I may have been away for five weeks, but I’ve found a place that I can call home.
Sappiness acknowledged. It’s only going to get worse from here, just warning you.
The Medill Northwestern Summer Journalism Institute, which started in 1934 as the National Institute for High School Journalists, is a five-week program at Northwestern University. Part journalism intensive, part cult (and I mean that in the best way), it’s truly unlike any other pre-college program. Every summer, a new group of students becomes part of a wide-reaching network of alumni, many of whom are successful leaders in the field. The program is an immersion in all things journalism, from print to multimedia, from reporting to editing. For an aspiring journalist like me, it was a summer well spent. In fact—it was a summer that couldn’t have been spent any better.
The staff at the Institute affectionately called us “cherubs” for reasons I’m not entirely sure of. Maybe it’s because we were ‘innocent’ with regard to journalism; we had so much to learn in so little time. Maybe it’s because we were youthful in our context: 83 rising high school seniors living on a college campus for more than a month.
Cherubs was a microcosm of college life. We lived in the dorms, ate the same unexciting food every day at the dining hall, and determine how we would spend the money our parents gave us (i.e. trying not to eat out 15 times a week). I bartered Oreos for Easy Mac. I stayed up until who knows when having conversations about nothing and life at the same time. I waded into Lake Michigan at 2 in the morning and took sunset pictures from the top of a parking garage right before a night class. In many ways, much of what Cherubs was didn’t have to do so much with the journalism; instead it was bringing people like me together to try our hands at this whole college thing. After all, there’s really no other way for us to know what life is really like on campus.
My fellow Medill Cherubs and I didn’t just live like college students; we learned like them as well. We came to study journalism, and we ended up doing a lot more than just studying it. Of course there were daily lectures about journalism fundamentals (everything from “How To Write a Good Lead” to “Freelancing 101” and “Intro to Photojournalism”), but the great thing about journalism is that you can’t learn it just by sitting in a classroom. You have to actually do it—a lot. I created a body of work in these five weeks that’s probably greater than all of the content I’ve ever produced.
I wrote 10 articles in one day, as part of the hellish “All-Day Story”, in addition to many others. I co-produced, wrote, recorded, and edited a 15-minute, 3-part podcast. I was part of a small team that coded a complex web simulation game from scratch (no, I had never coded before in my life). I wrote an article that I intend to actually publish in a real publication sometime very soon, as well as a few that could be published in my school newspaper.
I interviewed more strangers in five weeks than I’ve talked to in years. I had to call people. On the phone. As in I actually had to have live conversations with people. And, much to my surprise, I loved all of it.
It’s strange—before coming to Cherubs, I loathed talking to people I didn’t know on the phone. To give some idea of just how much, if I wanted to go on some extravagant vacation when I was younger, all my parents had to say was, “Sure, but you have to call them and book it over the phone”, and that would shut me up. But getting to really talk to people, learn their stories (or at least how their stories applied to the stories I was writing), and share human moments with them–that was something I had never really let myself experience until Cherubs.
It wasn’t all academics–we got to participate in “nerdy journalism fun” like current events quizzes, trips to Chicago news outlets like the Sun Times and the Tribune, and a boat ride on the Chicago River. And, of course, there were many walks into downtown Evanston to get an Andy’s frozen concrete, a Lou Malnati’s pizza, or some candy from CVS.
I, along with my fellow cherubs, got so many ideas for my school’s yearbook and newspaper programs. Because of Cherubs, I’m inspired to change them for the better. But because they exist in reality and not the heaven that was a summer intensive, that probably won’t happen the way I want it to. And that’s OK, because I got something so much more valuable out of the program than just advice on how to run a high school publication. I got to fall in love with journalism again.
I used to love journalism solely for its integral place in society: to inform citizens. Now, I love it because of the people I get to meet through it. Being a journalist lets me tap into the rhythm of humanity and all of its variations.
While interviewing Evanstonians at the town’s Fourth of July parade, I met a man who grills ribeye steaks along with his hot dogs and hamburgers. While walking down the streets in downtown Evanston interviewing random people about the vaccination debate in California, I met a young Presbyterian minister who said, to my surprise, that religious objections to vaccinations have no valid basis in The Bible. Over the phone, I listened to a college student describe a traditional Santeria reading she had in Cuba while I took notes and laughed along with her at the strange but beautiful differences in our two countries cultures. Journalism is a lot like travel in that it’s mind-opening. As you’re working on a story, your prejudices fall away because, well, they have to in order to avoid bias. The world is full of unexpected things, of anomalies, of successes. They’re all stories, and journalism gives me the power to tell them, to connect people through them.
We were visited and taught by some incredible people in the industry who have done just that, including a pulitzer-prize-winning photographer, a reporter who covered the JFK assassination, a CEO of multiple startups, editors and writers at national publications like Details, People, Popular Science, and the New York Times, and so many other talented storytellers. To us, these are the people we strive to be. I learned so much from all of them, and I’m so grateful to have even sat in their presences. It’s one of those situations where you come away practically bursting with secondhand knowledge—in the best way possible.
And so, as I begin to fill out the Common Application (which opened today), I am sharply forced back into reality—and the Orlando humidity (oh, Lake Michigan breeze, how I will miss you). I had to say goodbye to 83 of the most passionate, driven, hilarious, unique people I’ve ever met. Many of these people will probably be my bosses someday, and hopefully I’ll have the chance to be theirs, too. Though we’ll never all be sitting in those lecture chairs together again, we’ve created our own invisible home. It will exist whenever I text a fellow cherub, like one of their pictures on Instagram, view their Snapchat stories, or see a post in our Facebook group. I’ll remember the little moments I shared with them at cherubs: playing the Downton Abbey theme on the piano for the three people who actually watched the show, having a Snapchat war at the dining hall, and reenacting as many scenes from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” as we could at the Art Institute of Chicago. We’re a family, and of course we’ll stay in touch.
I am certainly not looking forward to the tsunami of IB assignments, college applications, and play rehearsals that is shaping up to be the first semester of my senior year. But I now know that journalism is truly what I want my future to be—I just need to try to enjoy the time I’ve been given and make sure that I end up doing what I love. The one epigram that I feel truly describes what my time at cherubs has taught me was said by John H. White, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning photographer and our last guest speaker. Literally everything that came out of his mouth was an inspiring line of poetry, but there’s one quote of his that stuck with me: “Have an affair with the spirit of life.”
That’s what I’m determined to do. Cherubs has given me so much knowledge to succeed in journalism. But most importantly, it has given me the confidence to take risks, take pictures, and take the world by storm. Get ready, people: there’s a fresh-faced, wide-eyed group of 83 writing, singing, coding, running, laughing high school seniors out there, and we’re ready to interview the crap out of you.