Home My Medill Story

Medill or bust: My journey to becoming a storyteller

By Darren Zancan (MSJ12)

During the sixth grade, my class had the opportunity to write and submit a story to the Young Authors’ contest. While most of my class was writing about fictional characters, I focused on real life experiences. Up to that point I had already lost several people – one being my childhood best friend to a tragic accident.

Chicago Bulls’ star Michael Jordan had just released his autobiography, which inspired me to follow suit. My story was selected to move on in the competition, and during the award ceremony a publisher approached me. She wanted to publish my piece. I looked at my mom, looked back at the publisher and said no. Writing was never about an award, it was about telling a story.Darren Zancan looking up.

At that moment, I knew what I wanted to do in life – be a storyteller.
My dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009. Up to that point, I had essentially wasted away most of my life, never taking anything – except for writing – seriously. I had dropped in and out of college many times. In one of our last conversations, I looked at him and said I was tired of failing. Losing my dad pushed me to live life to the fullest, and I looked at this as a second chance in life.

I went back to that moment in sixth grade and knew what needed to be done – finish my degree. I ended up graduating with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from EKU. In the two years at EKU, I was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, president of the EKU Society of Professional Journalists chapter, and was selected as the 2011 commencement speaker. My goals were bigger than just a bachelor’s degree. Reggie Beehner, my undergrad advisor at the time, is a Medill graduate. Almost weekly, I expressed to Reggie my dream was to attend Northwestern, be a storyteller, and graduate from Medill.

I remember going to dinner with my mom around the same time to fill her in on my future goals. She looked at me and said, “What’s your backup option? And your third option?”

Northwestern. And Northwestern. It was Medill or bust.

A few months later – after what felt like years – I called my mom. I started the conversation with, “Do you own anything that’s purple and black?” I could tell my mom was initially confused. After a few seconds, she screamed in pure joy. The dots connected – I was a Medill master’s student (A big thank you to Donna Wang Su).

I commuted every day from Northwest Indiana to Evanston or the newsroom on Clark Street. My professor, Susan Chandler, was walking with me to the train station after class one day, and she asked why being at Medill meant so much to me. It was more than an education for me. I have always lived by the moniker that if you believe it, you can achieve it. Dreams are meant to become accomplishments. In this life we can be difference makers. If I learned from the best, I could take that and pass it on to the generations after me. Medill is a difference maker, and that is what I told her.Darren Zancan at his production studio.

Medill continues to be a difference maker in my life. At its core, Medill thrives because of the faculty and staff that have paved the way since the school’s inception. The passion runs deep, which is something I witnessed from the moment I walked into Fisk Hall. Yes, these professors and editors laid a solid foundation (along with striving to never get a Medill F), but it was always more than that. The intrinsic value to push us, make us better human beings, curious truth seekers, and unique storytellers stands above all.

Most importantly, they cared.

They cared not because they had to, but because they wanted us to go out into the world and strive to be the best at what we do.
Because of Northwestern and Medill, I’ve accomplished more than I could have ever imagined. Four days after graduating, I started teaching video, sports reporting, and journalism at three colleges and universities. I witnessed firsthand professors like Jim Distasio, Joe Mathewson, and so many others invest in us. I wanted to keep the ball rolling and do my best to inspire the next generation of storytellers. Heck, I am just a few months away from graduating with my doctoral degree.

While teaching, I was simultaneously planning something more; something deeper and creative. In 2013, I founded DMZ Productions, a video production company. The inspiration came from Distasio, my first Medill professor. The way he told stories through a camera lens was the push in the direction I craved. Years later, a company thatDarren Zancan teaching. started with one now has a full staff. We’ve created corporate videos for universities and companies across the country, and in 2021, we introduced a new division to the company – DMZ Films. During that expansion, we penned a Christmas full-length feature screenplay, wrote, and started filming a workplace comedy called “The Home,” developed “History Alive,” a historical/paranormal docuseries, and just finished a documentary about The Kentucky Theatre called “The Heartbeat of Downtown.”

Recently, I’ve been in a bit of a creative rut. Maybe a little stuck. I felt as if I needed some sort of sign that things would open up. I looked at social media and saw a memory Jan. 2, 2012. It was my first official day as a Medill student. I looked at my watch and chuckled. It was Jan. 2, 2022, exactly 10 years later to the day. It was the sign I needed. I hopped in my car and made my way to campus for the first time in seven years.

I meticulously made my way up to every floor, remembering very specific events during my time at Medill. I stopped at Mike Greenberg’s Hall of Achievement photo and thought back to the sixth grade. In those few moments I noticed something. I was smiling. I felt that energy starting to flow through my veins. The rush, the excitement, and imagined such a wide-open future in front of me.

I sat on the steps in Fisk Hall, closed my eyes and let it soak in. I no longer felt like the person who worried about failing. I grew up wanting to be a storyteller, and because of Medill, the dream is becoming a reality.

Medill laid the pathway for my future.

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Next Avenue’s Managing Editor Richard Eisenberg (BSJ78) Says Goodbye — But Not Farewell

Reprinted with permission from Next Avenue. Photo credit: Richard Eisenberg 

Reflections on a 10-year run, plus parting advice from what I learned as the site’s Money and Work & Purpose channels editor

by Richard Eisenberg

After a wonderful lunch in New York City a few weeks ago with Next Avenue writers Kerry Hannon and Chris Farrell, I needed to buy a bus ticket for the trip home to New Jersey. The ticket booth clerk had posted a sign reading “Today Is My Last Day Before Retirement” and was wearing an “I’m Retired” sash, along with a huge smile. I’m about to retire, too (from my job as Next Avenue’s managing editor and editor of the site’s Money & Policy and Work & Purpose channels). Although I don’t have a sash, I did want to share a few reflections and advice as I sashay out.

Although it may seem to some Next Avenue readers that our site has been around forever, truth is that my fellow launch team members started working here just over 10 years ago — in November 2011. I was brought on as editor of the site’s Money and Work & Purpose channels.

Our small team — then split mostly between St. Paul, Minn., and the New York City area — tinkered quietly for six months, mostly to figure out what Next Avenue would be; the site went live in May 2012.

How Next Avenue Started
The idea for this journalism nonprofit was hatched by two visionaries at Twin Cities PBS (TPT): the station’s then-CEO Jim Pagliarini and his Next Avenue co-founder Judy Diaz. I was told they felt PBS should do something for boomers (then roughly 50 to 65) the way it had created “Sesame Street” for kids.

They felt PBS should do something for boomers (then roughly 50 to 65) the way it had created “Sesame Street” for kids.

I’d been a personal finance writer and editor for decades (Money, Yahoo!, Good Housekeeping, CBS MoneyWatch) and was 55 in 2011, so I felt the job was a perfect match. I was right. Over the years, my job broadened and I also became Next Avenue’s managing editor and copy editor. At a small-budget journalism nonprofit with big ideas and plans, you often wear several hats.

These days, our audience now includes Generation X, since some of them are 50-plus, too.

For the personal finance and career channels at Next Avenue, I’ve written pieces that were highly personal (“Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff” after my father died), exclusive (parts of our annual Influencers in Aging list) global (how the oldest people in the world make their money last) and arcane (everything you didn’t want to know about backdoor Roth IRA conversions). I’ve edited pieces on topics ranging from starting a business after 50 to the importance of end-of-life financial planning, too.

