About Mark Orbe, Ph.D.: Dr. Mark Orbe is Professor of Communication & Diversity in the School of Communication and Faculty Fellow in the Office of Institutional Equity at Western Michigan University. Dr. Orbe’s scholarship explores the interrelationship between culture and communication as it manifests in a wide variety of contexts, including interpersonal communication, intercultural communication, and media studies. Dr. Orbe has authored, edited, or co-edited more than a dozen books, including Communication Realities in a “Post-Racial” Society: What the U.S. Public Really Thinks about Barack Obama, Communication Theory: Racially Diverse and Inclusive Perspectives with Jasmine Austin and Jeanetta Sims, and the forthcoming fourth-edition of Interracial Communication: Theory into Practice with Tina M. Harris. He has also published over 100 articles across leading journals in the field.

Dr. Orbe has made valuable contributions to theorizing the relationship between culture and communication. Since his first book, Constructing Co-cultural Theory: An Explication of Culture, Power, and Communication, Dr. Orbe has continued to develop co-cultural theory while also contributing to critical autoethnographic research, with one example being the recent book chapter, “When Home Goes From Being a Place to Being a Person: A Critical Autoethnography of Identity, Culture, and Geography.” In addition to his academic and administrative appointments, Dr. Orbe runs Dumela Communications, a consulting company that works with organizations and hosts summer institutes at universities aimed at fostering cultural competency.

Dr. Orbe received his Ph.D. in Communication from Ohio University, where he specialized in interpersonal and intercultural communication. He earned his M.A. in Education with a focus in Higher Education Administration from the University of Connecticut, and his B.S. in Organizational Communication from Ohio University.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in the relationship between communication and culture, and begin to explore the significance of this relationship to a wide variety of subfields within communication, including intercultural communication, organizational communication, interpersonal communication, media studies, and health communication?

[Dr. Mark Orbe] I’ll start with the pre-professional because my interest in these topics stems from my lived experiences. I am the grandson of an undocumented immigrant who was raised in low-income housing projects in the Northeast[ern United States] that were predominantly African American and Puerto Rican. That set of lived experiences followed me through my professional life.

I come from a student affairs background. My first professional job was actually in student affairs; I worked in residence life. I was an RA during my undergraduate years because I had to work a couple of different jobs to help with room and board. I was very involved in extracurriculars. I was president of my fraternity and involved in many different organizations on campus. I finished with a bachelor’s degree in communication, and my focus was on organizational communication. I worked a little bit for a firm in New York City as a communication consultant. I didn’t really enjoy corporate life. I did a short window there and then went back home and got a job as a residence hall director, so my background really is in student services or what’s now known as student affairs.

Within my early jobs, I was able to teach a first-year experience course. I love teaching. I always knew that I wanted to teach, but, coming from my background, machismo values said that men weren’t teachers, men were doctors, lawyers, and businesspeople. After I got my Master’s in Higher Education Administration, I decided I wanted to go back and get my doctoral degree in something that I would teach on a collegiate level, and communication was the perfect answer.

My first faculty position was at one of the eight campuses of Indiana University. I had other opportunities to teach across the US, and I chose that particular school because it had a lot of first-generation college students. I was the first person in my extended family to graduate from high school, never mind college, so I have a real heart for working with students who don’t know how smart they are and to help them realize all the opportunities that education holds for them.

I started at Indiana University Southeast. For the last 25-plus years, I’ve been at Western Michigan University, where I came in as an Advanced Assistant Professor and am now Full Professor. I’ve always maintained my commitment to student affairs. Currently, I hold a joint appointment in the Office of Institutional Equity, where I’m leading a presidential initiative on building cultural competencies across campus. I’m also working with our Multicultural Affairs staff and doing some other programming for underserved student populations. I advise a number of registered student organizations and do a couple of different study abroad programs.

I’m a faculty member who understands that the majority of time that students spend on campus occurs outside of the classroom. There’s a lot of learning that goes on there. I identify as a blue-collar scholar, with all the class markers that come with that.

