|photo courtesy of people.com|
True confession: I enjoyed the Melania/Michelle memes. I laughed out loud and shared a few on Facebook. But I also know that plagiarism is really no laughing matter. An accusation of plagiarism has serious consequences. It can result in expulsion if the accused is in school and termination if employed. I know because it happened to me.
It was my final year of undergrad. I was a journalism major finishing my B.A. I had been awarded a scholarship in exchange for working on the school newspaper. I enjoyed finding and writing stories. I liked editing and laying out the paper. Life was good until I made a huge mistake.
It was about 2:00 am and the newspaper had a hole in it, and we didn't have a story to fill it. Dead tired, we ready to call it a night, but there are no blank pages in a news paper. We couldn’t come up with any ideas to fill it. Then I remembered that I done this paper for my science writing class on being left handed. I got it and showed it to the editor. She gave me the thumbs up. We put it in the blank space and it was a perfect fit. There was a God! We put the paper to bed and went home.
A few days later, I was in the newspaper office, when a call came in for me to report to the head of the journalism department’s office. The head of the department was also my science writing teacher. The girl who answered the phone said he sounded upset. I headed to his office clueless as to what he might be mad about. When I arrived to his office, he was five shades darker than the pink shirt he was wearing. Butterflies fluttered around in my stomach.
“Sit down, Stephanie.” His tone frightened me. What had I done? He had a copy of the school newspaper. My story was on the back page. It was highlighted in various places. I still didn’t know what was going on. “You plagiarized this story.” How could he say I plagiarized the story? What I had used from the Reader’s Digest article was in quotes and I had mentioned in the story where the quote came from. That’s what I had been trained to do: use direct quotes and attribute the source.
I tried to explain this to my professor. But he told me two things: one that I had quoted too much from the Reader’s Digest article and that I had stolen the writer’s idea. In the original story, the writer had compared being left handed to Alice in Wonderland and I also used that in my story explaining what it felt like to be left handed. I didn’t know that I couldn’t do that. I really didn’t know that I had done anything wrong. I mean who volunteers to put their head on the chopping block? I t was my idea to run the story!
A student had read the article in Reader’s Digest and also read my article. Seeing the similarities, he went to see the head of the journalism department. My professor explained that I would have to go before an expulsion hearing. The editor of the newspaper said regardless of the outcome of the hearing, she would vote against me keeping my scholarship. She seemed to take as a personal assault on her. I tried talking to her, but to no avail. (But that’s another story.)
In the end, I lost my scholarship, but I was able to stay in school and finish my degree. The professor testified that he did not think the plagiarism was intentional. I was put on probation. I went on to graduate, but I was scarred by the incident. For a long time, I wouldn’t write. The fear of plagiarism had paralyzed my pen. I eventually began writing again.
Plagiarism is not something to be taken lightly. From what I’ve read, it doesn’t seem like Melania fully understands the ramifications of her actions. But the Trump camp should have known better. They goofed big time, and what should have been a shining moment for Melania has turned into a big gaffe for her, her husband and the Republican National Convention.
I feel bad for Melania. I can imagine how she feels. My incident in college was one of the most humiliating and hurtful experiences I’ve ever had in my life. But mine did not play out on a national stage and on TV with millions of people watching. The fallout has been relentless. But this too shall pass; it did for me. I learned some valuable lessons from my experience as will Melania from hers.