I always wanted to be a baseball player. I grew up in New Jersey hitting wiffle balls, tennis balls, nerf balls, baseballs – pretty much anything we could find –– for hours on end with Jerry Duffy, Carl Biondo, Jerome Costanzo and other friends in the neighborhood. We’d play between apartment buildings, in unkempt lots, and on baseball fields with rusty backstops. I’d dive for balls, ripping my jeans and shirts just to catch a ball. To play well. Hopefully, to win.
But then I stopped growing for a few years in middle school before I moved to Florida, where I started writing about Pop Warner football, travel baseball and rec league swimming for the weekly community newspaper in order to remain close to sports. By the time I started growing again, the high school football coach had talked me into playing football before my senior year at Cypress Lake High School. Before our first game, though, an editor at the local daily newspaper in Fort Myers offered me a chance to instead cover football on Friday nights. I had not realized until that moment how important sports writing had become in my life.
I then spent every free moment writing, reading, reporting – covering Little League baseball as if it were the World Series, interviewing athletes at tracks, spending late nights in basketball gymnasiums, early mornings at cross country meets and afternoons at softball fields. I even covered jet skiing, bowling, fishing.
Years later, I met my wife. Neither late nights editing in the newspaper office nor weekends at sports events seemed as important. So I sought options to see her more.
I left Florida Today, enrolled in an English gradate program at UCF and expected to teach composition and literature.
But fate intervened.
Tom Pierce, the adviser at Valencia College, had been forced out for, well, doing his job. He encouraged me to apply. A few weeks later, I was hired to teach journalism and advise the bi-weekly student-newspaper.
Stupid me never considered the problems, challenges or incidents that could arise from advising a newspaper run by 18-22 year-olds.
By the second year, I could not imagine doing anything other than working with students passionately interested in making their campuses (their worlds!) better. I lived in both that news room – and the one at Eastern Illinois University where I later took a job. As did my daughters, who would draw pictures for editors, play on the computers and, during election nights, camp in my office in sleeping bags when my wife, a nurse, worked overnight at the hospital. Student media is always an adventure, right?
Along the way, my students produced great work, won awards, gained confidence. Plus, they learned about journalism, life and, perhaps more importantly, themselves. That these students have allowed me to be a part of this process? An honor.
I wish more non-journalism faculty across campuses would appreciate the work of student-journalists. But then again, most Americans do not acknowledge the importance of a free press to an always-fragile democracy.
Even if I disagree, I sometimes understand when administrators sometimes get angsty, worried that a story might make the university look bad. Yet, their allowing such news to be reported speaks highly of any educational institution. (Do you hear me, high school principals?)
I’m more disappointed when faculty from other departments on campus chafe when a news story runs counter to their personal stances and perspectives when they should instead celebrate that student-journalists regularly report about issues, events, individuals and topics they themselves are often hesitant to address publicly. Even if they make some mistakes, our students report courageously beneath large, bold, headlines. They are unafraid to unabashedly tell the truth and to not be afraid.
Such actions are rare these days.
Let’s hope these extraordinary lessons linger on campuses for decades to come and that student media continues to thrive significantly longer than that.
For everybody’s sake.