You’ve listed many different subfields or areas that I’ve worked in, but really, I study the inextricable relationship between culture and communication. I’m an intercultural scholar and those different subfields are just the contexts in which I’ve produced some scholarship — organizations, relationships, family, media, health, et cetera. My doctoral program was primarily interpersonal. At the time, we had one intercultural course in the School of Communication Studies I attended, so I went outside the department. I took an ethnology class and an anthropology class. I took an African American studies class. I took a qualitative research methods class which focused on phenomenology. I made my course work more culture-focused because that’s what I wanted to study.

I wanted to study how culture influences relationships. Initially my goal, because I’m a product of an interracial marriage and I’m in a multiracial marriage, was to examine how race and culture impact relationships and specifically romantic relationships. That’s what I thought I would initially focus on. That came out of my personal, lived experience and wanting to know myself and others better, and understand those relationships. All those other areas really found me. I didn’t search for them.

One of the things that I learned during my doctoral career was I wanted to focus on race and culture, so every class I took, whatever the project was, I always focused it on race and culture. In an organizational communication class, I remember studying Affirmative Action. In a family class, I studied multiracial families. Whatever the class was, I would write about race.

One of my first studies ever published was an investigation of audience perceptions of FOX’s “In Living Color.” It was one of the first Black sketch comedy shows, kind of like the Black Saturday Night Live. It was back in the 1990s. There you go. My age is already coming up. [Laughs]. It was must-watch TV for many of us. I remember, when I was Assistant Director of Residence Life, I was sitting in my apartment on campus and this was back when there was only one TV in the hall, so a lot of the Black students would come to my space and watch TV. At one point, there were one or two white students, and I remember how uncomfortable they felt laughing at these very racialized jokes when everyone else in the room was cracking up. I wanted to understand how people engage with ethnic and race-based humor.

It was racialized relationships that were always at the core of my interest, and it just so happened that media matters, organizations matter, family matters, all those things matter–so that’s what I studied. If you really want to understand the inextricable relationship between culture and communication, you can’t just focus on one context. You have to see the linkages between them.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Two important foci of your scholarship have been the development of co-cultural theory and critical-autoethnographic methods, which you bring together in publications such as your recent co-authored piece, “Co-cultural Stories of Racialized Trauma, Vulnerability, and Empowerment: A Collective Autoethnography of Negotiating Academic Whitespeak and Whitespace.” For our readers who might be unfamiliar with these approaches, could you briefly describe them and discuss how these perspectives come into conversation in your work? Are there ways autoethnographic research contributes to co-cultural research, or co-cultural theory informs your ethnographic work?

[Dr. Mark Orbe] Co-cultural theory initially emerged out of research that I was doing on how African American students negotiated a predominantly white university. I was examining how BIPOC students, staff, and faculty negotiate their professional and personal lives in a space where they were in the minority, and they were minoritized in terms of equity and access.

Co-cultural theory is a conceptual framework that allows for understanding of the communication experiences of underrepresented group members. Those underrepresented group members can be minoritized based on their race, their gender, their sexuality, their spirituality, their class, their abilities, or any number of points of difference. The theory explores communication practices within a clear social hierarchy where one group has dominant status over the others. One valuable thing about co-cultural theory is that it’s evidence-based. It’s gleaned from phenomenological data. It is a grounded theory that emerged out of many studies that I did that looked at people’s stories and people’s narratives. These studies provided the foundation for building a conceptual framework that allowed us to understand how and why different individuals in minoritized groups made communication choices.

I came to critical autoethnography later in my life. To break down the term, “critical” means that there’s some focus on culture and power, often specifically concerned with identity and equities. Ethnography is observing and writing about culture. “Ethno” is culture, and the “graph” is writing. “Auto” ethnography is when, compared to traditional ethnographies where the focus of the gaze is other people, you turn the gaze inward towards self.

As autoethnography developed in our field, I realized how powerful it could be. I took a class in ethnography and another in ethnology. The critique of ethnographic research was always that researchers were typically dominant group members who weren’t part of a group, and they went to a place or an organization to study “cultural others.” The scholarly gaze they adopted largely meant writing from their own perspective and not really gaining an insider’s view. There’s a lot of power dynamics with that, too. I was very interested in using that same idea to look within. Not just focusing on the self, but the self in context with others.

