From senior to alumnus

I started to write about my senior year a while ago, but I never got around to it. I graduated, and I wanted to make sure I was emotionally ready to write this part of my story. My senior year at Florida State University was a time of extreme changes in my life—both intrapersonal and interpersonal. I can sense the biggest change of my personality ever has occurred since taking several key leadership roles.

So, let’s start with the summer of 2011.

Summer 2011:

This semester started off quite strangely. I finished the spring of the previous year, and I had registered for my summer classes. Here was the problem with that; I had interviewed to become the next news editor for the FSView. I got the job, and I would start in the summer. They wanted me to start at the beginning of the summer, but I couldn’t. Because I was an RA, I only had housing set up for the second half of the summer. I didn’t have time to really figure out something for the first half of the summer—mainly because I wouldn’t have the income to sustain paying rent for an apartment. I told them I couldn’t start that early, so they had to find someone to manage the news section until I got back. Thankfully one of the assistant editors, Becky Rodriguez, was able to fill in for me before she moved off to Tuscaloosa for graduate school.

I spent the first half of the summer helping my parents fix up their new place; now that all of the kids moved out of their house, they didn’t need a six-bedroom house anymore. They decided to move into a single-wide trailer on a canal in Bonita Springs, Fla. They’ll probably be the subject of a book I’ll write one day; I already have a title for it: “High Class Trailer Trash.” It captures my family in four words: southern folks who drink wine and smoke fancy cigars on their dock out front of their single-wide. I’m not sure if that’ll be a comedy or just a standard novel; I’m pretty sure it’ll be funny either way.

Anyway, once I got back to Tallahassee in June, I had to learn all of the nuances of editing a newspaper section. I had used Adobe InDesign before, but I’d never even heard of InCopy. It’s a pretty nifty software, and I had no idea how useful it would be. The FSView‘s office, although seemingly archaic in decoration and style, is very modern. It uses several servers that all of the computers are hooked up to. All of the computers were able to work on the same newspaper at the same time by “checking out” whichever text box or image that person was working on. When I had an article “checked out” no one else could alter it until I “checked it back in.” On top of that, InCopy helps to copyfit things. It tells you if words spill outside of their allotted column inches, and it tells you by how many lines so you know how much you need to cut to make it fit. I started this before I even started classes; I had barely moved into Landis Hall or started CARE training before I was needed at the newspaper office.

CARE’s Summer Bridge program was in Landis Hall; I was an RA there for this summer semester. The bridge program is an “alternative admission” program designed to “help ease students’ adjustment to college life and build a foundation for academic success.” For every 10 or 15 students there was a CARE Counselor. These counselors were paid to make sure they got their classwork done, take them to events and get to know them on a one-on-one basis. That wasn’t me. I was a CARE RA. I was the “bad guy,” in all practicality. I was the one who told them to quiet down during quiet hours, helped mediate conflicts and keep some kind of order in the building. We were severely understaffed; there were four RAs for nearly 350 students. A good friend of mine, Angela Boone, worked with me in CARE too. We were the only “second year” RAs in the program, so we both got the short end of the stick. She had nearly 190 residents (she tended to the first and second floors), and I had nearly 120. That’s ok, though, because I knew I was going to be busy with other things. I was enrolled in six credit hours; my editorship at the newspaper counted as a three hour internship.

The other three hours was TV News at FAMU. I had finally taken all of the prerequisites to enroll in my first journalism class targeting “TV News.” Professor Kenneth Jones taught it, and I’m so glad I took it during the summer. In the summer semesters each student is assigned their own FAMU camera to keep for the entire semester. The course is in such demand in the fall and spring semesters that students have to share cameras. Keeping it for the summer allowed me to really get to know the ins and outs of it, which was definitely needed. I’d never really worked with a camera before. I learned about framing shots, getting good interviews and how to script a package. Prof. Jones is known in J-School as one of the harshest graders; a lot of students have to retake his class because they failed. I got a B in his class, but it wasn’t for lack of work.

The first camera I was assigned had dirty heads. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew I couldn’t get my videos from the camera to the computer so I could edit them. It happened to the second camera I had; we determined it was a bad batch of DV Tapes I was using, so I get a new pack, and my third camera worked perfectly. But because of the trouble with the cameras eating up time, I ended up getting an “I” grade, or incomplete. I couldn’t finish all of my packages before the six-week semester ended. Thankfully I was still allowed to enroll in Advanced TV News.