After turning 65 in July and realizing I was nearing my 10-year anniversary at Next Avenue, I thought the time was right to retire. At Next Avenue, we really prefer not to use that word, though, because it connotes the 1950s version of no-work/all leisure. Instead, we talk about “unretiring” — a term popularized by Chris Farrell’s 2016 book, “Unretirement.”

Why I’m Retiring Now
My decision wasn’t about the pandemic or about The Great Resignation. And I’m ignoring The Motley Fool article I just read, “3 Reasons Why 2022 May Be a Bad Year to Retire.”

I’ve just decided it’s time for me to begin the journey on my next avenue, even if, in the words of the late Stephen Sondheim, “Everybody Says Don’t.”

My retirement will be what Bruce Feiler, author of “Life Is in the Transitions,” calls one of the biggest transitions people go through. When I interviewed him for Next Avenue about his intriguing book, he told me there are three phases of transitions: The Long Goodbye, The Messy Middle and The New Beginning.

I’m now at the Long Goodbye stage, where, Feiler says, “you say goodbye to a life that is not coming back.” I’m hoping to zip through The Messy Middle (where you figure out the new transition) and quickly head into The New Beginning where, as Feiler explains, “you are unveiling your new self. It’s time to update your story and tell other people.”

Here’s how I see my New Beginning: Freelancing for Next Avenue and other sites; continuing to write book reviews for People and co-hosting the “Friends Talk Money” podcast; volunteering; mentoring; traveling with my wife and seeing our L.A.-based sons Aaron and Will and their wives (COVID-19 permitting), learning pickleball (I think it’s the law now, isn’t it?) and seeing what else comes my way — as well as what strikes my fancy.

I realize I’m enormously fortunate to be able to choose my retirement date; many others can’t, due to financial or health circumstances.

I know that, along with some boomers in their mid-60s, I’m in the last generation who’ll receive one or more employer pensions; in my case, I’ll receive two: from years working at what was once Time Inc., and Hearst.

What I Did to Help Make Retirement Possible
Following the advice I’ve offered to readers for years, I saved furiously for college bills through 529 savings accounts, mutual funds and U.S. savings bonds; I have socked away money diligently for retirement since my 20s, in 401(k)s and self-employment retirement plans; been serious about keeping an emergency savings fund; paid off our mortgage; lived pretty frugally (my wife and I drive 2010 and 2012 Mazdas, also paid off), and been cautious about debt.

My traditional Medicare, Medigap and Medicare Part D prescription drug plans will take effect in January (that’s been a hassle). I expect to delay claiming Social Security until I’m 67, taking advantage of the larger benefits I’ll receive by postponing them.

My health is mostly good, with one gigantic caveat: my kidneys are pretty lousy, due to decades with diabetes. It’s possible that I’ll eventually need a kidney transplant or dialysis, but I’m doing my best to avoid either.

My late mother had dementia and I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say that I worry I will get it one day, too. Here, I’m following the advice Next Avenue has offered — trying to stay healthy, challenging myself mentally, continuing to engage with others, working part-time and volunteering. But I also have a long-term care insurance policy, just in case, and hope the insurer will pay up if it comes to that; not all do.

Speaking of advice, I couldn’t conclude this farewell address without sharing a few personal finance and career tips for people in their 50s and 60s that I’ve picked up at Next Avenue:

Save for retirement and for emergencies. I won’t belabor this, since you hear it all the time from personal finance writers. I know it isn’t easy, and sometimes isn’t possible. But the more you can put money aside today, the more you’ll thank yourself tomorrow — whether that’s in six months or in six years.

Consult a financial adviser and an estate lawyer. My wife and I met with one financial planner when our sons were small, for tips on paying their future tuition bills (the takeaway: fund a 529 college savings plan and start when your kids are young if you can).

A few years ago, we started working with a fee-only, fiduciary Certified Financial Planner who has taken a more holistic look at our finances, offering wise counsel and recommendations on investing, insurance, taxes and debt.

We also hired an estate lawyer to ensure our final wishes will be met; that was no fun and took too much time and money, but it needed to get done.

Get lucky if you can — and make your luck, too. My luck was finding a wonderful partner in my wife Liz (married 36 years), having two fantastic, loving sons and living during years when both the stock market and housing markets soared. There were also years when both markets crashed, but I didn’t panic and waited them out.

I’d say I made my luck in my career.

After getting a journalism degree at Northwestern University and landing a job as a fact-checker at Money, I worked hard and learned all I could to allow me to move up the ranks and then land jobs at other media outlets, ultimately winding up at Next Avenue.

Part of my ability to get these jobs, I think, was networking frequently — on LinkedIn, through phone calls, emails and meet-ups — to be in the right place with the right skills at the right times.

I’ve written often, and published Next Avenue articles by experts like Nancy Collamer, about how age discrimination by employers can make it difficult for people in their 50s and 60s to get hired. I’ll always be grateful to Yahoo! for hiring me at 53 (a recruiter found my LinkedIn profile) and for TPT for taking me on at 55 (a freelancer who’d written for me told me about the job).

Brilliant experts — from AgeWave’s Ken Dychtwald to’s Marc Freedman to authorities on elders Chip Conley and Bob Blancato to retirement gurus such as WISER’s Cindy Hounsell and Transamerica’s Catherine Collinson (all Next Avenue Influencers in Aging) — have helped let me keep my Next Avenue job by sharing their wisdom in articles I’ve written, assigned and edited.

I’m grateful, too, to Next Avenue’s fabulous freelance writers and especially to my collegial Next Avenue colleagues, current and former, who have made Next Avenue the leader in our field — including Kristi McKinney, Julie Pfitzinger, Kathy Ritchie, Emily Skoblik-Diallo, Sabrina Crews, Megan Germundson, Bryce Kirchoff, Sue Campbell, Shayla Thiel Stern, Donna Sapolin, Emily Gurnon, Liza Hogan, Susan Donley, Grace Birnstengel and Colleen Wilson.

In one of my favorite Sondheim tunes, the star of “Company” belts out the song “Marry Me a Little” saying: “I’m ready! I’m ready now!”

Today’s my last day at Next Avenue. Retirement: I’m ready!

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Babysitting dilemma helps carve career path for S.F. Chronicle writer Ruthe Stein (BSJ67, MSJ68)

Story by Myra Krieger
Photo by Pamela Gentile

Published in San Francisco Senior Beat

Ruthe Stein’s parents unwittingly imbued her with a love of the movies, a romance that would lead to a lifelong career. Her dad, beleaguered with the responsibility of caring for his daughter on Saturday afternoons, would drop her off at one of Chicago’s giant movie houses.

“The movies were his babysitter,” Stein said. “He never checked what the film was about or if it was appropriate for a 12-year-old, so I saw a lot of adult fare.”

When she went with her movie-loving mother, ticket takers would argue that Stein was too young to be admitted. Her mother argued back:“`Well, she’s not going to understand it.’” Stein recalled. “I was five.”

By the time she was 25, the youthful movie lover had become a professional movie critic, reporting for the San Francisco Chronicle for 50 years. Along the way, she was a reporter for Jet and Ebony magazines, taught journalism, and wrote a self-help book for singles.

It’s easier to make up a roster of A-listers whom she hasn’t interviewed than one that she has. Of course, there are ones who top the queue, like Cary Grant, Princess Grace, George Clooney, Renee Zellweger, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Paul Newman and Matt Damon. She’s interviewed about 300 movie stars and directors.