The critical part of my work ties back to my interest in culture. In the United States and around the world, culture is tied to power. While I say that I study the inextricable relationship between culture and communication, power is part of that triad as well. For me, that’s a powerful way of looking at the world, and co-cultural theory and critical autoethnography can work together to help us explore this relationship.

Co-cultural theory and critical ethnography and autoethnography are all about voice and especially underrepresented voices: voices that haven’t been heard, stories that haven’t been told, or that have been told but haven’t been listened to. How can we, as communicologists (those who study communication) make sure that we are committed to listening to all stories and valuing authentic stories? How can we tell these stories, not through our own lens or through our own hearing, but by being a conduit to other people’s stories?

The piece that you referenced in the question around racialized trauma [“Co-cultural Stories of Racialized Trauma, Vulnerability, and Empowerment: A Collective Autoethnography of Negotiating Academic Whitespeak and Whitespace”] explores the linkages between co-cultural theory and critical autoethnography. “Co-cultural Stories of Racialized Trauma” was written by five of us [Mark P. Orbe, Ashlee A. Lambert, Evelyn B. Winfield-Thomas, & Ashley R. Hall] who wanted to reflect on our experiences as BIPOC people in the academy. I loved it, because the group brought together people of different academic status – an undergraduate student, a graduate student, an untenured junior faculty member, a tenured associate professor, and then myself as a tenured full professor – and our members were African American, biracial, Asian American, and Latinx.

We started it in March of 2020, just as COVID-19 took the world by storm. We went online to collaborate. Everything that we were feeling was magnified by the isolation, the trauma, and all the other stuff that accompanied the world’s reaction to and negotiation of COVID. I love that piece because we got to know one another. Prior to that, the authors didn’t all know one another – everyone knew me, and I brought the group together. Our work showed how powerful it is when people listen to each other’s stories and have their own stories told.

From my experience studying in communication and the work in training and development that I’ve done, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three things that people want when they communicate with you. At the end of the exchange, they want to make sure that they were seen authentically for who they are. They want to know that they were heard: really listened to and understood. Finally, they want to feel like what they said made a difference.

Working on this project highlighted that, because all of us felt seen in that group. We felt listened to and like we were making a difference for one another in the difficult context we were working in. For me, that’s a very powerful piece because it invited a diversity of voices, some of whom didn’t even think they belonged in that conversation. We said, “No, this conversation doesn’t exist at this level without you.” Practically, culturally, relationally, professionally, and intellectually that piece encompasses a lot of what I do and what I care about.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Over the course of your career, you have published more than 15 scholarly books or edited collections, including the recently released volume “Communication Theory: Racially Diverse and Inclusive Perspectives.” Are there driving scholarly commitments or critical throughlines you would highlight as unifying your prolific output as an author and editor? Do you have practical guidance you might give to researchers based on your experience building and maintaining this level of scholarly output?

[Dr. Mark Orbe] We’re a Broadway family, and I’m a huge Hamilton fan. I have a lot of narrative overlap with Hamilton, or at least Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rendition of Hamilton as an immigrant. I wrote my way out. Through my writing, I have written myself out of certain circumstances, certain contexts, certain limitations. I find voice through my writing and, for as many compliments as I get on my speaking, I believe I’m a stronger writer.

I remember the first time I was described as prolific. I was at the National Communication Association conference. I was a young scholar. I wasn’t that far out of my Ph.D. and someone who knew me said, “You are so prolific.” I literally had to go back to my room and look the word up, because I didn’t know exactly what it meant. I thought it was a compliment, and they said it very affirmatively, but at that point we had three children, four and under. So, at first, I thought they were talking about my children. [Laughs]. I realized quickly that they meant my research, but that’s the blue-collar scholar in me. I got this compliment, and I had to look up to make sure I understood it, which reflects a key pattern throughout my life story.

I have a scholarly commitment to engage in research and scholarship that makes a difference in the world. One of the things that I appreciate about being at Western Michigan University is that we value engaged scholarship. The work I’ve done on anti-racism and cultural competency, the work I’ve done with civil rights organizations, my grant-funded projects: everything I do is aimed at making an impact. If my research just sits on a shelf somewhere, or stays in a database, or on a website, for me, that’s not enough. I want to know how we can draw practical outcomes and practical strategies out of the research we do.

