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Q&A with Gabriela Szymanowska

While she was a student in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media, Gabriela Szymanowska (JEM ’20) developed a passion for telling people’s stories that can raise awareness or inspire change on important social issues.

Gabriela Szymanowska

She gained more experience telling those critical stories through writing and photography during her eight-month John and Patty Williams Fellowship with the Carnegie-Knight News21 program, the prestigious multimedia project that brings together the country’s top journalism students and graduates. Because of COVID-19, this year’s 31 News21 fellows from 16 universities collaborated virtually on “Kids Imprisoned,” an investigation into juvenile justice in America.

Szymanowska served as Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Beacon in the spring semester before graduating in May and led a virtual newsroom after students went home because of the pandemic. In addition to pandemic reporting, they turned out a special edition of the paper focused on Climate Change and Crisis. 

CCI’s participation in News21 the last seven years is made possible through a generous gift from CCI Board of Visitors member and former chair John T. Williams (BS/JEM ’71) and his wife, Patty (IS ’86), of Kingsport, Tennessee. Previous fellows from the School of Journalism and Electronic Media include: Sophie Grosserode (’19), Andrew Capps (’18), Bliss Zechman (’17), Taylor Gilmore (’16), Rilwan Balogun (’15), and Jackie DelPilar (’14). 

What were some important lessons you learned during your time at UTK? How did your time as a student help prepare you for your career?

Some important lessons I learned at UTK that helped prepare me for going into the journalism field would be to network and be involved with student media. From the first day of JREM 175, Professor Gary tasked us with picking a student media outlet for our project, planting the seed of how important it is to be involved. While I learned a lot from my professors, I think I learned a lot more from student media and my time with The Daily Beacon because I was able to gain experience. I was able to come up with story ideas, figure out different angles for covering events, contacting sources for interviews and making mistakes.

Student media are so invaluable and really gives you the experience that employers are looking for, because they give you the hands-on experience of being a student journalist. I’m really happy that JREM 175 still requires students to do the student media project, and I encourage everyone in the program to stick with student media, whether that’s working with the Office of Student Media and the Daily Beacon, WUTK-FM, the Volunteer Channel, TNJN or any other student media group, you will gain a lot of knowledge you might not gain otherwise.

In addition, it also leads to networking, which was another lesson I learned in journalism. Networking is valuable and by working with student media you meet a lot of people who might one day serve as job contacts. Student media advisors, professors and even other students you work with while in student media make great mentors and people you can turn to for help when you need it. Beyond student media, take advantage of the job and career fairs that CCI and UTK offer. Even if there Isn’t anyone you’re particularly interested in, it helps to get practice with speaking to professionals in the field and asking specific questions related to that company.

As Editor-In-Chief of the Daily Beacon, what was it like to move operations virtually during the spring while still reporting the news?

It was definitely stressful having to move operations virtually. In such an unprecedented time, there was a lot of uncertainty of how moving our operations virtually would look. I knew and made it very clear to my staff that the Beacon would continue to report, that we had a duty to the UTK community to continue to keep them informed. And the staff was onboard, making the shift quickly during spring break. It was challenging not sharing a physical space with people where if a question came up we could usually just ask the person in the office, but through a team effort, we made it work. We communicated a lot more through Slack, our workplace communication app, through emails and hopping onto Zoom.

I have to give a lot of the credit to my amazing staff who made the transition seamlessly. They were the ones who put in the extra effort to attend our remote Zoom meetings, who worked closely with their staff of writers, photographers and videographers to ensure everyone continued to produce great content while staying safe, and who helped make one last special edition of the paper focused on Climate Change & Crisis. I helped answer a lot of questions, made sure that people were supported where they needed to be supported and aimed for us to continue other types of coverage beyond just focusing on the pandemic, but it was through their efforts and determination that we were able to continue. Without them working the extra hours and asking their staff to continue to put in the same amount of effort, I’m we would not have had such a smooth transition.