Toward the end of this six weeks I auditioned for the Advanced TV News anchor position for the fall semester. There were four of us to audition during the summer, and several had auditioned back at the end of the spring semester. I didn’t know how many, so I didn’t know what my chances were to get the spot. All I knew was that I wanted it, and I knew I could do it well. I just had to convince Professor Jones, Professor Leonard Horton and Director of Journalism Dorothy Bland of that.

I went up to the anchor desk with a sense of confidence; I’m still not sure if it was false confidence or not, but it turned out to help me either way. They gave us a script, and a piece of paper that must remain face-down until we were told otherwise. “That’s breaking news,” they told us. “We need to see how you’ll react to breaking news on the show, so you can’t see it until we say so.” There was a small bump in the road, but I stayed calm. Well, I stayed as calm as I could.

Fall 2011:

I got the anchor position! I was so excited to really branch into television news. It was something I’d wanted to do for a while, and my opportunity was placed right in front of me waiting for me to take it. We started with simple “practice” newscasts for the first week of classes. Monday through Friday I had to be at the studio by 4 p.m. to prepare for our show. Mondays were my work day this semester; that meant I was at the studio (or working in the field) all day from 8 a.m. until the show ended around 6 p.m. Some work days consisted of getting stories from the field and putting them together for the show, but sometimes I also worked as an associate producer where I stayed in house and wrote scripts and produced video from our CNN video service.

I also enrolled in a heavy load of major-level courses. As an EWM (Editing, Writing & Media) major graduating the next spring, I still had a ton of coursework to complete. I had only declared EWM as my major a few semesters prior. All of my minor coursework was finished, so I enrolled in nine hours of major courses. It was stressful, but I pulled through. I actually managed to pull through with a 3.6 semester GPA. I really didn’t put very much effort into my other courses because I knew my work at TV20 would be the most important for my future. I went above and beyond as much as I could for News 20 at 5. There were several times that I produced a package or story on my days “off.”

The weekend of September 11 proved to be particularly important for me. I covered a story on a Saturday about a piece of steel from the World Trade Center in New York arriving in Tallahassee. The piece would be displayed at a Fire Department station in Tallahassee. The reason it was so important for me was because I met Greg Angel. Greg Angel is a reporter and weekend anchor for WTXL, the local ABC affiliate. He gave me his business card and we started talking about the FAMU-WTXL internship opportunity. He told me to send him a link to my video package after it was produced so he could take a look at it. After he looked at several packages I put together, he put me in touch with his news director, Bill Cummings. I asked Bill what it took to be considered for the internship position, and he told me about past interns. I showed him my portfolio of print works saying I could write for the web easily. I also showed him my newly created website (the one you’re reading now) with several video clips. He got me to fill out an application, so I did. I was selected a few months later for the spot, and I couldn’t wait to start.

The FSView was a great experience this semester too. Being news editor was rewarding beyond anything I could have imagined. I had writers who were at the top of their game, and I really implemented some changes that helped radically change the way the news section ran. Before me there were no writer meetings, beats or staggered deadlines. I think the writer meetings was the most important thing I did for that section because at each meeting we were able to brainstorm stories and deadlines together, as a group. When someone throws out a story idea in a meeting someone else can say, “I know this person you could talk to,” and the story can truly grow some roots.

Wednesdays and Sundays were production days at the paper, so I was there practically all day. I love the staff I worked with. Bailey, Emily, Scott, Eric and all of the production folks were great. In October, though, the entire structure of the FSView leadership began to change and not for the better. They changed our pay from being per issue to hourly. That was convoluted and complicated. Each time we came into the office we had to sign into a sheet of paper and sign out when we left. What happened to the work we did outside of the office? With the staggered deadlines they wanted for web publication, I couldn’t go into the office every day for hours at a time; I was a student with tons of other responsibilities. They said that was the only option, so I told them news wouldn’t be posted online daily if that was the case. They reconsidered. I convinced them to allow me to work from home on any non-production day that I didn’t have office hours. It seemed to work out well; I just documented whatever hours I worked at home and then transferred them to our official time sheets.

But like everything, there was a catch. I traveled extensively this semester. In September I went to New Orleans for an SPJ conference, New York City in November for a Columbia press conference and I was supposed to have gone to Orlando in October for an AP Collegiate Press conference, but that didn’t happen. The FSView wouldn’t pay for me to attend, and I had no other investment in going but to bring back new knowledge for the paper’s other staff members. That traveling was enough to make me realize something had to go for the next semester.