This commitment partially comes from my realization that I actually had a voice that could contribute something valuable to the universe. Initially, I was going along to get along. I wanted a Ph.D. so I could teach, and I thought I would always teach at a community college. Research was not my passion: teaching was my passion, service was my passion. We had three-year graduate programs back when I did my Ph.D. I remember the first time the faculty sat around with all the newbies and said, “By the time you graduate in three years, you should have this number of presentations, this number of publications.” I sat there, nodded my head, and thought, “Nope. If I get a presentation, if I get this dissertation done, I’m fine.”

I felt that way until I realized that I teach people through my writing, and reach people beyond my classrooms that way. We’re having this conversation today because you found my work. You never know whom you’re going to reach. My writing and my engagement in professional development and training broadens my classroom. It extends my classroom to places that I’ve never realized it could.

I have a contribution that I want to make to understanding culture and communication that is unique and based on who I am, and if I don’t fill that void or cultivate relationships where others can fill that void, that void will remain.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have practical guidance you might give to researchers based on your experience building and maintaining your prolific level of scholarly output?

[Dr. Mark Orbe] I do have some advice, but with one caveat. When I speak to graduate students or other scholars, I warn them not to be mistaken: my level of scholarly productivity is a direct result of my imposter complex. I’ve never felt like I was good enough, so I always went above and beyond in trying to prove my worth, which is not a healthy thing. I’ve learned over time that that’s really what motivated me.

The good news is that writing now is routine and habitual for me. I’m someone who’s dedicated to physical exercise. If I don’t engage in scholarship, it’s like skipping a workout. I don’t feel at my best. If I don’t have a project that I have just completed and have another one that I’m in the midst of, there’s something wrong. It’s become habitual. Part of my advice, then, is to create habits. Don’t try to fit in your research and writing around other things. Make it a priority. I have a calendar where I block out research and writing time, and when administrators or students ask to meet during this time I say, “I’m sorry, I have something else scheduled at that time.” Protect that research and writing time.

Really follow your passion. It sounds so cliché, but clichés are often maintained in societies because they’re true. What is meaningful for you? When I first started my research program, I was one of the first in our field to study first-generation college students. Some of that work has been cited nearly as much as my work on co-cultural theory and critical autoethnography, and I think that’s because it was important to me, so I brought a certain passion to it that I think was communicated through the publications.

Too many graduate students fall in line with research ideas because they reflect those of their advisor or mentor. That’s okay, and, at the same time, it’s not okay. Sometimes we’re socialized out of the very unique contribution that we will bring to the field, because we’re looking to create something that will be accepted by others. When I first wanted to study interracial dating and interracial marriage, I was told by a communication scholar, “That’s not communication–it’s sociology.” I thought, “You know, we do communicate in those relationships.” I never ended up writing about interracial dating or marriage, but you can study anything through a communicative lens. Find your unique thing and run with it.

[MastersinCommunications.com] You have noted elsewhere that you remain particularly proud of your early, autoethnographic piece, “The Complexity of Our Tears: Dis/enchantment and (In)Difference In the Academy,” a collaborative article from 1999 highlighting the marginalization of cultural difference in the academy through personal narratives of you and your co-authors. Since the publication of that work, you have written a number of pieces detailing similar problems in the communication discipline h, including your recent publication “Race Matters in Applied Communication Research; Past, Present and Future.” Would you reflect on how the treatment of cultural difference in the academy has developed in the time between these two works?

[Dr. Mark Orbe] When I say that I’m proud of that piece, [“The Complexity of our Tears”], I really am. For me, there is this dialectical tension between having pride for it and having a sense of humility, as well. That work with Brenda J. Allen and Margarita Refugia Olivas was the first time I told part of my story in the academy and my first autoethnographic piece. Before that, although I was very much invested in my research personally, culturally, and professionally, I was also at a vulnerable point in my career. I wasn’t tenured at the time.

