Late in the spring semester, Celeste Wells hunts down Boston College faculty and staff across campus, delivering thank you notes from over 100 of her students.
As the academic year winds down, Wells takes a half-hour out of her class time. She places stacks of colored stationery in piles on the table at the front of the lecture hall. People tilt their heads and murmur to each other about what all of this could be. She tells everyone to come down and grab a card and an envelope, making sure to say that the colors don’t have to match. Students shuffle down and grab them, and Wells tells them they can take more than just one.
“I ask the students to think about the people they have never thanked at BC but that have played a real and meaningful role in making their day-to-day experiences positive, better, or happy,” Wells said.
Students write thank-you notes on the notecards, and Wells delivers them to people across campus. Those included are often dining staff, custodians, and other administrators.
Delivering the cards is easy when a student knows the person’s name, but proves to be more difficult when they don’t. Wells sees the process as a “Sherlock Holmes adventure,” as she uses the limited information provided by the student and piece together the puzzle to get the card delivered.
“Those cards are harder but I tend to find everyone (with the great help of many people here at BC) eventually and always feel victorious when I do,” she said.
Wells is an associate professor of the practice and the director of the honors program in the communication department. Along with Rhetorical Tradition, she teaches Research Methods, Popular Music and Identity, Argumentation Theory, and Introduction to Honors.
When she is not in the classroom, Wells is knee-deep in research, which focuses on how individual interactions and messaging choices impact the lived experiences of people in the world. She does this at an organizational level, looking at experiences of nation, race, and gender.
She has also published works about how educators can teach complex communicative topics in order for students to better understand the importance of issues in society. For example, every semester, Wells invites a former student, Danny DeLeon, BC ’15, to come to class and perform his spoken-word poetry so students can better understand citizen oration and its importance in today’s world.
Wells is currently studying how undergraduate thesis research benefits communication majors after graduation, and recently sent a piece out for review for publication.
“I have been enjoying this research because I am excited about understanding more deeply how we can better prepare students for their personal, professional, and scholarly lives,” she said in an email.
Although she enjoys conducting research, Wells thrives in the classroom setting. Even at the end of the semester, Wells keeps her same upbeat attitude with her introductory classes comprised mostly of tired freshmen and sophomores.
“How is everyone?” Wells asked last Thursday, as she casually sat on a table at the front of the lecture hall, swinging her legs back and forth.
Groggy-eyed students murmured to each other as they began to settle into class.
“Good?” she asked, pushing for a response.
Wells will repeat this question at the beginning of each class until she gets some sort of confirmation that her students are okay. If she does not get a verbal “yes,” she will ask students to nod their heads.
“Use your nonverbals!” she exclaimed, as students slightly nodded their heads, indicating they were indeed all right.
The “How are you?” question, which is often tossed around each day between students walking across campus, may have lost its meaning to some. But Wells really means it. She truly cares about her students’ well-being, both in and out of the classroom.
As students filed into the classroom in Higgins 300, Wells played music from a Pandora station. Typically, artists like The Chainsmokers or Maroon 5 are playing, but on that day, she chose classic rock.
Wells paced back and forth across the room, smiling and greeting students that entered. She gave one student a high-five after he turned in his paper.
She then pointed to a student in the crowd.
“Hey—are you feeling better?” she said, giving the student a thumbs-up.
Somehow, in a room of over 80 students, Wells has managed to create a small, personal environment in which she can consistently engage one-on-one with her students. She often shares personal anecdotes with her students—some that make them laugh, and others that make them reflect on their lives and think about their futures.
“I think that today, more than ever, it is important for young people, particularly college students, to get comfortable with interpersonal communication,”
—Celeste Wells, associate professor of the practice and director of the honors program
While some professors strictly stick to the material, Wells goes the extra mile, sharing pieces of herself with the class that many others would hesitate to tell.
Wells does not have a typical story of completing her undergraduate education. In fact, her path is not one that most people would assume a professor would take.
After attending the University of Utah for one year, she decided to take a break from school and work instead.
“I was having a really hard time linking the practicality of my education with the reality of needing to pay the bills,” she said.
