About J-School

In my last blog post I mentioned grad school as sort of an afterthought. I suppose I should go into more detail!

First things first, I wrote a while back about switching from pre-veterinary dreams to pursuing a career in journalism. The advice still holds true, imo.

Assuming you’ve caught up on that era of my life (lol), I’ll bring you to my senior year of undergrad. I knew that I wanted to be a journalist and a career in television would be a fun and interesting challenge (spoiler: I was right). There were some obstacles, though. My college had no television outlet, or digital video news for that matter. If I tried to hit the job market right after graduation, I would likely have had to take on several internships at different TV stations until I landed my first job. Or maybe not; maybe I’d find my home at my first internship, and I’d learn so much so fast and do it so well that they would keep me full-time. It’s possible, but we’ll never know.

The point is, I knew that I wanted more training. I wanted to learn as much as I could in an environment where it was okay to make mistakes, BEFORE I did it for a check. It was important for me to hit the ground running in my first job, and to feel confident that I was ready. So in the fall of my senior year, I narrowed my choices down to three potential graduate schools: the University of Missouri, Columbia University (NYC) and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University (Chicago). I had a safety school in mind, but I never ended up applying.

To be honest, I had no idea what my chances were of getting accepted to any of my choices, let alone all three, but that’s how it turned out. I stressed for months but in the end, in spring, I got into every school in the same week. I chose Northwestern because it was a year-long (shorter than Mizzou), well-regarded program where I could get extensive training in video and broadcast journalism. Visiting in April sealed the deal for me; I had only been to Chicago once as a teen for a school trip and I fell in love with it all over again. I had no family or connections there at the time, so I knew it would be a challenge to get to know the city and be farther away from my support circle. But I wanted that experience.

And something about starting my career in TV news in the same city where Oprah had so many amazing years…it was a strong pull.

There’s something about that skyline…

There’s something about that skyline…

So yeah, that’s how I got there. A year in Chicago (well, almost a year; I’ll explain later). And what a year it was! Things happened so... SO fast. Being on the quarter system meant every course was a crash course. I won’t lie, J-school was hard but not for the same reasons as most graduate programs in different fields. We weren’t writing 150-page papers, we didn’t sign up for a six-year program. I didn’t work in a lab or conduct substantial research.

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The beauty of the program, for me, was that we functioned like a real newsroom. Each person had their own beat or specialty; I focused in broadcast/TV skills primarily but I got to do investigative journalism later on. I covered almost everything: restaurants and city council meetings, protests and entrepreneurs, new art exhibits and the aftermath of flooding along the river in the heart of the city. Every day was different. The stress came in during the real-life aspects of our assignments. Sure, the prompt may have been to write a 250-word breaking news story. But what do you do when you have to find it over the weekend and no source will answer the phone? What happens when your editor (professor) wants more, or doesn’t have the same priorities in your piece that you do? How do you bounce back when your equipment fails you in the middle of a shoot? And how do you manage all of that around a schedule of classes that takes up most of your functional hours?

If I’m being honest, I still don’t have the answers. We figure it out every day. But it’s as close to real life as you can get in a classroom.

This was (part of) my classroom: a beautiful studio in the heart of downtown Chicago.

This was (part of) my classroom: a beautiful studio in the heart of downtown Chicago.

It’s hard to sum up everything I did in graduate school. I went to South Africa and talked to young black entrepreneurs about how they plan to build their businesses from the ground up while supporting their families. I spent the summer in Washington, D.C. at Northwestern’s student newsroom covering immigration and demographics, and I got to cover a national breaking story about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election at the last minute. I produced, wrote and anchored my own local TV segment on the future of local journalism in Chicago. I also gave the graduation address, something I’ll never forget.

I’ll never forget that trip!

I’ll never forget that trip!

It was an incredible year full of highs and lows. I can’t count the number of long, stressful nights I had worrying about getting things done, and worrying that it would all be for nothing. There are dozens of pieces floating on the web that question the value of J-school, debating whether it’s worth the thousands of dollars it costs. Journalism does not pay big bucks, so there’s a good chance that I may never pay back my debt.

The friends you make in J-school though? Priceless.

The friends you make in J-school though? Priceless.

A year or two in grad school might not be worth it to everyone, so that’s a choice everyone has to make for themselves. Personally I think it was worth it. Northwestern gave me exactly what I was looking for in a program, and I love being a part of the Medill Mafia. The way we look out for each other is undefeated. But it’s possible to build a great network and skill set without grad school. So what’s a budding journalist to do?

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Research, first of all. Ask current students what the program is like day to day. But also ask yourself what kind of experience you want and need; if you’re trying to teach or focus on a specific beat, you may have to tailor your search more carefully. Be prepared to work hard and push yourself. Figure out how you’ll take care of yourself in your down time and on the job; remember, no job is worth your sanity. And once you’re in, keep pushing. You’ll make it through.

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That about does it for this chapter. I think next time I’ll tell you more about where I am now, just a few months out of Northwestern. Stay tuned and stay great!

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