It was an opportunity to work with Margarita, who was a graduate student at the time, and Brenda J. Allen, who is one of my academic and personal heroes, and to translate our experiences to the page. Brenda J. Allen entered the academy before I did, so we had an intergenerational dynamic between the three of us. It was a revelation to find other BIPOC scholars who were experiencing life in the academy like I was.

We thought the play on “(in)difference” in the title was very clever, [in that we were being treated as totally different, and there was a sense of indifference we sometimes felt toward the academy as a result of this treatment.] Similarly, we discussed the enchantment that we’d found with the academy, which still continues today for me, and also the disenchantment that often accompanies it for scholars of color.

There’s so much continued love for that piece, even twenty years later. People still assign it in graduate seminars as required reading, and I can’t tell you the times that I’ll just get a random email from a graduate student telling me they read the piece and how they responded to it. People read that piece and they feel seen, heard, and valued.

That piece was important to the trajectory of my career, too, because when I first started studying intercultural communication, our program was primarily empirical and social scientific. I had only taken two classes in qualitative methods as I was getting ready to start my dissertation. I realized that the problem I was finding in trying to cultivate my own research was that the goal of social science is making generalizations, but when you’re talking about culture, generalizations are like stereotypes. When you’re producing research that says, in a very binary way, “Men communicate this way, women communicate this way, Black people communicate this way,” you’re just promoting stereotypes. I didn’t want to do that, and I discovered one of the ways that I could avoid it was to engage in qualitative research that focused on people’s lived experiences.

Researching lived experiences through interviews, focus groups, or autoethnography is extremely generative and there’s a need for it. In the past 20 years, a lot has changed in our field, and more-and-more these approaches are becoming embraced. I continue to see what I would call the marginalization of nontraditional scholarly approaches, especially if you’re studying folks [people or groups] that traditionally haven’t been studied. I do think progress continues to be made.

We know, in 2018, [Paula Chakravartty, Rachel Kuo, Victoria Grubbs, and Charlton McIlwain] published the study “#CommunicationSoWhite.” It really hit differently. I’m quick to tell people that this is a moment in the movement. It didn’t start a movement. There have been critiques and initiatives on these issues along the way. I believe in evolution, not revolution, so I don’t think of #CommunicationSoWhite as existing in a vacuum. I do think it hit differently, partly because of timing; it appeared as the world was grappling with race in new ways.

Because of that, I do see some changes, to varying degrees, in how universities value diverse perspectives. I like being at Western Michigan University because in the 25 years that I’ve been here, we’ve always embraced the value of all approaches, if sometimes imperfectly. When I published in the Howard Journal of Communications, for example, that wasn’t frowned upon and treated as less important than if I published in Human Communication Research.

I do see us moving as a field toward embracing diverse perspectives and ensuring that BIPOC scholars are being cited, and have roles on editorial review boards. We have seen new editorial shifts and new journals. The National Communication Association has a new journal called Communication and Race. The editor [Dr. Armond Towns] has already been chosen, and the first issue will be published in 2024. I see the discipline changing over time in good ways, even if it’s been slow. Again, evolution, not revolution.

Note: For more information on this journal and more, be sure to read our interview with Armond R. Towns, Ph.D. from Carleton University on Black Media Philosophy, Critical / Cultural Studies, and Race in the Communication Discipline.

[MastersinCommunications.com] The special issue of Journal of Applied Communication Research mentioned above, “Race Matters,” collects and advocates for the importance of critical race scholarship as a corrective for the biases of academic research you discuss in the article. Could you tell us more about critical race scholarship and the importance you believe it holds for those conducting applied communication research? Why did applied communication scholarship stand out to you as a particularly important place to intervene in the exclusionary dynamics of the discipline?

[Dr. Mark Orbe] I’m not an organizational communication scholar and this special issue was the first time I’ve ever published in the Journal of Applied Communication Research. My coauthor, Brenda J. Allen, focuses on organizational communication in applied contexts. We both knew that we could look at any journal, really, and do this kind of critique.

In 2008, we published the first “Race Matters,” in which we analyzed the race-based scholarship that was published in the Journal of Applied Communication Research. We wanted to see how race was represented. The results were not a good picture: not a good look, if you will. We attempted to get that critical analysis published in the journal itself, and they wanted us to change so many things that we decided to pull it. We ended up getting it published in the Howard Journal of Communications instead. With this special issue that just came out, we wanted to return 15 years later to see what advances or improvements were made and there have been some.

