Remember your first nerve-racking interview as a student journalist? Remember the thrill of finishing your first story and having it actually be in the world? Remember reaching out to pros for advice while in college, not knowing if they’d talk to you, then hearing they gladly would?
It’s why, after nearly three decades in this difficult, rewarding business, I try to help every student journalist who reaches out to me. It’s why I make the time — and have for years — to talk with students, in classes or individually, in person or electronically, to listen to and to learn from them.
Ahead of my swearing-in ceremony as national president of SPJ in September, I agreed to an interview with Justus Hawkins, a student at Morgan State University, an Historically Black College in Maryland. He wanted to talk about a mental health panel I had moderated with a therapist whose advice was part treatment and part pep talk for journalists who had been juggling and struggling for months, covering a once-in-a-century pandemic and our nation’s racial reckoning. The therapist told us something we should bear in mind every day: It’s OK to not feel OK. Don’t forget that.
I answered his questions and then I asked Justus what he thought. “I needed that,” he said. “This time has been very hard. I am still trying to find some grounding in this new life.”
The next day, after my inaugural speech, Justus reached out again, privately, on Twitter.
“SPJ has been a savior for me. I cannot begin to explain the anxiety, depression and secondhand PTSD I have received since May,” he wrote. “From supporting the social justice movement, to the pandemic and trying to adjust to my new life…it has been a hard time. I would find myself at my keyboard with my thoughts scattering around like toddlers. “SPJ has given [me] an opportunity to write and also heal,” he added. “Thank you again.”
His words were so beautiful that I asked him if I could share them in this column. He graciously agreed. But here’s the thing. It is we who should be thanking you, Justus.
Thanking every student member who sees a bright future in journalism and value in SPJ. Thank you for your dedication to the craft of journalism and to SPJ, for lifting us up.
A few months after we met at the SPJ20 convention, I reached out to Justus to see if he would serve on a task force of student and pro members to review SPJ’s long and complicated policy for forming campus chapters. He accepted, and I’m proud to say that our new streamlined policy will make it easier to start a chapter and more likely for it to succeed over time. Before, we required 10 student members to form a chapter. Now we require only three — and offer them more support. The task force also worked hard to identify Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, campuses with high concentrations of Asian American students and tribal schools so SPJ could meet — and hopefully exceed — our goal of launching 10 new campus chapters this year, with priority given to those that would help students of color get a head start in a journalism field that needs more of them.
Justus’ work is just one way students have become more integral to SPJ this year. Four other students served with him on that SPJ Task Force on Student Chapter Formation. Nine students formed a new advisory Student Trustee Council to be national leaders and to guide the organization into the future. Others will help SPJ with panels at our SPJ21 convention focused on campus activity. With a generous grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation, we’ve also created a Student Leadership Institute to mentor student leaders and build their skills and confidence. And I’m excited to share that we have fulfilled another huge goal of mine: We will partner with Associated Collegiate Press and College Media Association for our 2022 convention in Washington, D.C., giving students even more opportunities to expand skills and networks.
We’re making progress in many areas in SPJ this year, but I’m especially proud that our focus on students and diversity is resulting in big things on campus. The future of SPJ — the future of journalism — will be written by students. We should do all we can to help them succeed.
I’ll keep helping students long after my presidency ends. I challenge you to make the same commitment. If you get the opportunity to zip or Zoom into a classroom, do it. If a student reaches out, reply. Students, reach out!
These may be the most important interviews any of us do in our careers — because that person you help can then help the people around and after them.
Pass it on, SPJ. Pay it forward.