The first time I met Elaine Venter, I remember thinking now she has a story. A strong African accent, a complete nerd about all things media. What was most evident to me was the way she spoke and cared for those around her. She is constantly uplifting everyone, challenging students to be the best they can, and ultimately distilling confidence in her students and colleagues. When I approached her about featuring her in the Campaign, she said: "you want ME in your confidence Campaign?!" I explained to her that it's not about how you walk tall, it's about how you tell your story.
I was born and raised in South Africa until just before the age of 13. The immigration had a huge impact on me, especially as I was old enough to make sense of differences between where I came from in South Africa to our new home in Fresno, CA, USA. I remember standing up in front of my new class in USA and the first thing I was asked: “Why are you white if you’re from Africa?” It confused me. While there were more white students at my new school than in South Africa, I was raised in a mixed environment of people of many racial backgrounds. It did not
seem that the Americans I met at that time knew that and I became interested in why. At the same turn, I myself had ideas about America that did not match when I arrived. Fresno was no LA or New York, which were often seen in the American media I grew up watching. We all had our misconceptions about each other, and I found media to be a connection. So, there started my deep interest in people and the media.
That started my early journey into a deep interest and love of researching media and how it us and vice versa. Of course, I didn’t realize it until much later that I was always attached to media until I went to college and decided to study Public Relations. Although I wanted to run away to the circus as a PR specialist, I enrolled in an honor’s course, and my professor, Dr. Chapman, showed me another side to PR and communication – a more critical analytical perspective. Put that together with parents who were both therapists who often allowed me to bother about
questions about people and why we believe what we do, act how we do, treat each other the way we do, which was an important component in PR communication and my honor’s studies, I should have realized that researching and teaching media would have been my destiny. I did not!
While the idea of working in a PR agency didn’t necessarily seem as enticing to me anymore after graduation, I ran away to Europe for six months working as an au pair and traveling. I was exposed to more media in Europe and was entranced by how news media especially covered immigrants and how that tied to the political atmosphere. Upon returning to the US, I applied for a Master’s in International Studies where I focused on the relationship between media, representation, and politics. I had the idea that I was meant to be an immigration lawyer and even studied to take the LSAT exam to apply to law schools.
At the time, my father had become a university professor of Psychology and made me consider adjunct teaching to help make some money while I studied and prepared for the LSAT. He knew how much I still loved media and indicated I had the background and should give it a try. With both my parents urging me to take on the work, I decided to apply to a program to become an adjunct teaching media and communication courses. It wasn’t until I was accepted that my parents warned me that I would probably fall in love with the job after my first course. I never thought to be a teacher. I also wasn’t sure if I’d make a good teacher – I had a bit of fear of public speaking, much like many people, and had always felt a bit unsure of my own knowledge even though I’d just graduated with a graduate degree, no less!
I loved the class. There was something amazing about talking media the whole time and hearing from students what they’re own experiences had been with media versus my own. It gave us each more perspective. I wasn’t teaching as much as learning myself as well. Needless to say, I quickly realized becoming a lawyer was not for me. I wanted to be a university professor. Over 10 years later and there has not been a single regret about the path I have set on.
Sometimes, you do think about what could have been had I gone into entertainment PR, but, honestly, I don’t know if any other job would fulfill me the way teaching does. It’s not because you get to stand up and teach students, but, mostly, it’s what you get to learn from students as well. It sounds cliché, I know, but it’s the truth. Everyone comes from their own experiences, their own cultures, values, and so on, and brings that into class on the subject. I learn as much
as students do and that’s the joy of the job. I’m addicted to connection with others and learning and what better field and environment for me than teaching at university? To be a part of my student’s lives in just some small way has been an absolute blessing. I remember how hard college was and the challenges faced and how some of the professors I remember to this day are the ones who had a profound effect on me beyond class – they encouraged me to think deeper not only about the subject but about myself, to be open and challenge myself. Now, that’s what I hope to pay forward to my own students.
It’s a terrifying job and I have so much more respect for my professors. It’s scary to go up to a class of several faces staring at you. I feel like the fear to face students never quite leaves me. Am I smart enough? Do I look good enough? Am I qualified enough? Will they like me enough? Should they like me at all? What if they fall asleep?! The important thing is not letting those thoughts take over and working to everyday face all the insecurities and fears and show up to the best of your ability.
How would you define confidence?
Confidence for me is being able to face fears despite still fearing them.
When is your first memory of feeling confident?