She earned her master’s degree at the Medill and graduated in After a jaunt to Denver, where she taught journalism to community college students for about a year, a serendipitous event reshaped her career.

Headstart at Ebony magazine

“The publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines, John Johnson, wanted to diversify the workforce. I’m white and a woman, both of which were missing from his organization. Plus, I had chutzpah and good credentials.” Stein joined the staff as a reporter.

She hung out in the company cafeteria where she never allowed herself to become intimidated in casual conversations with stars like Sammy Davis Jr., James Earl Jones, James Brown or Lou Rawls, she said.

“Initially, I wasn’t taken seriously; I was the token white girl.” she said. “But my experience in interviewing, writing stories for this nationally known African American publication helped open doors.”

Stein started as a feature writer for the women’s section of the Chronicle in 1970, writing about movies and interviewing movie stars and celebrities. She became a movie editor in 1989 and later, a film critic.

Stain managed to eke out more time than many other journalists to talk to movie stars and produce unique, in-depth stories. How did she do that?

“Movies get released and A-list actors are under a binding contract to be interviewed by the press. Lots of times, as a Chronicle reporter with a good following, I was ahead of the queue. I was allowed 20 minutes; I took more and usually nobody minded.

“I tried to get different things from people because I’ve read so many interviews where they’re saying the same thing. I try to think of questions that other people haven’t asked.”

Her latest book

Getting different things from people is Stein’s specialty. Her latest book, ”Sitting Down with the Stars,” a peek into the lives of 100 Hollywood legends, provides subtle but provocative stories about each actor: Who knew that Nicholas Cage’s uncle is Frances Ford Coppola or that Steve Martin is an accomplished playwright or that Antonio Banderas’ words would be so wise?: “There has to be an acceptance that we get older, and that is not good or bad but it is a fact. There is much more of a universe I am living in now, partly because of my heart attack.”

The new book is her second offering; the first was “The Art of Single Living.” She wrote a singles column that was syndicated in 30 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada but stopped writing about the single life when she was no longer single.

She didn’t hesitate when asked about the worst and best films of recent times. The worst: “Basic Instinct 2.” The best: “Little Miss Sunshine.”

Her gauge is like that of most moviegoers: “A good film is one I enjoy, can get lost in for two hours. A bad film is when I keep looking at my watch. It’s a lot of fun to write a bad review, especially of a big Hollywood movie when you know what you write has zero impact. I’m more careful about what I say when it’s a small indie film; a very bad review can put a kibosh on everything.”

In 2006, Stein co-founded the “Mostly British Film Festival,” which shows English language movies made outside the U.S. in places like New Zealand, Ireland and South Africa. The post-pandemic revival of the festival begins in February at the Vogue Theater.

Preserving small film houses

The festival is the revenue generator for the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation, which helps rescue small, single- to three-screen movie houses like the Vogue, Opera Plaza, Presidio and others from extinction. Stein works closely with Jack Bair, co-director of the Mostly British Film Festival, and Alfonso Felder – both senior vice presidents of the San Francisco Giants – who help raise money for the foundation.

How does one become a movie critic? It’s a question Stein hears often. She said she isn’t certain but added: “I am curious about people. At parties, I’m always a good person to bring along because I can make anybody start talking about stuff. Either you have that ability or you don’t.”

Discipline and productivity count as well. “I have never missed a deadline in all 50 years. While at the Toronto film festival, I interviewed three actors in two different hotels in one hour, and I was not late for a single one of them and I got all my questions answered.”

Since retiring, teaching and lecturing at the Fromm Institute is a big part of her life. Over the past five years, she’s covered a wide range of topics, including Melodrama in Film; Jews and Film; Romance Movies. In the spring, she plans to focus on women directors, the careers of Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, and inside looks at directors Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola.

Enjoying getting older

There’s little hard luck in Stein’s story. She grew up in middle- to upper-class Chicago with an older brother and sister. Her father was a boxing promoter who also managed fighters.

“I got to know them when I went to Miami Beach, where he trained them. He got pushed out in the ’50s when fights went on TV and the Mafia got involved,” she said. “Later, he owned and operated clothing stores on State Street.

“I think I get my energy from my mother who was a schoolteacher; she eventually took over the library also. In the ’50s, when the TV networks included movies in their programming, we would be sure to make a night of it, reflecting on the story afterward.”

As this septuagenarian approaches her 77th birthday, she said, “I don’t mind being older as long as I stay healthy. In fact, I’m kind of enjoying it.”

She exercises and walks a lot in her Russian Hill neighborhood and is a voracious reader. Not surprisingly, she watches plenty of movies with her husband, Dean Macris, the former director of the San Francisco Planning Commission.

Her current datebook is filled with talks and events promoting her latest book.

Stein says that by the time she was in eighth grade she knew she wanted to be a gossip columnist. She never had that title, but she came as close as anyone could expect.

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Cherubs recall most memorable summer 60 years ago

By Laird Kelly (BSJ66) and Kathleen Neumeyer (BSJ66)

Cover photo: Cherubs Class of 1961 with Professor Ben Baldwin.

Neither of us remembers the other from the life-changing summer of 1961 we spent studying journalism at the National High School Institute as Medill “Cherubs.” Odds are that we occasionally said hello in passing during our four undergraduate years. We didn’t keep in touch after graduation, either.

Kathleen Neumeyer photo.
Kathleen Neumeyer (BSJ66)

But in March 2021, Kathy was asked to help locate former Cherubs to celebrate the Medill Centennial at a Zoom Reunion. All she had to go on was a tattered original roster of the 53 boys and 56 girls, with their high schools and hometowns. No list existed of their current locations. Off-hand, she knew how to find one, and had possible leads on two or three more. Most names did not even ring a bell.

The 1966 Northwestern class directory included information on two dozen former Medill Cherubs who had graduated with her, eight marked deceased and a couple as lost, but for others there were married names, addresses, phone numbers and/or email addresses. So she began.

The first email reply was from Laird Kelly who said he had lost track of most of his Cherub pals. He spent a couple of hours on the internet, discovering that Prudence Mahaffey Mackintosh was still in Texas, a contributor to Texas Monthly for more than four decades, with several books published by Doubleday. He located an obituary for Dick Hodtwalker, another Cherub/NU friend.

Laird Kelly photo.
Laird Kelly (BSJ66)

Laird emailed Kathy his results, including links. Kathy emailed back: I am very impressed with your research and would like to welcome you as my co-chairman.

For the next four months, we were a bicoastal investigative team, and eventually found nearly all of the 109 1961 Cherubs. At least 25 have died, we couldn’t find nine of them, and three said they weren’t interested. But 70 wrote back enthusiastically describing the Cherub experience as a turning point in their lives. We sent short summaries of their life stories to everyone before an Aug. 1 Zoom Reunion to which about 35 logged in.

Laird set up a spreadsheet to help organize the sleuthing. Jack Rhodes, with 19 years experience as an editor and reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and Michael R. Whitney, (BSJ66, MSJ67), who won 23 Emmys at CBS News and 60 Minutes, volunteered to track people down. Laird arranged for an Internet service providing addresses, phone numbers, birth, death and criminal records. We looked for folks on Facebook and Linked In, called their high school alumni associations, and checked obituaries of their parents to see who was listed as next of kin, with current residences. We talked to ex-spouses, siblings and neighbors.