During this semester—as if I wasn’t stressed enough already—I applied to graduate school. I had a list of seven schools I wanted to apply to, but I only applied to one. Columbia University in the City of New York. The most populated city in the nation; my favorite city on this side of the Atlantic. I’d never even thought about going to graduate school until late in the spring of 2011. I don’t think I realized it at the time, but Professor Bland started my journey to “higher” higher education. When I first started taking j-school classes at FAMU, I had to get her signature on my co-op form. On that very first meeting she gave me a booklet containing Columbia information. I set it aside—thinking I’d never go to graduate school. What possible use is a master’s degree to a journalist? But the wheels had already started turning. Slowly, but they were turning. Note that I didn’t throw the booklet away, but I set it aside for future reference. That tells me that something in the back of my mind told me to hold on to it.

I won’t expand too much on the application (you can just read all about it here…) because that’s another 1,000 words. I’ll just say the application process was the most reflective, whirlwind, stressful and overall amazing experiences I’ve ever put myself through.

Spring 2012:

The final countdown. I knew I had to cut something out of my insanely busy schedule. I couldn’t keep working for the paper, television, radio, housing and going to class. I had already left regularly working for V89. It was sad to leave, but I knew I had to because there was something “bigger and better” for me to tackle. I decided I needed to leave the other big requirement… the newspaper. I loved the FSView, I really did, but I knew two production days a week and daily required hours would be too much for my last semester. I had to travel to New York in April, work four days a week for WTXL and regroup my life as an RA. Leaving the paper was a heavy decision though because it was the only other thing I did that brought income to me. That income was sorely missed to say the least. I knew it would be, but I also knew I’d be much less stressed without my editorial requirements. I put in my two weeks just before winter break, and I left the paper.

The last semester of undergrad was kind of a blur. I only registered for nine credit hours; that was all I had left to satisfy all of my requirements. I took a two credit hour internship (WTXL, I’ll spend more time on this in a moment), a one hour tennis class and my last two major required courses. Those courses just blurred by; I couldn’t even tell you anything other than we read Dickens’s books and we looked at old pieces of texts. Oh yeah, and everything is a text while nothing is a text. That’s what I learned.

I worked at ABC27 as a newsroom intern. I had wanted to work for WCTV because they are the number one television station in our market, but, in retrospect, I’m very happy to have worked at WTXL instead. The people there helped me grow into a better reporter. One of our anchors—who later left to work at Bay News 9—taught me about different styles of on-air speech. She scripted things differently than anyone I’d ever seen, and it worked out in her favor (clearly! She’s at Bay News 9 now…). The news director who was instrumental in getting me there left just a few weeks into the internship. Bill went out to work in Yuma, Ariz. Kisha Wilkinson took over for him as “interim news director.” Hopefully she’ll get the position for good because she deserves it. She took me under her wing, and she taught me all about office politics and how to fight for your story. “You’ve always got to fight for your story to be the top story,” she said once. That means you have to always be prepared to take the top spot; you’ve got to give every story your all; you’ve got to know the answers before your sources can answer them.

The internship was my lightest course (aside from a one-credit hour tennis class—doesn’t count), but I put the biggest chunk of my energy into it. I was scheduled to work two days per week, but I showed up almost five. It quickly became a part- to almost full-time job. There were Saturdays I spend in the newsroom, and there were some times (few, but they existed) where I missed class to cover a story. I’ll always love WTXL. If that’s not already evident, I’ll tell you what happened just Wednesday. Two days ago—more than a full month after I graduated—I was in Tallahassee for a couple doctors appointments. I was pulling out of the restaurant after lunch when I saw several police cars flying down Pensacola Street. I was with a friend, who knew me and is a journalist too, and I asked her if it was ok to follow them to see what happened. She said yes. I don’t usually follow police cars to a scene, but when I see more than four or five I begin to question the severity of what’s happening. I saw a truck with a busted tire up on the curb—clearly not where it belonged; it’s front bumper was sticking out into the roadway. I got video, and I sent it to WTXL. That video helped them break the story.

Around March I started realizing that graduation really was going to happen. I needed to start tying up all of the loose ends I had. I started revisiting my old professors, I had lunch with Dr. Barron and I sent of several thank you notes. March was probably the most stressful month of the year. In the beginning of the month I didn’t know whether I’d been accepted to Columbia, I was really close to graduation, I had several projects to work on and I really didn’t want to say goodbye to everything FSU and FAMU had done for me. I love those schools so much that they really became a part of me. Then March took an enormous turn—I found out I got accepted to Columbia, so I had to start preparing for that. That came on top of everything else—those projects weren’t done yet… Housing was also getting pretty stressful.

