Why My Journalism Degree Is Useful (Even Though I’m Not a Journalist)

In college, I majored in photojournalism, a major that more than one person reminded me was a dying profession. I’m rather stubborn, though, so I stuck with my journalism classes. 

I attended journalism school at the University of Montana and was always encouraged to pay closer attention to the world around me. The experience helped me see Missoula with a fresh set of eyes. Instead of focusing simply on my destination when I walked around town, I started peeking around corners and peering down side streets in the hopes of spotting something new. I watched bakers meticulously frost cakes through a storefront window. I discovered a neighborhood barn where a team of people were casting concrete statues. A particularly interesting class required that all story topics happen between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., so I spent time with overnight USPS workers and early-morning diner waitresses. As a fairly shy kid, I used my camera as an excuse to talk to new people and, when things got too uncomfortable, I just hid behind the lens. 

My journalism program also taught me a few other things, like time management and how to ask questions when I didn’t understand something the first time around. On one assignment, I quickly whipped through a story, misspelling an interviewee’s name as I did so, and my professor immediately dropped my grade several letters. It was a lesson on the importance of people’s names and taking time to double-check my work.

There was also fun, fancy equipment that I got to play with—cameras, computers, video cameras, lenses, lights, and more. On weekends, I’d convince my friends to model as I practiced my lighting skills in the on-campus studio. Even the most mundane assignments could be made more interesting with just a dash of creativity. Each of us could look at the same scene and take completely different photos, just by changing the camera angle, lens, or lighting. My classmates and I reviewed each other’s work, and I regularly walked away with ideas of what to try for upcoming assignments. 

I spent the summer before my senior year interning at a local newspaper. My camera and I found ourselves standing on the sidelines of numerous parades, touring local restaurants, and, on one occasion, swaying in a crow’s nest atop of a sailboat. I peered over the shoulders of full-time photojournalists to see how they interviewed people and set up shots. My internship ended and I returned to school, as well as to a regular volunteer gig tutoring at a local middle school.

During my senior year, I started contemplating what I wanted to do post-college. On one hand, I had a great time at my internship and in journalism school, but, on the other hand, I was becoming more interested in my volunteer work than photography. I rolled out of college and, after a brief stint of seasonal employment, made my way into the nonprofit world. 

My first nonprofit job was as a volunteer coordinator at a nonprofit that provided homeless and housing services in Wichita. Like journalism, coordinating volunteers required talking to lots of different people. I took to memorizing the names of every volunteer and double-checking the spelling on each thank-you card I wrote. I also saw new sides to the city as I set up meetings with organizations I’d never heard of in order to explore potential partnerships. Thanks to my job, my circle was an eclectic mix of artists, book club members, youth group leaders, and business owners. 

Over the years, I’ve tried out grant writing, fundraising, program development and, now, marketing. For the moment, I spend more time at a desk than out in the community, but I still tap into my journalism days. After spending years in college cursing Adobe InDesign, I regularly raise my eyes to the sky, silently thanking that magazine layout class, while I piece together newsletters, posters, and annual reports. As staunch supporters of local photos, my camera and I take time to visit programs where we snap a few photos to use in place of stock photography. And, thanks to AP Style, I know when to use the word “fewer” and when to use the word “less.”

There are still aspects of journalism that I miss. For instance, getting outside of my comfort zone by meeting new people and hearing their stories. After pining for those days, I realized I didn’t necessarily need the title “journalist” to do this. During one job at a health care nonprofit, I launched a multi-month project, interviewing folks throughout Memphis on the relationship between health care and faith. More recently, I banded together with my friend Anne to launch Without Boxes, a summer podcast that had us talking with folks from around the world about their lives, projects, and passions. 

I never became a photojournalist. However, I’ve discovered that many of the skills I learned in journalism school transferred to the nonprofit world. Journalism eased me out of my comfort zone, encouraging me to try new things and meet new people. Many of us never use our college degrees the way we think we’re going to, but that doesn’t mean we’ve wasted our time or made a mistake. Instead, there’s importance in discovering which skills translate to our current career paths and which can support our hobbies. And if anything, spelling someone’s name correctly is always the right move.

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