We got an invaluable assist from Carol Muller Doig, (BSJ 55, MSJ56) who met her husband, the acclaimed memoirist and novelist Ivan Doig (BSJ61 MSJ62) when both were instructors during our Cherub summer. After Ivan’s death in 2015, Carol donated his papers to Montana State University, including notes and memorabilia from when they were Cherub instructors. She gave us access to the archives.

The more former Cherubs we found, the more gratifying (and fun) the project became. Almost everyone was delighted to hear from us, and astonished to be found.

For both of us, that summer had been pivotal. An Indianapolis native, Kathy thought she had no option but Indiana University, but after the Cherub summer, she applied only to Northwestern. Her Medill degree was like a gold card in her profession, and her marriage to her Northwestern sweetheart took her to California, where she has lived ever since. Laird used his Medill training to start a business, now in its 45th year, in the specialized field of news, television and audio programming for physicians. He called the Cherub program “a beautifully-produced announcement of the Big Wide World for this kid from Kansas.”

As Cherubs, we spent five weeks writing news, features, sports and opinion stories six days a week, crammed into a classroom on the second floor of Fisk Hall, at long tables lined with rented manual typewriters. In the afternoons we heard lectures, did more writing, got in a quick hour on the beach, and in the evenings our minds were blown by startling new ideas from Northwestern professors and Chicago journalists. We lived in dormitories with 17-year-olds from all over the country.

We took field trips to the Museum of Science and Industry, the Chicago Art Institute, a steel mill, a pharmaceutical laboratory and the Chicago Tribune. We watched future Hall-of-Famers Ernie Banks and Stan Musial play in an extra-innings game at Wrigley Stadium. Some of us saw Ethel Merman in a pre-Broadway production of Gypsy, and all of us heard a young Byron Janis play with the Chicago Philharmonic at Ravinia, and Andy Williams sing Moon River in the Empire Room of the Palmer House at Chicago Night Out.

As a pitch to attend Northwestern, it worked. A couple dozen of us graduated from Northwestern five years later. But the experience also imbued a lifelong affection for the university in the ones who did not attend Northwestern.

Jim Spears, who became an editor at Newsday, graduated from Hamilton College in New York and earned his master’s degree at that other journalism school, Columbia University, but his Cherub experience was noted in his 2017 obituary.

Bruce Buck said he “really enjoyed the Northwestern program and really wanted to be a journalist for the long term, but my father was a journalist and he encouraged me to do something that could be more financially secure.” He kept his options open during Columbia Law School by spending weekends on the police beat for the Newark Evening News, then practiced law for Wall Street law firms in London. In 2003, Buck became chairman of Chelsea Football Club, one of the top European football (soccer) clubs.

During her undergraduate years at Medill, Linda Grove (BSJ66) developed an interest in China, and earned a master’s in Asian Studies and a PhD in history from University of California, Berkeley. In 1970, Grove moved to Japan to work on her dissertation on the social and economic background of the war in China. At that time Americans could not visit China. She married a Japanese art historian, and taught for many years at Tokyo’s Sophia University, serving as a dean and later vice president of the university.

Martin Stidham (BSJ65) studied Chinese during undergraduate summers. “After graduation, I took a freighter to Taiwan and did a part-time stint with the China Post in Taipei, but soon realized that an excruciatingly slow writer is not cut out to be a journalist.” He began translating contemporary novels, short stories and poetry from Chinese, writing a Chinese vegetarian cookbook and co-authoring two books on early childhood education. He now lives in San Francisco.

More than half of the Cherubs we found had spent at least some portion of their life in journalism, as writers or in a communications-related field.

On summer break from Harvard, Stu Pizer got a job in the mailroom at the New Yorker, then worked under managing editor William Shawn, writing “Talk of the Town.” While offered a full time job at the New Yorker upon graduation, he decided to pursue psychology. He helped found a psychoanalytic institute in Boston and started a writing program for health professionals.

Jack Rossotti (BSJ66) was a reporter, producer and anchor in television news in Syracuse before going to law school, practicing law and teaching law at American University.

Susan Holly Stocking (BSJ66, MSJ67) was a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune, the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times, before earning a PhD from Indiana University and teaching journalism there for more than two decades.

Kathy was a reporter for United Press International in Los Angeles, covering the trials of Sirhan Sirhan, Charles Manson, Daniel Ellsberg and John DeLorean, was the Southern California correspondent to The Economist, and a contributing editor of Los Angeles Magazine. She taught journalism on both the high school and college level for 40 years.

Janis Bateman (BSJ66,MSJ67) had intended to be a sportswriter, but she said that spending her summers as a Cherub instructor made her a “lifer” as a journalism teacher, at her own alma mater, Crater High School in Central Point, Oregon.

Peter David Koenig (BSJ66) retired in Buenos Aires after a career as a writer, poet, and university professor, said that the Cherub program “took me out of a small town midwestern high school, and transported me a hundred miles away from my family for the first time in my life, to the Northwestern University campus I knew only vaguely by name, and into the presence of a whole group of able high school writers and professional journalists for a summer that was for me pure bliss, and as Ivan Doig might say in The Last Bus To Wisdom, a ticket to the start of a new life.”

The Zoom Reunion, Bateman noted, had reconnected her with old friends, and “to have your social life re-energized at 77 is something special.”

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American OZ – Living the Life by Micheal Sean Comeford (MSJ83)

Classic Amusement owner George D’Olivo is a former pro-wrestler who went by Beautiful Bo Paradise in his pro-wrestling days. It didn’t take him long to figure out that a journalist working in his carnival was problematic. Carnivals are about fantasies. Journalists crush fantasies. Soon, Mr. Paradise saw me as Mr. Trouble in Paradise.

Mike in front of rollercoaster.
Michael Sean Comerford

No carnival owner will hire a writer like you, he said. And the “new face” of the American carny is a seasonal Mexican migrant worker. You don’t speak Spanish. Your traveling carnival project, he said, wasn’t well thought out. He may have even used the word “stupid.”

The more problems he raised, surprisingly, the more I felt like I was shooting sitting ducks at a carnival. Every obstacle presented a solution. Firstly, some Mexicans speak English, and I’ll get to know them. After the season ends, I’ll go to Mexico to see how they live in “winter quarters.”

If no carnival owner hires Mike the writer, then they’ll hire Mike the carny.

“Gone were the plans to spend the year with Classic,” I wrote in American OZ. “Gone too were open, honest interviews. From that morning forward, people wouldn’t know I was writing about them. Against my will, I became a spy.”

I became a “ride jockey” running rides and a “jointee” running games in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia, and Florida – where I worked in a freak show but they didn’t let me on stage “because they didn’t see the inner freak in me.”

After the season, I journeyed down to the mostly lawless foothills of Veracruz, Mexico to meet with workers I knew up north. The small town of Tlapacoyan is a feeder town that sends most of its men north to traveling carnivals every year. As a result, it’s nearly empty of men most of the year.

Living on carnival wages, I hitchhiked 13,700 miles from the Pacific to the Atlantic, Alaska to Florida. I became the #1 hitchhiker in North America that year. In all, I covered 21,570 miles via bus, train, and hitchhiking.

During the year, I wrote an ongoing blog for The Huffington Post, my own blog, and I wrote a 2013 essay for Northwestern magazine’s column “Purple Prose” I wrote the Purple Prose column at a McDonald’s outside the State Fair of Texas, where I was running a carnival game of dubious repute.

New York and Chicago publishing houses didn’t want a “carnival” book. And “hitchhiking” books still are publishing poison. I worked with a literary agent, but we parted ways when the big advance didn’t materialize.