In addition to continuing to produce work, it was also very important for me to check in with my staff to see how they were doing mentally and emotionally during this time. I tried to make sure to check in with people directly about how they were doing, if they needed any help or if they just needed to talk. Managing Editor Caroline Jordan and I were also training the new Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor at the time and they were great about being available for extra meetings, sitting in while we made our virtual paper to learn some of the process and asking a lot of questions.

So, while the transition to online remote reporting was challenging, it wasn’t impossible because we had so many amazing individuals who were invested in continuing to uphold Beacon standards and report about what was going on.

What has been your favorite part about working with the News21 Program?

My two favorite parts about working with News21 were getting to work alongside 30 other amazing journalists and getting to hear about people’s stories that they shared with us about the juvenile justice system.

Even though I didn’t get to see people in person, I worked on three different teams covering the school-to-prison pipeline, education in the juvenile justice system and the impact of COVID-19 on the juvenile justice system. Each team was made of about five reporters and I got to know them all very well during that time. It was wonderful getting to work with so many different people to see their different perspectives, learn from them and their experiences as reporters and be inspired to make each day count during the project. There were days where it was a challenge to continue staring at a computer screen all day, but it was because of my colleagues that I was able to get through it. We pushed each other to be better, and we ended up with a project that I feel really captures the injustices of the juvenile justice system and shares the stories of those impacted by it.

My second favorite part of the program, and my favorite part of being a journalist, was getting to speak to so many people across the U.S. and learn about their stories. The fact that so many people opened up to us and shared their experience in the system meant a lot. I was also fortunate to be tasked with taking portraits of some of the people who were interviewed for other stories I didn’t work on, and through taking their portraits, was able to learn their stories that way. The part of any job I’ve had that I enjoy the most is listening to what others have to say and then helping to raise their voices through my reporting.

What was it like completing a virtual fellowship? What do you feel was the biggest challenge you faced while working from a distance?

Completing a virtual fellowship was very hard. There were days when I would wake up not wanting to spend another minute staring at my laptop screen knowing that I would be alone in my room instead of working side by side with other reporters or even out traveling, taking photos and interviewing people in person. It really was a struggle, especially with so much happening in the country at the same time and all of us confined across the country away from each other. This was a sentiment I feel most of my colleagues also felt, trying to find the energy to push past and keep working, knowing that what we were working on would make a difference.

We were reminded time and time again about just how important “Kids Imprisoned” was and how much our reporting meant. Not only did our editors remind us of the good work we were doing, but, just speaking to the people we did and hearing their stories, knowing they trusted each of us enough to open up and share their stories meant a lot. It was those moments I would reflect upon to keep my motivation going, because we had a responsibility to tell their stories and show the issues with the current juvenile justice system in a way that might not have been looked at before.

In addition to the challenge also came opportunities that I don’t think we would have had if we weren’t reporting remotely. Not only did we all interview more individuals for our stories, but we were also challenged to think creatively about how we would do a lot of what News21 had done in the past like videos and photos. Yes, we relied a lot on asking those we interviewed to send us photos or videos that we could use, but we also had a chance to try new approaches to do portrait photography and videos. I myself learned in the course of three or so weeks how to take portraits remotely via Zoom using a projector. I would never have thought to do a portrait like that before and, even though there were problems with getting the focus right, the sharpness of the photos and helping to direct individuals how to pose over Zoom, the end result was portraits that tell a story.

So, although I was challenged to continue to find motivation in times when I simply didn’t feel like getting up and doing anything, I feel this project and the program really pushed me to keep going because what we did mattered to so many people.

What was your biggest takeaway from the “Kids Imprisoned” topic of the program this year?

