t embrace the fact that I was mainly a Journalism major in college, but it’s important to understand that it helps me as PR practioner now to have that background.

    I know what journalists want out of PR and I know how to speak with them. It’s been a great advantage.

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