Through six years of rejections and rewrites, the book grew more compelling until I self-published American OZ: An Astonishing Year Inside Traveling Carnivals at State Fairs & Festivals: Hitchhiking From California to New York, Alaska to Mexico in the summer of 2020. It remained a #1 Amazon bestseller well into this year.

The hidden core of American OZ became clearer to me with the rewrites. All the facts and quotes remained, but coworkers grew to represent the working poor, without healthcare, living in unsanitary conditions, and subject to labor abuses on the road. The stories fleshed out the humanity of people seeking love and meaning on the road. The year developed a story arc with deeper meanings and universal themes.

If I felt anxious about my loved ones far away from the carnival, I dug down to mine those feelings for American OZ. If I was tired, broke and feeling abused, it was a good guess I wasn’t the only one. American OZ took on an inner life.

It’s not that the book would not have seen the light of day without advances in self-publishing. George Orwell gained praise for writing Down and Out in Paris and London. Medill’s own practitioner of the “journalism of empathy,” Alex Kotlowicz, won the 2020 Lucas Prize for An American Summer, a chronicle of gun violence in Chicago. They successfully wrote about the harsh edges of society.

Yet it was the long, hard road writing American OZ that taught me that living the life made writing the life come to life.

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How I Wrestled with a Childhood Trauma and Turned it into a Book

By Ellen Blum Barish (MSJ84)

If anyone told me that a conversation I would have with a former classmate at my twentieth high school reunion would ultimately lead to writing a full-length book, I would have urged that person to consider writing fiction as the idea showed serious imagination.

But that is, in fact, what happened, and I am compelled to share the story because, after all, Medill grads are storytellers and communicators. How this moment came to be a book is, I believe, an excellent example of the surprising places where story kernels lie, waiting for us to find them and turn them into stories that touch peoples’ lives.

It all began in the front hall of my high school during a conversation with a fellow alum with whom I’d lost touch. We had been friends until one terrible day in the spring of 1972 when, sharing a ride home from school in her mother’s car, we were hit by a Mack truck. That day forever changed her life. I just lost a tooth. But a silence typical of the early 1970s blanketed us, and life went on without us ever speaking about it.

That conversation could easily have been the end of it, but when I discovered a mouthless clay figurine on a shelf in my father’s house that I had made in high school art class, I became consumed with finding out what had happened. It sparked an emotional and spiritual detective story that enabled me to return to the event and the feelings of that 12-year-old girl, and, ultimately, repair a lost friendship.

The story first saw print in a monthly column I was writing for a parenting newspaper two years after the reunion focusing on urging parents to save their children’s art objects (that figurine!) A few months later, it aired as a radio essay, illustrating the way we are silenced. In the years that followed, the story still stalking me, I wrote it as a short story, a long-form personal essay, a poem and in 2015, as a story for the stage.

After all those variations, I thought, I’m done. How much more could I possibly squeeze from this story from my life?

But the story wasn’t done with me. The following year, in 2016, two words seem to fall out of the sky and into my lap: seven springs. It was a title, an organizing principle; a way to tell the story with a longer arc, to dig into the themes of trauma, silencing, friendship and mystery across a twenty-year period. It was then that I first considered that the story wanted to be a long form, a memoir.

The writing began. In 2017, I hired a writing coach. By the summer of 2018, I had a completed first draft and secured an agent. After six months, with no bites from the 15 publishers she queried, we amicably parted ways. I gave some thought to letting the project go, but writer friends encouraged me to stick with it, to consider revising. I revised, sent the manuscript for another set of eyes and revised again. I would revise seven times, which strikes me as appropriate for a book titled Seven Springs, don’t you think?

By May of 2020, just a few months into the pandemic, I sent out what I considered to be a final draft of the memoir, acting as my own agent, to about 15 publishing houses. A month later, two presses made offers. My book found the perfect home at a small independent publishing house, Shanti Arts, and is scheduled for release in May 2021.

The whole process, from that conversation in 1997 to the book’s release this spring, took 24 years. It relied on many sets of eyes. Long stretches of writing, including a two-week residency. Seven drafts. Thirty-plus rejections. A good many tears and more than a few sighs.

The wrestling led to a comforting end. It helped me transform a childhood trauma into something I can call art made of words. The story settled, integrated inside of me. I had made some meaning from it.

A noble purpose for a story that could have easily been missed or set aside.

Maybe even a good reason to go to that next reunion.

Photo Credit: Suzanne Plunkett










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After a Devastating Loss Last Year, I Began Running — and It Transformed My Life

By Michelle Edgar (BSJ05) for POPSUGAR

The last words my stepfather ever spoke to me were uttered between gasps of air from his hospital bed this past January: “Will you move on with your life already?”

Less than two weeks later, I received a call from my mother that my stepfather had gone into hospice. I flew from California to New Jersey to spend his last days together as a family. He passed peacefully in our home, as we held his hand and sang Andrea Bocelli’s “Time to Say Goodbye.” It was one of the most profound moments of my life.

His poignant last words had penetrated me to my core, and now — having sat with them for a few weeks — I knew I needed to find a way to honor him. Still, this was the first significant loss I had experienced in my life, and I needed time and space to heal. I returned to Los Angeles feeling scared and uncertain, knowing my path would inevitably change, though I wasn’t sure how. I prayed for healing and clarity, hoping to find some answers.

On the surface, my life and career appeared stable and successful. As a record executive at Epic Records, I had been working in the music business for more than a decade. I was a doer and goal-oriented, but eventually, I realized I wanted more for my life than just a career. When I got married, I had hoped to be together for a lifetime and to build a foundation to start a family — but now my marriage was in trouble.

My stepfather wanted me to tap into my strength and make the necessary decisions to take control of my life and manifest my dreams. He was trying to tell me to stop fighting a losing battle. I wasn’t yet ready to move on from my marriage, but I decided to make other big, disruptive changes in my life, just as he had challenged me to do. I started asking myself some tough questions: if being married and starting a family wasn’t my path to happiness, what is?Michelle Edgar going under a hurdle.

I chose to focus on taking care of myself. I wasn’t sure what I wanted long-term, but I knew in the short-term, I just wanted to feel happier and more connected to my mind and body. I wanted to feel whole again, and focusing on my physical health seemed like a good place to start. Up until that point, my commitment to fitness had been marginal, as I had other priorities. So, I began attending yoga classes up to a few days a week and working out at the gym weekly.

I realized after my very first workout how cathartic it was to get moving. My brain chemistry had changed, and I knew I needed more of this. What started as an experiment developed into a habit and then a lifestyle. I adjusted my routine to make fitness a priority, climbing into bed by 9:30 so I could get up for my daily training sessions at 6 a.m. before my workday began. When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered gyms, and I could no longer meet with a trainer in person, I began running. Up to eight miles a day. Exercise made me happy, and I was determined to stick with it, even if I had to do it on my own.

In early April, my trainer challenged me to a 50-mile virtual run with 20 people on the Nike Run app. I was hesitant at first, but then I realized I could probably knock it out in a week. So, I decided to put myself to the test. I made Spotify playlists to fit my mood, so I had something to look forward to each day. Running became my therapy and a way for me to heal. I finished those 50 miles — the first of many I’d run throughout the year.

It was around this time that I decided to have the difficult conversation with my partner about our future together. We decided it would be best to part ways. Getting divorced is hard, and doing it in the midst of a pandemic is harder still, so I took every opportunity to channel my energy into something positive.

