At a young age, Nerissa Young filled a few pages with scribbles to proudly show her mother she was a writer. The urge to do journalism, not just writing, came while she worked for WMTD-FM, a mom-and-pop radio station in Hinton, West Virginia, thanks to the excitement of covering her community and the strange but true things that happen.
While pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at Marshall University, Young joined SPJ thanks to the suggestion of her mentors, George Arnold and Ralph Turner. She fondly says that SPJ has allowed her to keep ahead of the curve in the industry, meet people from around the world and develop new best friends and closest confidants.
Now Young mentors students at Ohio University, where she teaches and advises first-year students and helps lead the two-time national outstanding SPJ campus chapter. She said that her work as an SPJ chapter adviser extends naturally from her job as a faculty member and keeps her reinvigorated about the journalism business because “SPJ’ers rock!”
The E.W. Scripps Journalism School SPJ chapter isn’t the only thing that is outstanding. In 2015, Young was named SPJ’s Eshelman Outstanding Campus Chapter Adviser, and she is still doling out words of wisdom and encouragement to students every day.
In her experience, an outstanding student chapter depends on students who are dedicated, committed to SPJ’s mission, organized and ready to work. She sees her role as getting students moving to accomplish their plans, providing guidance and contacts, and making sure the big picture isn’t forgotten.
She loves to see her students succeed, whether it’s getting regional and national Mark of Excellence awards; running a successful campaign for Kate Hiller to be elected student representative on the national board; receiving two outstanding campus chapter awards; or bringing unique experiences to campus, like the Freedom Sings band, Mary Beth Tinker and 9/11 photographer David Handschuh. She said it’s exciting to see students’ reactions when their work is published.
“I really do get as jazzed seeing my students’ work published as I did when my own work was published,” Young said. “I’ve had my time, and I remember that feeling. It’s terrific to be there with them when they have that feeling.”
One of the other projects Young is passionate about is teaching journalists about covering suicide. Before being an educator, she covered the suicide of a young man in her community whose family she knew personally. She struggled with grief and lack of resources on how reporters should write about a very sensitive and complicated topic.
She left daily journalism because depression and sadness weren’t commonly accepted or understood in the field, especially for a journalist who was covering the story. She later learned that those experiences mirror what first responders — including firefighters, police officers, paramedics and combat veteran — go through.
“I began to understand those feelings meant I was human, and that I couldn’t tell the story of humanity if I lost my own,” Young said. “I don’t want journalists or anyone to go through that and feel like something is wrong with them. We see the worst of humanity, and we’re liars if we don’t admit it affects us in negative ways.”
It also worries her that in the college age group, suicide is the second leading cause of death. In response, Young helped develop resources and trainings for journalists who are struggling with those same issues. These sessions focus on the fact that it’s normal and acceptable to be overwhelmed when covering traumatic events, and that help is available.
(The suicide reporting resources are available at bit.ly/ReportingOnSuicide)
A descendent of Scottish mountain people and West Virginia settlers, Young said she is proud that a country girl from little Forest Hill, West Virginia, would be able to do so much in her career. She said she considers herself successful when her students know she’s always believed in them.