Volume 95, Issue 89

Thursday, March 21, 2002
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Alumni Adventures: we don't all end up failures

Paul Wells - from chemist to National newsman

Paul Wells - from chemist to National newsman

Name: Paul Wells
Age: 34
Age in dog years: 238
Degree: Bachelor of Arts – Political Science
Graduated: 1989
Career: Political columnist, National Post
Previous jobs: Gazette News Editor, Montreal Gazette reporter
Favourite hangout: Parliament Hill
Favourite Western professor who never taught him: Dino Bidinosti
Number of Gazette reporters dated: 1

By Dale Wyatt
Gazette Staff

Gazette File Photo

SO MANY FILES TO SHRED, SO LITTLE TIME. Former Western student and Gazette editor Paul Wells (left) in the winter of 1988.

Most students enter university unsure of where they will find themselves in four years. In 1984, a young Paul Wells was no different.

Today, Wells is a columnist with the National Post. While his journalistic aspirations began here at Western, his academic path started elsewhere. He arrived at university with the dream of becoming a chemist.

Unfortunately, multiple house parties and an uncontrollable situation got in the way.

By second year, a hopeful Wells saw his dream of becoming a chemist disappear when he couldn't get into a class with one of Western's top professors. "Dr. Dino Bidinosti is still one of the stars of the chemistry department. I am not a chemist today because I couldn't get Bidinosti in second year," Wells said.

Luckily, a viable option presented itself in the form of another party. The party was for Western's model student parliament and Wells was asked to participate at the last minute.

"The first night was a house party at the student prime minister's [house] and it was the best party I had ever been to. The conversations were interesting, the women were beautiful and I drank until I was sick. Then I thought I could go back to being a chemistry student or I could just do this for the rest of my life.

"One reason I flunked out of chemistry was because I stayed up all night arguing politics with my floormates. So I thought, why not do it for credits?"

After wasting two years struggling with chemistry, a freshly inspired Wells made the transition to the world of political science. Looking back, Wells said he was lucky to realize it was the right choice for him.

"A lot of people get a degree based on what they think they should do. I just realized what felt right was to devote my academic career to studying Canadian federalism – it was a choice I couldn't explain, even while I was making it," Wells said.

Outside of academics, Wells devoted the majority of his time to Western's student newspaper The Gazette – which, at the time, published twice a week. It was there his passion for writing grew.

"[The Gazette] was the centre of my social life. I dated another Gazette reporter and it was the number one influence on my academic schedule. I would do homework, but only if I could spare time from The Gazette."

However, the choice to become an impoverished, coffee-addicted journalist didn't happen right away.

"I didn't decide [to be a journalist] until I had been at The Gazette for awhile. I knew there were students there who thought it would give them a journalistic career. I spent time at The Gazette because I liked doing it and I wanted it to be good."

Wells worked towards his bachelor of arts degree, assuming he would be a lawyer, a teacher or a journalist. "I never really made a decision to shut the other doors," he explained. "Journalism just made more and more sense as I went along. Journalism chose me much more definitively than I chose journalism."

At the time, Wells felt he was learning more outside class than inside, but he now realizes The Gazette was more of an excuse to skip class than anything else.

"At the time, I thought I was learning more outside of class, but the further I got in life, the more I found the stuff I actually learned in an academic setting to be useful. I think it was less useful at the time because I made a decision to make it less useful. As I get older, I think class time does matter – or should. You can't get a second university education, so you should try to get the first one right," Wells advised.

Students should attempt to be better than everyone else at whatever they do, Wells added. "If you assume you are going to ride to a level of mediocrity, you almost certainly will. If you assume you will rise to a level of excellence, you might be right. However you define ambition, it shouldn't be something you are ashamed or afraid of."

Western professor Robert Young was one central figure who influenced Wells academically. "He just brought a kind of rigour and a really deep interest in the stuff we were studying and you couldn't bullshit him. Lord knows, we spent the first half of the year trying – you just had to be good."

After graduation, Wells got his first break in journalism – an internship at The Montreal Gazette. He had applied to graduate journalism programs, but he made a pact with himself to only attend if he was unable to keep his job.

The pact was never broken.

In 1998, Wells was offered a job at the National Post. He was one of the first two journalists hand-picked to work for the new publication and quickly made the move from a city-based daily to a national newspaper.

Reflecting on everything that has happened in his life, Wells said he feels he has been successful, though he has yet to receive any awards.

"Measured against any of my expectations, I have been successful. Most reporters don't really earn a decent living because they are working for small town papers. Anyone who is working at a large metropolitan daily is ahead of the game and I was doing that when I was 22."

Wells has earned himself journalistic freedom, a solid reputation and has few financial worries in the near future. "The paycheques are still coming," he explained. "So I'll take it."

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