The special issue’s advocacy for critical race scholarship is fundamentally important in our current moment. When you have political leaders and others trying to outlaw or penalize introducing critical race scholarship into our classrooms, this tells you how important that work truly is. It must be powerful if it’s so scary to others that they want to create laws prohibiting it.

I’ve always seen the linkages between gender and race and class and beyond. Brenda J. Allen and I utilized a framework that describes different levels of feminist scholarly theorizing to then create a similar framework describing levels of Critical Race Scholarship. Critical race theory, by definition, centralizes the experiences of people of color and then regards race as a site of struggle. That is in direct opposition to a lot of the research out there that uses Eurocentric approaches and paradigms and windows into the world of BIPOC people, and also manipulates race as a variable. We know that race is socially and politically constructed, yet we still treat race like it is a variable that’s set in stone and is not malleable.

To me, what is most important is that critical race scholarship sees race, for everyone, as a site of struggle. It sees the universal relevance it has in all situations, not just studying in certain contexts. Race is relevant in every communication study to some extent. In 1993, Cornel West published a book called Race Matters. I like this idea that “race matters” where race is a noun and also an adjective. It really opens up the relevancy of race and the crucial importance that race plays in all of our lives. I know the power of white privilege leads people to believe that race is not relevant. It really means that race is not relevant for you, because you live in a privileged space. That doesn’t mean that it’s not relevant for others and, politically and ethically, that makes it relevant for you as well.

[MastersinCommunications.com] You have been committed to bringing your work on intercultural communication and cultural difference beyond the academy–for example, through your consulting company Dumela Communications and the workshops you host through the Summer Diversity and Inclusion Institute. Could you tell us more about these projects and how you approach translating the topics we’ve discussed today to engage with organizations and communities?

[Dr. Mark Orbe] Dumela is a term that comes from Botswana and parts of South Africa. It means, “I believe in you, I affirm you, and I see great potential in you.” It’s how I greet folks in my classroom. I was in my teens when I learned that death and life are in the power of the tongue. I believe that you can use communication to uplift and affirm folks and you can use it to create abuse and discursive violence. Dumela Communications is a company that promotes the powerful affirmation that comes through communication, and tries to live up to the great potential in that greeting.

People often ask me how they can get into consulting, but, honestly, those opportunities found me. I didn’t seek them. I believe that communication scholars and practitioners hold the keys to the world. People need us. They need our insights. They need our concepts and our frameworks. They need good, theoretically informed, practical guidelines on how to communicate more competently with others. That has fueled my consulting efforts.

I began consulting as a graduate student and my business has grown largely by word of mouth. Every summer since 2005, I’ve run the Summer [Diversity and Inclusion] Institute, which is focused on working with faculty, staff, administrators, and community members to build cultural competency. It’s been at three different universities, and I’m doing it now at my own university. It follows a “Train the Trainers module,” which aims to teach and engage participants through a 30-hour curriculum, so that they then can go back into their communities and then teach what they’ve learned. It embraces the idea of “Each one, teach one.”

In 2006, I was approached by a medical school because the medical field was coming to understand the role that unconscious bias and the lack of cultural competency play in health disparities. There have been initiatives on these for at least 20 years. They asked me to come in for a weekend and teach a class called “Physician-Patient Communication in a Multicultural World.” Based on that, they asked me to come back, and I created a cultural competency curriculum that I would end up offering to thousands of medical students over the next ten years.

Today, I frequently work with educators and with public schools. I work with police officers. I view cultural competency as relevant for everyone. We have the research and the critical tools, so it’s our responsibility to make sure that they are accessible to the people who need them the most. That means going beyond writing for an academic audience.

It’s a challenge and an opportunity to work with police officers on their cultural competency and their unconscious biases. We’re talking about life and death. I tell my medical professionals the same thing. These are matters of life and death. I just did a program for mental health practitioners and teachers in a local urban high school. I tell them they’re difference makers, too. They are saving people’s lives by engaging their mental health and making a difference in their lives.