One thing that was really cool about this semester was being able to cover one of the 7 Days of Opening Nights events. I got to cover the Soweto Gospel Choir; they let me come to their rehearsal at Ruby Diamond, and I got unprecedented access to their backstage areas. I interviewed their choir director, two members of the choir and I got over an hour of amazing footage. I need to upload all of that together as an “online exclusive/extra” type of video. That was one of my first produced packages of the semester, but WTXL didn’t want to air it (I was an intern, lest we forget). I found out a few hours before air, so I called Prof. Horton at FAMU to see if he wanted to air it. He told me he couldn’t air the same package that was on ABC, but once I told him it wouldn’t air he told me to get in there ASAP. I’ll write another post about how crucial Prof Horton was to my growth later. That package is still one of my favorites from this year.

As if the powers that be (whether it’s “God,” “the Universe,” Darwin looking down from an evolutionary pedestal or something else) weren’t clear enough in this semester, I came full circle. Remember Maya Angelou? Well I got to interview her AGAIN. Wait–it gets better. Not only did I interview her again, I got full “All Access” at her event. It still gets better. This happened just one week before graduation. What a whirlwind semester. That event was a part of a pretty significant event on campus. FSU was celebrating 50 years since racial integration. It was 1962 that FSU admitted its first black student, Maxwell Courtney. I knew this was an important event to cover, so I talked to Kisha about covering it for WTXL. I told her I set up an interview with Angelou, and I would love for something to air. I asked if I could do a live shot on campus the day of, but she told me I was just an intern—a payroll reporter should do it. I was upset, but I knew why she decided that. Doby and Fred Flowers were on campus, and I got exclusive interviews with them—it was a really cool experience. Now, don’t get me wrong, FAMU has been an institution in higher education since 1887—75 years before FSU admitted its first black student. That means there were 75 years where black students were only allowed at FAMU. While that’s better than no option for higher education at all, it’s still regrettable that FSU waited that long to admit a black student. I’m still glad FSU was one of the first schools to do so; we were before the Civil Rights act. It is still something to commemorate. Maya Angelou was the keynote speaker for this event, and I was amazed I’d have that opportunity again.

The world is so full of coincidences that I’ve stopped believing in coincidence. Two meetings with Dr. Angelou; I became friends (his words, not mine) with my university’s president—whose daughter just got accepted to Columbia’s medical program, joining the centennial J-School class during the same year the building is named after its founder, Joesph Pulitzer? There are too many things coinciding for it to be mere chance. But who am I if not a questioner? I have to question everything; it’s in my nature.

Then it came time to graduate. I’ll copy something I hand-wrote in my journal: “I think part of what made the ceremony so special was the nature of my relationship with so many of the people on the stage.” I worked for this moment. I put in four years of (sometimes) hard work; I got to know the administrators for my university. Dr. Barron had to shake every graduating student’s hand, which would have passed by me like any other standard graduation ceremony, but I knew he had cut his finger the day before and had a bandage on it. When my name was called I walked up to him, and I asked him how his hand was doing. That’s a comfortable relationship, if you ask me. After him was Dr. Coburn; she got out of her seat on stage, and we hugged. Then I walked off stage to get my photo taken. Once my photo was taken, there was AFrame, ready to hug me. If there is someone better at hugging than AFrame, I haven’t met them. We hugged for what seemed like hours, and she told me how proud of me she was. She was a journalism major in college before she took on student affairs and ResLife. I knew she meant what she said, and that made it even more special.

I was now officially a college graduate. Wait… what? I’m reminded of something in a song—I’m growing older but now up. I’ll always hold on to some of my childhood naivety and spirit. It’s part of who I am. I’m a happy-go-lucky, upbeat, generous person. I’ll grow older—there’s no way to stop that (yet), but I’ll never fully grow up. Will I mature? Sure. Will I learn and get wiser? Sure, but that doesn’t mean I have to lose all of my almost childish innocence. I’ll always believe there is innate good in everyone. If that makes me childish or naïve then so be it. I’d rather believe that than believe in true evil. From here, I’ll always fondly remember my time at The Florida State University and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University.

I’ll forever be a Seminole, from where sons and daughters stand faithful and true. I’ll always hail my alma mater, F. S. U.

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