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Dialogue Magazine

A chance to give back

Winter 2023 Gratitude

By Kingsley Day

Even as Northwestern graduate students, Joy Shih and Joe Nelesen were already thinking about how they could eventually help support the school.

Joe Nelesen and Joy Shih

“When Joe and I were there, we both received fellowships for our master’s and PhD—full tuition plus a yearly stipend,” says Shih. “And so even back then, we were talking about how we had to give back to Northwestern. Look at what they’ve given to us.”

“My fellowship was transformative,” adds Nelesen. “My PhD wouldn’t have been possible without it, and it has opened doors for the rest of my life.”

“We thought back then that if we were ever lucky enough to be in a position in our lives to be able to give significantly to Northwestern, that would be our number-one priority,” says Shih. Now she and Nelesen are fulfilling that early resolve in a big way with their recent donation to the School of Communication Alumni Fund. Rather than being earmarked for a specific program or facility, the gift provides the school with broad, unrestricted support.

“We wanted to provide an expandable fund that Dean Johnson can use to make the biggest possible impact, with all the flexibility he needs,” explains Nelesen. “It goes back to the school’s current leaders and their goals. They know better than we do how to make those things happen. We just want to provide fuel for the fire.”

Joy Shih came to Northwestern from California’s Bay Area. “I was really into theatre and speech and debate when I was in high school. So I focused on going to a college where I could double-major in theatre and communication studies. Back then, there was no Internet, so I had to do research to see which colleges were good at this or that. I talked to a lot of people, and it became really clear that if those were my double majors, then I had to go to Northwestern.”

One of her early classes was a persuasion course with communication studies professor Michael Roloff, and the experience was life changing. “I took every single class I could possibly take with him as an undergraduate, and he ended up advising me on my senior honors thesis. Because of Professor Roloff, I stayed at Northwestern for graduate study, and he was my master’s thesis adviser and my dissertation committee chair.”

Also a California native but from further south, Joe Nelesen studied mass communication as an undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego. “I wanted to get my PhD somewhere that had an interdisciplinary approach, a place with a strong mass communication program but also with ties to economics, business and technology. I was admitted to a number of schools, but Northwestern was the best. My father, a former professor, said, ‘You’ve just got to go there; it’s not a question.’ I knew he was right and didn’t look back.”

With James Webster as his dissertation adviser, Nelesen researched audience behavior on the worldwide web—a prescient choice in the 1990s. “I quickly learned that what I thought was a jacket was no match for Evanston winters, but I had a magical experience. The interdisciplinary approach was really what I wanted. And of course, an added bonus for me was seeing a beautiful, brilliant young woman in Harris Hall who is now my wife. I took too long to work up the courage to talk to her, but she helped me out.”

Shih ended up working in finance, first in mergers-and-acquisitions banking and then as a mergers-acquisitions specialist at Motorola and Applied Materials. Nelesen began his career as a consultant in telecommunications, thanks in part to the School of Communication’s real-world connections.

“From that, I moved into finance and banking with telecom and communications companies, relying a lot on the lessons and types of inquiry I had worked on at Northwestern,” he says. “Today I’m with S&P Global, an international financial intelligence provider, working to make sense of markets and economies through the intersection of data and behavior. That’s what I loved doing in Harris Hall at Northwestern, and now I get to do it at a different scale.

“I use processes I learned at the School of Communication every day, in my work and in other facets of my life. The areas I was studying then with Professor Webster and with Rick Morris—how media facilitate public discourse and exposure to the world’s diversity of opinions and views—are more important than ever right now.”

The couple returned to Harris Hall last year to attend Michael Roloff’s retirement celebration and have enjoyed opportunities to speak with Dean E. Patrick Johnson. “We were both so energized and inspired by the way he approaches the future and by his vision for the school,” recalls Nelesen. “He has ambitions and really achievable goals to make this wonderful school even more wonderful for a whole new generation.”