Oberlin Blogs

Four Years of Writing

August 22, 2014

Alicia Smith ’10

Note from Ma'ayan: Alicia Smith '10 caught up with us from just down the road at Case Western Reserve University, where she's working on her PhD in sociology. She likes any excuse to come to Oberlin and is always happy to talk to students interested in grad school/PhD programs, too.

I couldn't tell you how many times my graduate school adviser has said to me, "I always forget how young you are considering how many things you've done since you've graduated from college." When I started writing this blog post, I could see why.

After Oberlin, I moved to Syracuse, NY, where I completed their one-year master's degree program in Magazine, Newspaper, and Online Journalism. At Oberlin, I became really interested in the sociology of health, so I focused on health reporting at Syracuse. Any fear I had of approaching random people and asking them intrusive questions was quickly thrown out the window, and my skills in coming up with timely, interesting story ideas and writing quickly and concisely were sharpened. I even got to take courses in photography and page design, but interviewing and writing longer profile pieces became my favorite things to do. I interned at the Syracuse city newspaper, served as a health columnist for the school newspaper, went on my first wine tour on the Finger Lakes, made lifelong friends, and survived my snowiest, coldest winter to date. It was an awesome and memorable year.

Syracuse University graduation day, May 2011. Ta-da!

After graduation, I moved to New York City where I worked as an editorial intern at a women's health website owned by NBC. It was cool working for a national online publication, but the experience made me realize that writing about how to get abs, lose weight, and chisel your biceps wasn't my thing. But I loved New York City—it was fun and full of endless, diverse opportunities. I was determined to find a job there or another east coast city when my internship was done. Unfortunately, though, the excitement of New York City comes at a price that my finances couldn't sustain as an unpaid intern (shocking!). So 50-ish unsuccessful job applications and a dwindling bank account later, I surrendered and moved back home to Michigan.

I lived with my parents for about three months, which I spent mostly on the couch in front of my laptop. Every day I checked the job listings, applied for several positions, worked out on the elliptical in my parents' basement, watched way too much Netflix, and then applied for more jobs. I couldn't tell you how many jobs I applied for or how many episodes of Brothers and Sisters, Desperate Housewives, Weeds, and Private Practice I watched (that's a lie—I watched them all). Not exactly what I thought I'd be doing with a master's degree, but I kept on pushing the submit button on any job application that was even remotely related to journalism, writing, or communications.

Lots of job applications and interviews later, I landed a position as a suburban beat reporter at the biggest newspaper in Rochester, New York. I went into work each day wondering what would happen: on my first day, I covered a double homicide. On my last day in Rochester, I wrote a story about the demolition of a senior center, complete with an explosive video I captured on my iPhone. During my time there, I got to interview some really interesting people (e.g. Diana Nyad and Michael Eric Dyson) and wrote several front-page stories. Some were interesting to me (e.g. rising poverty in the suburbs; shortages of low-income senior housing), but most were not (e.g. "pink slime" in school lunchmeat; Rochester's pothole problem). I was mostly assigned mundane filler stories (e.g. coverage of a Ukrainian bake sale; a Boy Scout car derby), which left me very bored. There were a few stories that were very emotionally draining, sometimes to the point of tears when I got home (the murder of a local high school student; a Rochester native killed in the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting; and the story of a local man who died in Afghanistan)—all of which were memorable and important to write, but these were few and far between.

On Saturdays, I was the only reporter working from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. My loving parents and grandparents came to visit me in the newsroom—the perks of a slow news day!

Despite the feeling of accomplishment seeing your name as the byline of a big story and the rush of writing on deadline, journalism as a long-term career wasn't for me—I wasn't happy professionally. Any social issues I got to write about for the paper had to be overly simplified—just the facts with inadequate analysis. I knew this was how newspaper journalism generally was going into it, but didn't anticipate how restrained I'd feel. My dad asked me once, "Who in the newsroom has your dream job?" I looked around. There was no one in the room I envied—not even the top editor in the corner office or the health reporter in the adjacent cubicle. When I thought about other publications, there were few positions I wanted there either, and if I did, I knew they were incredibly unrealistic (who doesn't want to be a highly-paid New York City-based food writer with a focus on covering the newest ice cream flavors?). As much as I really admire journalists for doing this incredibly important job, I wasn't willing to put in the years of time and effort for the slim chance of winning the journalism job lottery.

So I asked myself, when did I genuinely enjoy what I was doing? The answer: while studying sociology at Oberlin. As nerdy as it sounds, when others were groaning at the distribution of a paper assignment, I was secretly celebrating inside. I love writing papers. I missed going to the library, reading articles, and coming up with new ideas. Studying sociology, we were encouraged to dissect social issues and contextualize individual problems within our society's stratified structure. We researched and wrote about what we were interested in. I had engaging conversations with peers and faculty members. In the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Research Program, I enjoyed pursuing an independent research project that involved interviewing Oberlin College alumni. Getting a PhD in sociology seemed to be the perfect way to have a career that suited me.

Fast forward to now: I'm about to begin my third year in the sociology doctoral program at Case Western Reserve University, where I am focusing my studies on medical sociology, research methods, and social inequality. I can honestly say I've never felt more content. Despite my winding path to get here, all roads have led to where I am now. The two professors I work with are qualitative researchers, using interviews and ethnography as their primary methods of inquiry. When I arrived at Case, they told me my journalism background was one of the reasons they had requested I work with them (score!), and I've already found that my papers are greatly improved from my writing experiences in Syracuse, NYC, and Rochester, not to mention I am still pretty darn good at writing on deadline. For my dissertation, I will likely use some of the same interviewing skills I honed as a journalist to explore black women's identity, body image and health behaviors, particularly with exercise.

Last semester, I worked as a teaching assistant for an Introduction to Sociology class and loved leading review sessions and working with students one-on-one on their papers. Giving my first lecture was scary (full disclosure: I sweated profusely), but afterward the satisfaction I felt was validation that I was in the right place. I've had the opportunity to present research and attend conferences in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, New York City, San Francisco, and College Station, Texas. Everything I've done up to this point—attending Oberlin, graduating from journalism school, and being a professional newspaper reporter—have been invaluable learning experiences that have helped get me to where I am today. I have absolutely no regrets.

Giving my first conference presentation as a doctoral student in Indianapolis, Spring 2013.

I have stayed really busy with coursework and my duties as a teaching and research assistant, but have also found the time to run five half marathons, write my first freelance article for the Oberlin Alumni Magazine, work at a performing arts summer camp, and enjoy the Cleveland food and beer scene with friends. My partner (also an Obie '10) really enjoys his work as a cardiac nurse in downtown Cleveland, and we have been able to settle comfortably and happily here. It's not New York City, but there's plenty to do, it's infinitely cheaper, the people are nice, and I can easily visit my family in Michigan. We probably won't be here forever, but at the moment Cleveland rocks.

After the Cleveland half-marathon in 2013.

I've been back to Oberlin several times to speak to a journalism class, play in a few alumni basketball games, have a beer with my adviser, and participate in a Mellon alumni panel. When I left the Oberlin reunion this May to head back to real life, I had to hold back from having an Oberlin-departure-ugly-cry Part II (Part I occurred while driving to my parents' house after graduation. #sobfest). Having a life I love, supportive people in my life, and doing something I'm passionate about made it that much easier to leave.

Some of my former teammates—my pseudo-sisters, at an Oberlin alumni game with our former assistant coach, Director of Athletics Natalie Winkelfoos. She was instrumental in getting many of us to choose Oberlin (thanks Wink)!

I met some of my best friends living on South Campus during my first three years at Oberlin. Here are some of them at this year's reunion!

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