“Do you like your job?” one of the students asked. I paused – this wasn’t one of the questions I was anticipating. Looking around the room at the eager faces in front of me, I contemplated my answer carefully.
Just before the end of the school year, I was invited into Poynette Middle School to speak to two groups of students about my journalism career and the path that led me to where I am today. The students, interested in English classes and writing, were then working on a course through the Wisconsin Center for Academically Talented Youth when I went to visit them.
When I was asked if I’d be interested in speaking with the groups, there wasn’t a hesitation in my mind. As I was growing up, I didn’t have much exposure to authors or journalists. So, when it came time for me to begin to think about my career choice, I didn’t necessarily believe that writing, a passion I held close, would be a viable choice.
I also didn’t think people normally chose to go after a dream or follow their passions for a career. My father used to work in a foundry and later in life became a plumber – although he loves his career now (why, I’ll never understand), he still shares stories of what he dreamed of being when he was young, a cameraman or something a little more exciting. My mother became a human resource specialist; she wanted to be a veterinarian and now, I believe, dreams of helping people as a spiritualist of some kind. (She is already a true healer; I can attest to that.)
After Mary Kennedy, the advanced learner coordinator for the Poynette School District, introduced me to the students, I began telling my story.
I reminisced on my high school experience, which was when I met one of my biggest role models, Rodney Vick. The first time I encountered Mr. Vick was when I walked into his journalism class my sophomore year. I’ll admit I had no idea what to expect. I admired journalists on local news programs and the thought of writing for the New York Times was a regular daydream of mine. Although I don’t recollect many of the lessons in Mr. Vick’s class (I believe much of it was ‘the basics’ – how to write an intriguing lede, the inverted pyramid style of writing), his presence and life story is what sticks with me today. Before teaching, Mr. Vick had been a local reporter at a small newspaper nearby. He was also a published author with a series of novels. After meeting him, journalism became a serious career prospect for me.
Before the end of high school, I had taken two more of Mr. Vick’s classes, both were creative writing-related. While explaining this part to the students, I told them that exposure to creative writing still helps me in the journalism world. Although reporting is based on facts and is often “to the point,” having the skill to write creatively helps paint a picture for readers –elements like word choice and vivid descriptions can make “mundane” stories a little more appealing to a casual subscriber and allow readers truly feel the moments journalists aim to capture through words.
Mr. Vick also encouraged me to join the student newspaper, which I did my senior year. The paper was made up of a team of four students and Mr. Vick, the advisor. It wasn’t much, but it was an experience.
I was honest with the Poynette students about contemplating college. When it came time for me to choose a university, I had no idea what I was doing. I was a first-generation college student within my immediate family, so all the paperwork filing, essay writing and scholarship searching was completely new to us. I applied to a few schools and was accepted to the majority of them. But, something just didn’t feel right.
My application to Columbia College Chicago was the last one I filled out. I’m not even sure how I found out about Columbia, but when I discovered its journalism department website, I was hooked. The professors were described as “working professionals” – many of them had been journalists or still were. Moving to Chicago was an opportunity for experience.
Settling into college and “the big city” was difficult for me, to say the least. But, that’s another long tale for another day. Despite the initial challenges, I found myself enthused when I was in class. I met some influential professors who inspired me just as much as Mr. Vick did. I took a variety of journalism courses – covering the courts, covering politics, blogging, interpretive reporting – but the real excitement came when I was out in the field on assignment. I spent many hours out on the streets of Chicago interviewing strangers walking by, attending government meetings and covering protests.
The summer before my last semester at Columbia, I came home to Wisconsin and interned with a Milwaukee news station, WISN12. Although I knew I wasn’t interested in doing TV reporting, I knew it would still be another worthwhile experience for me. I spent the summer working alongside the station’s night reporters; we traveled around the city and surrounding areas to crime scenes, attempted to track down the elusive Milwaukee lion and covered events like Summerfest. I wrote mock articles while the reporters put together their TV packages for the 10 p.m. broadcast. Again I felt I was building connections and seeing working journalism firsthand, which helped me more, in the end, than any textbook would.
While explaining all of this to the sixth and eighth graders that sat in front of me, I tried to emphasize the magnitude of experiences. Although studying and doing well in class is crucial, pushing yourself to get out of the box, take a stab at something new or go after a dream is incredibly important. It’s critical for not only your career, but also for your happiness and personal success. There isn’t a feeling in the world like looking back and thinking, I did that?!
In high school, I never thought I would be comfortable wandering around an extraordinary city asking strangers for their thoughts on big issues. In college, I did it. Throughout college, I never believed I would be in the back of a news van traveling to the scene of a recent shooting. At WISN, I did it. When I was a kid, I never imagined I could make something of myself as a writer. Right now, I’m doing it.
“Well, I like it more than I dislike it,” I replied to the student’s question.
This job, like any other, is an experience.