I had received a message from UCLA Law School about a new master’s in legal studies program and decided to apply. It was an exciting opportunity to advance my career trajectory, and I was up for an intellectual challenge, in part inspired by my stepfather, who was a chief assistant district attorney. Between the stress of mediation and applying to law school, I needed an outlet — so, I made another commitment: to run on UCLA’s track for an hour each morning. I wanted to see what it would feel like to be a student again, and I guess I hoped I could somehow manifest my acceptance into the program.

In early June, after two weeks of showing up to the track every day, I was approached by Richard Rucker, the head coach of the UCLA Club Track and Field team. I had watched his practices from afar and admired the work he was doing with his athletes. When he asked what I was training for, I said I didn’t know. “Wrong answer,” Coach Rucker said. “Life.” That’s when our journey began.

At age 38, I started training with Coach Rucker for two hours a day. He helped me discover and develop my athletic ability and taught me that it’s never too late to try something new. (“It’s not the age, it’s the stage,” Coach always says.) Two weeks into our training, he handed me a paper with a breakdown of the sprints and said, “How about competing? You ready?” I had never competed in sports before, but I’m always up for a challenge, and I wanted to make my coach proud, so I replied, “Let’s do it.”

I ran the Trojans vs. Bruins Masters Challenge, where I competed in the 50-, 100-, and 500-meter sprints. Soon after I ran my first cross-country race at an elevation of 1,200 feet. By the end of the year, I had run more than 1,000 miles, and I felt stronger, happier and healthier than I had at any point in my life. I was accepted to UCLA, too, and I’ll graduate in two years, with a focus in entertainment and media.

I share this journey in hopes of showing others that even the most challenging times can be a catalyst for change and a source of inspiration, if you allow them to be. You don’t need to take off on an “Eat Pray Love”-style vacation to learn who you are and find your path to health and happiness. You don’t need to run 1,000 miles or go to law school, either. While that was the direction my life took, the opportunities are endless. You simply need to look inward and take care of yourself first, and you’ll find the energy and power to dream again and break new ground.

I’m grateful that this past year gave me time to reflect, to be present, and to appreciate each and every day. Instead of driving to and from work, I was able to take time to grow in new ways, on the track or in the classroom. I no longer rush through my days but take the time to listen to what my mind and body need. I honor my time every day, and I’m very intentional about what will move me closer to achieving my goals and seeing my dreams come to fruition.

I don’t yet know what 2021 will hold — though I’m committed to continuing to train, in hopes of reaching All-American status — but I know that when you allow yourself to be open and step out of your comfort zone, good things happen. If there’s anything these times have taught us, it’s that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, so start living the life you want today.

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Q&A with Thomas P. Schaffner (MSJ80)

Tom Schaffner shares his Medill story, from starting his own communications firm to starting a new company with his daughter.

Why did you come to Medill for graduate school after getting an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Kansas, a pretty good journalism school?

I had been working for three years at an entertainment-oriented public relations firm in Chicago but wasn’t doing the kind of writing I wanted to do.  I decided that the nine-month path to an MSJ at Medill was the perfect way for me transition from a non-writing job back into the world of journalism.  I was told many times by teachers and journalists that an MSJ was unnecessary for someone already holding a BSJ.  For me, the MSJ was a necessary step to get myself back into the world of writing and editing, something that I missed and was more comfortable with.

What was your area of concentration? Favorite courses?

My undergraduate degree at Kansas was in newswriting, so I thought I would concentrate in something different at Medill.  I chose the Magazine sequence and thoroughly enjoyed Professor Peter Jacobi, his classes, teaching style and, of course, his legendary trip to New York where we visited the staffs of top magazines at their offices.  I also particularly enjoyed ethics and media classes taught by Richard Schwarzlose.  He would start with a simple dilemma but keep adding complications so that by the end of class, everyone saw the issue from a completely different perspective.

What was your first job after Medill?

Shortly after graduating from Medill (1980), I accepted a communications specialist position at the National Live Stock & Meat Board, a Chicago-based organization that conducted programs of research, education, advertising and promotion on behalf of the nation’s beef, pork and lamb industries.  When I left six years later, I had been promoted to Director of Communications and was responsible for developing and implementing internal and external communications programs to trade and consumer audiences nationwide.  I learned two very important things at the Meat Board, both of which had a profound influence on the rest of my communications career:  1) almost any transaction or project underway at a company or business organization has a communications issue at its core and 2) there is an inexhaustible need for people who know how to communicate effectively at these very same companies or organizations.  These gems were the inspiration I needed to become an entrepreneur.

Before you opened Schaffner Communications, you created a newsletter called the Chicago File. Can you talk about your mission and how you did it?

When I was a freshman at Kansas (1977), I subscribed to the Chicago Daily News (newspaper) so I could keep up with everything that was happening back home.  Unfortunately, the newspaper, which traveled to me via the U.S. Postal Service, usually arrived about 10 days late and came in bunches of about five or six at a time.  I remember thinking at the time that there had to be a better way to keep up with news from Chicago.  I filed the thought in my mind and eight years later developed and produced a sample newsletter for former Chicagoans that became known as the Chicago File (for Chicagophiles).  The sample issue evolved into a monthly publication that contained news and features about what was happening in Chicago — buildings going up and coming down, the latest indicted politicians, new transit lines being contemplated and the most popular feature, a column called “Only in Chicago” which highlighted quirky events, bizarre activities and odd news items that could only happen in Chicago.  Subscribers were former Chicagoans, people who no longer lived in the Chicago area but wanted to know what was going on there.  At its height, the Chicago File had several thousand subscribers around the world and received a lot of coverage and publicity from major news outlets across the country.  Its cult-like following and popularity was, in essence, my 15 minutes of fame.  I continued to publish the Chicago File for six years and although it was breaking even financially, I decided to shut it down in 1991, literally at the dawn of the Internet.  Today I am recycling much of that 35-year-old Chicago File material into an online blog for my newest entrepreneurial adventure, L Stop Tours.  It’s deja vu all over again.

When did you launch your own firm?

In 1985, while still working at the Meat Board, I had the opportunity to work with first-time ever desktop publishing software and a newly invented HP laser printer.  I immediately saw the future of publishing — writers, graphic designers, typesetters, layout personnel and printers could now be combined into a single person and, by so doing, could speed the publishing process and remove significant costs from the system.  For someone like me who spent much of his career producing time-intensive newsletters, the new design software and printers were a game changer, they represented a tremendous new business opportunity for anyone willing to take the plunge.  I decided to open a communications firm, Schaffner Communications, which was incorporated in July 1986.  I was 30 years old at the time.  My first corporate act?   I ran out to a store and bought a Macintosh computer, Pagemaker design and graphics software, Microsoft Word 1 for the Mac, Filemaker (database software) a laser printer, a daisy wheel printer (for envelope labels) and a few other miscellaneous items for $15,000.  Today, a MacBook Air laptop computer and a laser printer alone cost less than 10 percent of that amount.  Too bad I couldn’t delay my purchase for 35 years — I would have saved plenty.

What was the mission of Schaffner Communications?  What did your business focus on?

Schaffner Communications was designed from the get-go to be radically different than other firms in the marketplace. For starters, we positioned ourselves as a communications consulting firm and not a public relations firm because we wanted to portray ourselves as experts in the field of communications.  More specifically, our area of expertise was to help businesses — large and small — build and maintain effective communication systems that delivered important and timely messages to key corporate audiences consistently, effectively and efficiently.  For us, quality corporate communication belonged in the hands of skilled professional journalists — so we made it company policy to hire account personnel with only those qualifications.