My biggest takeaway from “Kids Imprisoned” is that the current juvenile justice system is not working. It’s broken in so many ways and it impacts so many people on a daily basis. What’s more, those most impacted are a vulnerable population who are going through a system that is supposed to rehabilitate them, but in most cases, isn’t. There’s a disproportionate number of children of color and with disabilities who are funneled through the school to prison pipeline, and once they’re in juvenile detention or correctional facilities, their educational needs aren’t met in most facilities. In addition, with the current pandemic, we found that the healthcare systems currently in place aren’t doing their jobs. With so many protests going on around the country, it’s important that reform soon follow and that the juvenile justice system be a part of that reform.

Why did you choose journalism?

I chose to study journalism for several reasons. The first was that while in high school, I was very fond of writing and art. My 11th grade English teacher was the first to direct me towards the high school newspaper where, after speaking with the teacher of the class, I realized journalism would be a way to combine both of my passions together by being both a reporter and a photojournalist.

The second reason I chose journalism was because I am inspired by people’s stories and how sharing those stories can create change. Looking at everything that is happening today — the injustices, the untold stories, the voices that aren’t always heard — I wanted to help tell what was happening in a way that could possibly enact change, or at least bring a little awareness to different situations. As I progressed through my four years at UTK, that was what drove me. That someone out there has a story that needs to be shared because it could make a difference in the world, and I just want to help tell it in a way that will make a difference.

What are your career goals?

My career goals currently are to find a stable reporting job that could eventually lead me to continuing my passion for social justice reporting. As the country is currently in a recession and job opportunities aren’t as widely available, my goal is to continue to make strides moving forward toward the goal of one day working for Time Magazine or National Geographic. Given the opportunity to travel, I would be able to continue my passion in telling the stories of communities that are impacted by injustices and that need their voices to be heard. I feel there are so many injustices out there and so many systems that are broken, and I want to be able to continue reporting about them. Ideally, I would be able to combine my passion for photography with my writing as I am currently doing with my freelance work.

However, while my dream may be to work for a known newspaper or magazine, my goal really is to just be able to tell people’s stories. As corny as it may sound, that is one of the reasons why I became a journalist was because of that fascination that everyone has a story to tell. And some stories that haven’t been told yet could help to make change. So, no matter where I physically end up, the goal is to make change along the way and to make people care about what is happening in the world around them.

What advice would you give to current students who want to get into journalism?

My advice for students who want to get into journalism is to be passionate, focus on networking and have multiple skills. Right now is a very difficult time to enter the journalism field. There is a lot of pushback against journalists and a lot of mistrust. Know that when you’re done with school in four years, you’ll be entering into a very competitive field that Isn’t always nice. That’s why you have to have a passion for what you’re doing because there will be days when you’ll get that pushback or feel like a long project Isn’t accomplishing much. But, if you have passion, it will help you through it and show future employers that they should want you on their team because you will spark the fire that leads to change.

This leads to the idea of making sure to be open to networking. Don’t plan on spending your time just passing classes and hanging out with your friends. Make sure you make the effort to get to know your professors, go the extra mile and work with student media on campus and, when there are career fairs happening, go to them! Talk to people in the field, get to know them and ask them questions about their jobs. Graduating with a journalism degree is only part of getting the job. The more people with whom you network, the more people will remember you and the better chance you’ll have of getting a job.

Lastly, employers are looking for people who aren’t just good at writing or photography or making videos or graphics. They’re looking for people who were open minded during their time at school to learn how to be a multimedia journalist. If you go into journalism with the mindset that you will only be a sports writer or you want to only be on the radio, then you limit yourself. Even if you aren’t the best writer in the world and that’s why you want to be a TV news reporter, you will still need to know how to write. Take the opportunity while at university to really excel in a few places. If you haven’t taken a photography course before, take a class and learn the basics. If you solely want to be a sports journalist, then try to learn how to not only write about sports but make videos or photos. In the long run, if you have an open mind coming into the journalism field and are open to trying new avenues, you’ll leave school with the tools you need to be a competitive reporter.