The Art of Connection

by Stephen Hunt

Robert Aronoff can’t remember exactly what piqued his curiosity to become a communicator. However, Aronoff, a communications professor at the Frisco Campus of Collin College since September 2009, does remember who initially inspired him to make communications a career. 

A native of Clearwater, Florida near Tampa, it was while attending St. Petersburg Junior College, now St. Petersburg College, that he had an epiphany. “I found my direction at the community college I went to. I competed on the speech and debate team. It’s there I discovered the power of communication,” Aronoff said. 
“I have to credit my mentor and coach, Bonnie Clark (Jefferis). Dr. Clark was an amazing person in terms of training me as a communicator. If you’re involved with speech and debate, it gives you exposure to good writing, good speaking, all-around good communication. I just went from there. My whole career’s been about communication.”
After deciding to transfer to a four-year school, Aronoff drove 90 minutes to Orlando to The University of Central Florida (UCF) the day before classes started. “In two hours, I had a full schedule, but I didn’t have any place to sleep,” he recalled.
That night, Aronoff was sleeping in his Ford Bronco when a campus policeman tapped on his window informing him that he couldn’t sleep in his car on campus. Instead of being arrested for trespassing, the officer led him to a couch in the office of then UCF head football coach Gene McDowell, which is where Aronoff spent the night. “I got to know the head coach much later. I used to run an arm of the alumni association and got to do events with the coach,” he said. 
Upon graduating from UCF, he worked as a reporter/anchor for the Florida Radio Network and was then with the Florida Department of Insurance as a communications specialist and speechwriter for 13 years. Aronoff then started working on his Master’s degree at Florida State University (FSU), also teaching undergraduate classes part-time and served as a volunteer assistant coach for the speech and debate team at Tallahassee Community College.
He then became a full-time faculty member at FSU and ran the speech and debate program, a position he held for nearly nine years. However, due to budget cuts caused by the 2008 nationwide financial crisis, he could no longer be a faculty member. “I’d be essentially a fundraiser with being a coach. Being a fundraiser didn’t really appeal to me, so I looked around,” Aronoff said. 
 He applied for community college jobs at four institutions, two in Florida and two in Texas. And after being offered all four jobs, he had a decision to make. Of course, Aronoff chose to make the move to Frisco and join the faculty at Collin College, a no-brainer because of the quality of people he’d met during his visit and the impressive array of resources the institution possesses. “Even coming from a Research-I institution like Florida State, I was blown away with the level of commitment to resources for the students here,” he said. 

“I remember on day one when I first stepped on campus, I had a librarian reach out to me and say hey, just wanted to welcome you to the campus. If you look over our collection and there’s anything we don’t have, let me know and we will get it for you. I was like you mean I don’t have to fill out a form in triplicate and get it through three committees? It really caught me. [That] really taught me how you value students, which is what they do at Collin, which is what made the difference for me.”

As a communications professor, one of his greatest rewards is that lightbulb moment when he sees a student overcome their fear of public speaking by delivering a great speech. Of course, he admits that for him, even at age 55 that nobody ever completely overcomes their fear of speaking before others, but seeing students lessen those fears remains a big motivator. He still feels anxiety when speaking for the first time before a new audience or even on the first day of class in front of a new group of students. 

“I show them the stakes are relatively low. Nobody’s going to die if you don’t do a perfect speech,” Aronoff said. “I don’t try to create Stepford speakers. I don’t want everybody to sound the same. People will say well, what about my voice? I say yeah, what about your voice? It’s great. I don’t want you to sound like everybody else. I don’t want you to sound like a broadcaster from the Midwest. If you are James from Plano, I want you to sound like James from Plano. Just be who you are.”

When not teaching, Aronoff works as a communications consultant and speechwriter, and periodically volunteers as a judge at local speech and debate competitions. Another of his passions is to tap into his connections in the music industry and professional sports to bring speakers to Collin College with interesting tales to tell. The first speaker visited on April 6, 2023 when Josh Eppard, drummer of the popular progressive rock band Coheed and Cambria hosted a question-and-answer session about drug abuse, which nearly ruined his music career, and recovery. 

“I try to bring people with interesting stories to tell,” Aronoff said. “The more I got to know him [Eppard] and his story, the more I realized that story needs to be told. At the height of his addiction, he was spending a thousand dollars a day on heroin. Took him seven years to climb out of the black hole of addiction, got himself clean and returned to the band and the band is touring now. They’re more popular than ever before. They just finished a US and European tour where every show was sold out. That’s a story of redemption that I think needs to be told.”

Stephen Hunt is a freelance writer based in Frisco.

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