How did your Medill skills contribute to the success of Schaffner Communications?

Journalists know how to write, communicate, develop creative solutions to problems, gather information, ask questions, edit copy so that reads better than the previous version, and much more.  I honed all of these skills at Medill and put them to good use at my consulting firm.  At Schaffner Communications, we used our journalistic skills to improve the quality of communications at businesses and corporations across the country — sharper, crisper editing of key corporate documents, improved media relations with more transparency, faster periodical production cycles with upgraded equipment and technology, increased collaboration at all levels of project management and a host of other techniques and initiatives.

You were the agency of record for a $4 billion wholesale grocery cooperative for many years. How did you not only maintain that business, but grow it? What were your secrets of success?

This Los Angeles-based firm outsourced all of their communications (internal and external) to Schaffner Communications for 19 years (1994-2013), they were one of our largest and longest-tenured clients.  One hundred percent of the clients served by Schaffner Communications over the past 35 years came to us via a referral, and this particular client was no exception.  We were recommended to the senior management team by friends of mine who had worked there as labor management consultants.  While it’s true that quality work speaks for itself, a good referral gets you in the door and provides you with an opportunity to prove yourself over the long haul — and working anywhere over the long haul is a sure way to grow the business.  Another reason we were able to hold onto this client for such a long time is because I worked hard to develop a strong, dynamic relationship with the chief executive officer of the company, as well as the senior management team.  With their constant and unwavering support of our efforts, it was relatively easy to develop and maintain effective and efficient communication systems and programs throughout the company.

Can you talk about your next chapter – “L” Stop Tours? How did it come to be and how’s it going so far?

A little over a year ago, I started a new business with my daughter, Lindsay, a Chicago tour company called L Stop Tours.  We’re only in our second season but already the business is tremendously successful.  Our tours are different — we utilize Chicago’s elevated transit system (the “L”) to travel to interesting neighborhoods throughout the city and, upon arrival, explore the history, culture and food of the area via walking tours.  We believe that you haven’t seen Chicago if you haven’t been to the neighborhoods and we are the only company in the metropolitan area that travels to these areas via the L.  All of our tours start in the Loop and then head to such neighborhoods as Pilsen, the Prairie Avenue Historic District, Chinatown, Wicker Park and Fulton Market.  We also have special tours that go to Andersonville, Evanston, breweries along the Blue Line and another that visits historic Chicago taverns.  I do the vast majority of the tours because I love Chicago, have lived here my entire life and know a lot about city’s history, culture and traditions.  At age 64 I finally found my dream job!

Photo: Tom Schaffner (right) with daughter, Lindsay McNaught, co-owners of L Stop Tours, on the El platform, of course!

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Hannah Gebresilassie (MSJ16) celebrates positivity with HannahJoyTV

A “leap of faith” has taken Hannah Gebresilassie on a journey from working as a television reporter in a small-town in Illinois to launching headfirst into developing her own media brand.

Late in 2018, Gebresilassie launched HannahJoyTV  and the and the Promote Positivity Movement, combining her passion for entrepreneurship and her love of storytelling to share uplifting news and promote a message of worldwide peace and unity for her followers across social media platforms.

Today, her personal brand and her company are still growing and evolving in ways she never expected.

“It’s taken its own form, honestly,” said Gebresilassie. “I went from just focusing on the storytelling aspect to releasing a brand, like a whole merch line that goes along with it. It went from just sharing positive stories to sharing a positive message in many forms.”

At the end of February, Gebresilassie was the keynote speaker for Project Africa, an annual event hosted by the African Student Association at Georgia Tech, her alma mater.

HannahJoyTV is simultaneously a celebration of Gebresilassie’s Ethiopian-Eritrean heritage and universal content that “anyone and everyone” can enjoy. This duality is reflected in HannahJoyTV’s logo: four hearts of green, yellow, red, and blue, from the colors of the Ethiopian and Eritrean flags.

The design reflects the desire for unity and peace between the two countries that Gebresilassie says she and many members of the Ethiopian and Eritrean communities hope for.

“But it’s also the same colors as Google, if you think about it,” Gebresilassie said. “I wanted to create something neutral that anybody could relate to.”

The daughter of Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants, Gebresilassie grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. After earning an undergraduate in business administration from Georgia tech and a master’s in journalism from Medill, Gebresilassie fell in love with telling stories and became a television reporter for WSIL-TV in southern Illinois in the summer of 2017.

In her first year, Gebresilassie brought global perspectives to her local TV audience that rippled out across social media. After just a few months on the job, her coverage of an Ethiopian New Year celebration went viral. Not long after, Gebresilassie wore a traditional braided hairstyle on air that again caused a buzz.

“It was actually pretty crazy that I was reporting on this international situation in this little rural town in southern Illinois and people actually really appreciated it,” she said.

By the end of her first year she was in charge of WSIL-TV’s “Going Global,” a news segment where she could report and share stories about immigrant communities in southern Illinois.

“I just saw what I could do,” Gebresilassie said. “When I was working as a reporter, a lot of my stuff went viral. I just kind of said, ‘if I can do this here, what I could do on my own?’”

Gebresilassie said that what inspired her to transition to create HannahJoyTV was gaining a new perspective on the potential that was in front of her.  The biggest challenge Gebresilassie faced was money— she moved from Southern Illinois back to Atlanta, Georgia, where her parents live.

“I’ve been the brokest I’ve been since undergrad, to be frank,” Gebresilassie said. “But I’m happy. I’m happy with the flexibility that I have and I’m thankful.”

Gebresilassie took on side jobs that were easy on her mental health as she developed HannahJoyTV— washing dishes and babysitting.

“I always tell people, everyone doesn’t come from the same type of financial situation,” she said. “And it’s okay to take jobs that can fill the gaps in the meantime.”

But in the past months, Gebresilassie has seen a burgeoning income from emceeing at events around the country and freelance projects she found through connections she made at Medill.

And she has developed an expert eye for cost-saving opportunities to promote her brand— in 2019, she organized a pop-up tour across eight states, around her existing travel plans to visit family.

But managing her time to address every aspect of her platform is also a challenge for Gebresilassie.

“The to-do list never seems to end,” she said. “For me, it’s like my mind goes in sometimes a hundred different directions, so I’m still working on building a structure and making sure that I’m just taking care of everything equally.”

But Gebresilassie has never doubted the direction she is taking— and for that she acknowledges her time at Medill.

“My time at Medill really prepared me to be the ultimate journalist…you’re at Medill with these incredibly talented people from all over,” she said. “And I found my niche while I was there. I found that my heart was in the community.”

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Medill Alumni Making a Difference During the Pandemic

As the COVID-19 battle rages, Northwestern alumni are reporting daily from Washington, New York, Chicago and numerous other cities hit so hard by this pandemic.  NBC correspondents Gabe Gutierrez (BSJ05), pictured, Peter Alexander (BSJ98) and Sam Brock (BSJ05, MSJ07) are reporting practically 24-7 on national television. Christine Brennan (BSJ80, MSJ81), one of the nation’s foremost Olympic experts, has been interviewing members of Team U.S.A. about the postponement of the 2020 Games.