After working as a secretary and administrative assistant for a couple years, Wells decided that she wanted a different path for her life, one in which she could garner more respect. She decided to return to the University of Utah and earned her bachelor’s degree in speech communication and gender studies in 2000.
“Taking time off school will be good for some people and it won’t for others,” she said. “There’s no predictable way to determine which path is better suited for any individual other than that individual themselves.”
Wells said she shares stories like this with her students because humans are storytelling beings that enjoy listening to the anecdotes of others. She often shares stories that link to the topics she discusses in class so that when a student leaves the classroom, he or she will remember the story and associate it with the lesson she taught.
She also thinks it’s important for students to know that faculty are no different from them. This is why she casually sits in front of the room at the beginning of each class and high-fives students who walk in.
“We all face the same challenges in life—the only advantage that faculty have over students is, because of our differences in age, we have likely already faced the challenges that our students are experiencing,” she said.
This is important, Wells said, because faculty can offer insight or provide support to students based on their experience, even if it is just in the form of a story.
Besides playing music and sharing stories to make students feel more comfortable in the classroom, Wells creates activities for students to get to know each other better.
On the first day of class, as students whip out their notebooks preparing to furiously take notes, Wells asks them to put their notebooks away. She declares that the class will play a game of “ultimate rock paper scissors,” in which students compete against each other, and, if they win, move on to face another student. The one rule of the game is to introduce yourself to your opponent. If you lose against your opponent, you must cheer on the person as he or she advances.
Students run around the room, erupting in laughter and loud conversation, as they compete to be the champion of ultimate rock paper scissors. Several small groups become a few larger groups with students cheering each other on. At the end of the game, two people face each other with massive crowds cheering on each of their names.
Mid-semester, Wells also holds an activity in which she has students shake hands with other students in class to introduce themselves. She holds this activity because she sees a discomfort in young people around making eye contact and person-to-person touch. She said it’s a skill that people are not being taught anymore.
“I think that today, more than ever, it is important for young people, particularly college students, to get comfortable with interpersonal communication,” she said. “In college, we’re not only educating you to be critical thinkers and reflective ethical people, but we’re also teaching you how to exist in the world with others successfully.”
Wells said that shaking hands is one of the first ways to bring this conversation to the surface. She wants students to see how they feel more at ease after shaking hands with someone. At the end of the class, each student has to walk up to Wells, look her in the eye, and shake her hand. She smiles at each student, gives them a firm handshake, and tells them to have a great rest of their day.
Wells puts in this extra effort to make the classroom setting more enjoyable. She hopes that students will see the people around them as potential friends instead of absolute strangers. She also thinks that students who know each other and are excited for class come more willing to learn, communicate, and succeed.
Before each exam, Wells has her students look her in the eye and recite a self-affirmation, which usually goes, “Professor Wells, I am awesome, and I am going to rock this exam,” or, “Professor Wells, I look great today, and I am going to do great on this exam.”
“I know students come into all exams with lower self-confidence than they do on a normal day,” she said. “A lot of how you enter an exam is how you perform on an exam. It’s not always about what you know, but your confidence in the moment of having to display what you know.”
She has students recite this self-affirmation so that they can relax, laugh a bit, and feel better going into the test. Students will be less likely to second-guess themselves during the exam as well, she said. She is extremely invested in student success and will do anything to see them succeed.
When asked what advice she would give to a student, she said she would tell them to stop fighting their days. Both students and adults wake up and look at their day like it’s a battle that has to be survived, she said. This outlook on life makes it seem less like “life” and more like combat.
She wants college students to stop looking at their lives as a series of classes, homework, and social interactions that they have to fight through. Instead, they should think about what they have to look forward to each day.
“Remember, this is the only life you have, so trying to experience it instead of just survive it is a reasonable goal,” she said in an email.
Wells will launch her thank you note project this week. Although she may not walk around with a pipe and magnifying glass like Sherlock Holmes, her investigative work of delivering the thank you notes will spread a message of gratitude to dozens of BC faculty and staff on campus.
Featured Image Courtesy of Celeste Wells