Putting Himself on the Line
A Medill junior gives the lowdown on his campus night job, which he likes despite a daily dose of rejection.
by Gregory Presto
I know where you live.
I also know what you studied. I know where you work. I know your spouse’s and children’s names. If I work at it, I can figure out if you were in a fraternity or sorority. And which one.
“Hi, I’m Greg Presto, and I’m a student at Northwestern University. I’ve called you on behalf of the Northwestern Annual Fund here at Phonathons in the Office of Annual Giving. How are you this evening? I’m calling you for several important reasons tonight, but first I need to make sure I have your correct home address.”
A lot of alumni just don’t want another phone call from someone they’ve never met, especially not one asking them for a donation. But it’s OK. They were probably planning to respond to one of Northwestern’s direct-mail solicitations. Or they’re having a dinner party. Or they’re frantically packing for a trip. Or maybe they’re Mrs. Darcy.
“Oh, you want to speak to my husband?” she asks. “You’ll have to yell pretty loud, honey. He’s been dead for 12 years.”
Many of you who have stayed on the phone with me have done so to tell me how angry you are with the University. Perhaps you’ve stayed with me just long enough to advise me not to major in theater, unless of course I want to sell industrial fans for the rest of my life.
But every so often, one of you stays on the line for a different reason.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” one alumnus tells me on a cold Thursday night. “I walked out of University Hall into the sun. I had on my best shoes, and a breeze was kicking up from the lake. And there, by the Rock, I saw her.”
This is the call. This is why I do this.
“She was wearing a red scarf, and her hair was wavy, stopping just above her shoulders. We ate lunch at the Scott Hall Grill.”
Others just like to have someone on the phone they can toy with. “I’ll give you $5 for every starter on the football team you can name in a minute,” one alumnus instructs. “Go.”
I get Kunle Patrick in as the minute ended; he donates $70.
Actually, I like my job. Each night, I sit with 10 to 20 of Northwestern’s gabbiest students, raising funds for programs they’re passionate about, whether they be Indian cinema, the School of Music or the sailing club.
But I’m not at Phonathons for love of the school. I started as a caller two years ago, a month into my first year. I was uncomfortable soliciting, no matter what the pay was.
Today, I’m a student supervisor. I train new callers and try to make them feel comfortable about what they’re doing. I tell them that they’re not sleazy telemarketers. But there’s something I don’t tell the rookies: I still feel a little uneasy when I slip on my headphones and start soliciting.
But I’ve stayed, no matter how many receivers have been slammed down. Every so often, an alumnus tells me how the wind felt at his last football game. He’ll tell me the score, and the songs the band played at halftime. Once in a while, an alumna will tell me her favorite beach spots and make me promise to find the rock she painted her senior year.
I’m often told about the opportunities my degree will provide me. I’m glad for that notion, but I’m happier when alumni stress other aspects of college life. My ears perk up when I’m told that I can get the lecture notes from someone else, but sunny days don’t come that often.
“When the sun’s out, you better get out, boy,” a Southern alumnus tells me. “Those girls are solar-powered. Sunny days are the only days you’ll see ’em.”
And once, a young alumna confides that she too used to be a caller for Phonathons.
“God, it’s hard, isn’t it?” she says. “But it’s a good thing you’re doing, so keep on plugging along and have fun while you’re at it.”
I do. And I do.
Gregory Presto of Pittsburgh, a junior in the Medill School of Journalism, hopes to pursue a career in entertainment journalism — not in telemarketing.