Medill alum Justin Kerr (BSJ93) shifted the McKinley Park News toward coronavirus coverage and features starting in early March when the effects of the pandemic first started hitting the neighborhood. The publication, a micro-local news website covering Chicago’s McKinley Park Community Area and Central Manufacturing District, updated its neighborhood event calendars, de-listing canceled events and adding a coronavirus-specific community schedule, including senior shopping hours and food distribution for families of Chicago Public Schools students.

“We changed our coverage, too,” Kerr said. “Some articles in development had to be shifted aside to focus on more immediate coronavirus news.” This has included a directory of neighborhood restaurants staying open for delivery and take-out, published immediately after Illinois Governor JB Pritzker’s order to shutter in-restaurant dining, and a local fabricator’s efforts to manufacture 150,000 face shields for Chicago’s first responders and front-line medical workers. All news and event content published on the McKinley Park News has been freely available and will remain so, Kerr said.

The coronavirus pandemic also inspired the relaunch of the publication’s community forums, including the new McKinley Park Support Network, a set of discussion boards designed to support fast and easy coronavirus communication. Kerr said it’s been a handy channel for him to quickly aggregate and share general info that might not have a neighborhood-specific hook to justify a news article, but that’s still important and relevant for the readership of the McKinley Park News.

“All of our members — including participating local Institutions — have access to participate in the McKinley Park Support Network,” Kerr said. “Access to this and other features on the McKinley Park News is automated and available at no cost.”

Kerr noted how the publication’s progressive privacy practices support coronavirus dialogue. “Our member privacy policies and tools are best in their class,” he said.

According to Kerr, this ethos will help the McKinley Park News weather an environment of economic catastrophe caused by the pandemic. “Our operating costs are designed to be dirt-cheap,”  he said. Kerr noted his own currently unpaid role as the publication’s sole staffer. “Where the pandemic will hurt is expanding our revenue to enable staff compensation and look at business expansion into adjacent neighborhoods,” he said. “However, I strongly believe in the demand and business potential of high-quality local news: When the pandemic ends, surviving local news publications will hopefully have even more opportunities in what’s already a mostly ignored, wide-open market.”

Leigh Ann Winick (BSJ84) is a medical producer for CBS News based in New York who is helping shape the network’s coverage of the pandemic. Since January, she has produced frequent segments on the emerging virus, fronted by the network’s practicing physician contributors. With the first U.S. death in late February, the medical team became command central for the network’s multi-platform coverage. Then, on March 11, two colleagues were diagnosed, and the entire CBS Broadcast Center was emptied in one afternoon. Since then, everyone based in New York has been working remotely.

“It’s taken a lot of improvising,” Winick says. “We no longer obsess over camera angles or lighting. Travel restrictions have increased our reliance on cell phone video. There’s an urgency to convey the latest information – which can literally be life saving – and if that comes via a phoner or a Zoom interview from a scientist’s hotel room, we’ll use that. We are  finding many ‘real people’ stories through social media. While I’m working harder than ever, I’ve been fortified by the basic skills I learned at Medill, and the hope that we  are positively impacting millions of lives during this heartbreaking time.”

Alumni journalists, however, aren’t the only Medillians making a difference during the pandemic.

Preeti N. Malani (MSJ91), MD,  is the Chief Health Officer for the University of Michigan and a Professor of Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School. She, too, is working on the front line against COVID-19. Rather than covering the pandemic for news outlets, her work in infectious diseases is taking her to the bedside to help care of patients who are sickened with COVID-19.

Like many regions of the country, Michigan is developing contingency plans to care for large numbers of patients (well beyond the usual capacity of our hospital), according to Dr. Malani. She is part of a large multi-disciplinary group involved with the planning of a temporary field hospital to help care for the anticipated patient surge from across the state.

As Chief Health Officer, Dr. Malani advises the university president on all aspects of health and well-being for students, faculty and staff.

“In rapid sequence, we had to make decisions on bringing students home from overseas education, suspending face to face instruction, moving day to day activities to remote locations, and how to support students who can’t leave campus,” she said. “There are numerous administrative issues that require creative solutions as there is no playbook to address this situation.”

Dr. Malani adds that in her role as an associate editor at the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), she has written a series of summaries directed toward clinicians and helped review and edit a number of time sensitive manuscripts that have helped inform patient care, public health measures, and general policies.

“Instead of writing the news story, I’ve instead given dozens of interviews, and have been asked to provide guidance to several lawmakers including Michigan’s governor,” she added. “My Medill education continues to pay dividends in unexpected ways. Always grateful for what I learned so many years ago.”

David Charns (MSJ11) left his morning anchoring job at WMTW in Portland, Maine, in January for a new challenge, but his search quickly slowed due to the pandemic.

“I wanted to continue working my craft while searching for a new full-time broadcast job,” Charns said. “With 24/7 news of this national emergency on many different topics, I have found there was and is a need for concrete, ‘Here’s what happened, here’s what’s next’ coverage to easily communicate important information news consumers want. I had talked to many people who said they were tuning out because the nonstop news was so grim.”

Charns set out to provide quick, daily roundups of all of the major coronavirus headlines across his social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube). In three weeks, he said, these videos have garnered tens of thousands of combined views.

“I am now branching out with interviews with people impacted by this emergency, which will be posted soon along with the news of the day.”

IMC15 graduate Sunny Williams and his team at Tiny Docs are responding to the urgent need for child-friendly content about the pandemic with Covid-19 health information just for kids.

Tiny Docs, co-founded by Williams in 2015,  produces “Health Caretoons,” — animated cartoons that teach kids about their health in a fun, relateable, and easy-to-understand way. The library covers medical procedures, chronic health conditions, and general wellness. “All Tiny Docs content is vetted by our board of pediatricians, child life specialists, and nurses to ensure the information is medically accurate and beneficial,” says Williams.

“To help kids manage Covid-related stress and anxiety, we released a caretoon on mindfulness. Our Tiny Comic: A Kid’s Guide to Covid-19 teaches kids how to be healthy, how to manage their feelings, and how to be kind during this time of challenge and uncertainty. We’ve also released several Covid-19 related blogs by experienced and passionate pediatric professionals. And more free caretoons, blogs, and comics will be released in the coming weeks.”

In the United Kingdom, IMC alumna Jacine Rutasikwa (IMC10) and her husband, Paul, have converted their rum distillery, Matugga Distillers, into a production house for hand sanitizer to help combat the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has created a very uncertain landscape for communities and small businesses. With your help, our small family-owned distillery in Livingston can support our local NHS and care workers while building our company’s resilience during challenging times,” Rutasikwa told supporters in a March e-Newsletter to supporters.

“The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on our way of life is still unfolding, but it is profound,” she said. “From the uncertainty and chaos, new norms will emerge. And therein lies the big opportunity for our resilient community – to reshape new realities. Above all, now is the time to pull together, look after one another and refuse to let our spirits drop.”

Finally, on the student side, the Northwestern News Network team created a great segment on COVID-19 coverage. And,  The Daily Northwestern, under the direction of newly appointed editor Marissa Martinez (BSJ21), has been producing COVID-19 coverage with the help of Daily staffers sheltering at home nationwide. Martinez is interviewed in this Chicago Public Radio station story. First year Medill undergrad, Andrew Rowan, successfully placed his first professional story in Teen Vogue: “With college mental health centers closed, many students are working out the kinks of online therapy,” which came out of research he began in a class in the fall quarter.

Photo credit Gutierrez – MSNBC
Photo credit Malani – University of Michigan 
Photo credit distillers: Stewart Attwood