To be honest, this isn’t my first memory, but the memory I have of feeling confident that has had an interesting impact on me was when I first went scuba diving down to 80ft in the ocean about 2 miles near any land. What makes it more of a lasting memory for me was that our instructor had to leave my buddy and myself at 80ft to retrieve another student who didn’t make it down with us. She was gone for what seemed like ages and here I was with a dive buddy I had just met yesterday in 80ft of water, chilling (almost quite literally) on a barren ocean floor with a single little starfish to keep us company. Yet, I don’t believe I had ever been so calm and so
sure that we were going to be just fine in my entire life. I remember being afraid of scuba diving. Fearing mostly what I didn’t know. My mother was the one who pushed me to take on the sport and to not be afraid of all the things that could go wrong. They train you about what can go wrong, but, especially, how to deal with it. While I am still scares going down sometimes, I remember the training, and rather than panicking, taking a moment, remembering to breathe (always!), and then dealing with any situation. It has been helpful not only for under the water but training I have adopted into my everyday living.
When is your first memory of feeling insecure?
I believe most of the time when I did feel insecure was around 10 or so. I was a tomboy and while my parents didn’t seem to have an issue with it, especially since my mother grew up a tomboy herself, and worked to build us up, I did sometimes feel different from other girls when I didn’t like things in pink, dresses, or even make-up and would rather play on the pitch with the boys. I don’t think it would have been an issue if there were more, but there were fewer of us in my school than not. You can’t help but question if there’s something wrong with you because
there are all these other girls who seem to be into those things, but not you. It’s why the Spice Girls are so important to me. Yes, the infamous British “GIRL POWER” girl group. Not only was Sporty Spice a representation of a girl who could be into sports, tracksuits, a little more masculine who, of course, became my favorite Spice, but all the girls seemed to show different kinds of women, but all working together.
Why did you feel this way or what made you feel this way?
It’s much easier for me to answer this today than it was then. We all grow up being fed a lot of messages about what’s expected of us – what we are expected to wear, like, how we are expected to act. There are expectations and social norms that were established for predominantly two genders. Today, the binary system in gender and even our concept of sexuality is challenged, and we see the idea of gender fluidity and sexuality being represented in media more as it’s taken root in society (not necessarily to say this is the same everywhere,
however). When I was a kid in the early 90s, even being a tomboy was not as socially acceptable necessarily (cute when you’re young, but you’re expected to grow out of it at a certain age). As kids, we were especially reliant on what our guardians taught us about the world and our understanding of our place and role in the world and then you’d typically see those reinforced in the media available in your home (media that typically supports their beliefs and values). So, kids sometimes just say and react based on what they know and were taught to believe. It takes experiencing other places, other people to sometimes expand your views.
What makes you feel most confident now? How has this changed?
There’s nothing that makes me feel quite confident like taking on a challenge. Not necessarily succeeding, but at least trying. Taking on new experiences has helped me build more confidence to face the next challenge and the next whether it’s teaching the next class, the next dive, or even trying on clothing I never thought would be for me.
How are you using your platform to make a difference?
As a teacher, I believe I have a responsibility beyond just teaching students. Sure, critically thinking about media is important to think about our world, but there’s more to life than this, especially when you’re at college maybe as a first-generation or from out of state or as someone who identifies as LGBTQIA, and so on. I’d like to think I’m there as support for my students – any student – beyond their studies. College can be challenging on its own already, but your life’s worries and issues don’t go on deferment while you’re in college and many times it’s life that makes it so much more difficult to focus on your homework or a big exam. Professors can be a source of hope for students and I hope that that’s what I can be to them.
What is something you’re most proud of?
I am most proud of my parents. I wouldn’t be here if not for them. I really wouldn’t be who I am today were it not in large part to them in their support of me growing up, pushing me to new limits, and always being there for me in the good times, but especially the bad. They uprooted the life they knew to take a chance in a new country with English as their second language and with three kids. My parents took on the Mount Everest base camp hike (a pretty intense 14-day walk to over 17,000 ft) at 60! My parents have taught me about what it is to take on challenges in life, to lift yourself back up after a spill and keep going. They’re just simply amazing.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You don’t have to go through life on your own. There is no shame in admitting to needing a helping hand in facing your challenges. Confidence can come in the supporting people you surround yourself with.
Elaine shares all things media, and to be fair some humorous content you don't want to miss, check out her Instagram!
The Campaign for Confidence supports LARK's mission to empower women to feel comfortable in their skin, embrace what makes them one-of-a-kind and show up as they are -- because we are all beautiful. To learn more, click here.
Well written Elaine – I have witnessed your whole family go from strength to strength with enormous courage and confidence over the years I’ve known you. Congratulations for your achievements and paying it forward!
A beautiful story about a beautiful person, inside and outside.
Elaine is that person in life that makes all the difference in this world. She truly makes it a better place. I am one proud mama.
Having spent my entire life with Elaine Venter I can confirm she is an amazing person who has just become more amazing as she has embraced confidence. I’m so proud and inspired by her. Love you sis