As I’ve said, I’m a blue-collar scholar. I’ve never seen myself as part of the ivory tower and above other folks. I come from a student affairs background, and I’m a community-based activist. I see all those things aligning in the kind of work that I do. I don’t think that many people in our field are trained to do that type of work. We’re more often trained to produce scholarship, and not necessarily in community engagement. There are some programs and some faculty who are exceptions, and I think that’s one of the ways in which I would love to see our field grow. We need to advocate for and value those people who are utilizing academic research in pragmatic ways.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you might give to students interested in intercultural communication, critical scholarship on race and identity, or engaged cultural communication research who might be considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?

[Dr. Mark Orbe] In all caps and bold, my notes say, “EDUCATION SAVED MY LIFE.” Period. I was close to dropping out of high school in 10th grade. My parents and my older sibling all have a 10th-grade education. Something happens when you’re 16 and you can contribute to the family financially where school becomes less important. But, for whatever reason, I didn’t drop out, and each degree I’ve earned has opened doors that I didn’t even know existed. My master’s degree is in educational leadership/higher education administration. That allowed me to work in student affairs and commit to making a difference in students’ lives. The Ph.D. opened doors to the consulting that I’m able to do. I am one who never imagined this would be my life. I never imagined I would be a professor in my wildest dreams.

As a result, when I interact with students, especially undergraduates, who have “it” — meaning I see their passion, I see their potential contribution, even if they don’t — I always want to make sure they at least understand that graduate school and the academy are options. They may or may not be the right options for each of them, but they are options. You may never have imagined that you could be a professor doing research and traveling the world. I’ve been on five of the seven continents presenting my research, and I travel on other people’s dime.

I’m a lifelong learner, and it’s a joy being able to simply engage and learn. These opportunities exist. I believe in following your passion and keeping all of your opportunities open. Do the work as an undergraduate to gain research experiences with a faculty member and have a strong GPA. Create a foundation so that you’ll have those opportunities.

Also understand that there’s a certain value in communication degrees. As I mentioned earlier with my consulting, people value our work, and the more advanced degrees, knowledge, and skills that you have, the more you can bring to any number of individuals. I’ve found that the most basic communication concepts are consumed by folks in the professional world like they are golden. When I say things like, “Your goal when you’re communicating with someone should be co-creating shared meaning,” they think that I have just come from on high.

A lot of folks don’t have access to the information we teach in our basic communication classes, or haven’t had it delivered to them in a way that enables them to use it. It always blows my mind. I tell my students, “There are people in the professional world who are paying a lot of money for this, and you’re getting the same concepts. I want you to bring these to your professional life so that you already have those tools and that knowledge.”

In terms of engaged scholarship, Wayne Gretzky, who some would say is the greatest hockey player to ever play the game, once explained that he was so effective as a goal scorer because he resisted the temptation to follow the puck and instead went to where the puck was going. I ask my students who are interested in engaged scholarship, “When we think about culture, race, identity, and social issues around the world, do you think they will be more or less important in the future?” I think it’s clear that they will only become more vital. That this is where the puck is going. If you anticipate where the world’s going, studying culture and communication is a great foundation.

I will never be without a job. To return to Hamilton, I have taken myself out of the narrative a couple of times. I have stopped doing these consulting jobs because they can be exhausting, with the travel and everything else. Still, every time, I feel called to return to this line of work because there is such a strong need, and I want to make sure that I’m doing what I can to fulfill that need. Graduate degrees in education and communication have provided me a way to make a difference in these areas that I feel so much investment in.

Thank you, Dr. Mark Orbe, for your fascinating insight into co-cultural theory and the role that race plays in interpersonal, intercultural, and sociopolitical dynamics!

Photo of Ben Clancy
About the Author: Ben Clancy (they/them) is a critical scholar and creative living in Chicago with their partner, child, and other wildlife. They are a PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill in the Department of Communication, where their research focuses on the politics of communicative and artistic technologies. Ben has an M.A. from Texas State University, has worked as a research fellow for the Center for Technology Information and Public Life at UNC, and is an alum of the Vermont Studio Center residency in poetry writing.

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