How college changed me

As a Chronicle of Higher Education reporter, I spend most of my time interviewing college professors and administrators. In the course of these conversations, alma maters often come up, and they ask me where I got my degree and when. I say, “I just graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill.”

But in recent weeks, I’ve had to start correcting myself. I didn’t just graduate. It’s been nearly two years.

It’s also been nearly two years since I wrote a post on this blog, which I’m not happy about. Things have been busy: news, apartment hunt, job hunt, more news, friend gatherings, traveling, another apartment hunt, more news (seeing a pattern here?). But really, I don’t have a good excuse. I’d like to get back into writing for fun.

Maybe, sometimes, I’ll write about non-higher-ed-related things (*gasp*)! But not today.

One of the major topics du jour in higher education is the value of college. What does going to a four-year residential institution and paying tens of thousands of dollars and earning a degree (or two) actually do for you?

Now that I can’t play the “I’m a clueless recent college grad who doesn’t know how to adult” card anymore, I figured it was an apt time to reflect on what, exactly, I did get out of college — beyond getting a degree, finding a job, and learning how to drink.

I learned how to spell “Tar Heel” properly. This is embarrassing to admit, but when I excitedly posted a Facebook status about my acceptance to UNC in January 2011, I wrote, “IS A TARHEEL!!!!!!!!!” Tar Heel is never one word. Never ever ever ever. It is two words. Thankfully, I avoided further embarrassment by learning this critical lesson during my first semester, shortly after I joined the campus newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel.

I became a vegetarian. UNC’s incoming freshman class of 2011 was assigned to read Eating Animals, a Jonathan Safran Foer book that raises questions about where our meat comes from and what implications eating meat has for animals, the environment, and ourselves. Foer writes about how poorly animals are treated on “factory farms” — which, honestly, are not farms at all. So I became a vegetarian, as a sort of personal protest against industrialized farming.

I un-became a vegetarian. The unraveling of my commitment to vegetarianism began with a single bite of Philly cheesesteak in June 2014. It was so meaty, so cheesy, so greasy, so unhealthy. But y’all, it was so delicious. I was in denial for a little while (i.e. I would publicly profess my vegetarian morals while sneakily eating chicken once or twice a week). By the time fall classes started, though, I had pretty much completed my transformation back into a carnivore.

I stopped spelling poorly on purpose. Whenever I scroll through Facebook memories I have to be reminded of all of the statuses I used to post with “u” and “2” and “evry1” and “rele” and “cuz” and no punctuation — which, circa 2011, I genuinely thought was cool. No, 18-year-old Sarah, that was not cool.

I stopped spending an hour a day doing my hair. As a freshman, I would straighten my hair almost every day before class. Then I would immediately step outside into Chapel Hill’s stifling humidity and walk in it for 15 minutes, rendering my efforts entirely futile. Those are hours of my life I’ll never get back. By sophomore year, I learned that my hair actually looked pretty good if I just pulled the towel off my head after a shower, didn’t brush it, and let it air dry. 

I learned how to actually talk to people. I was very shy in high school. College taught me how to get off of social media and interact with real people, whether I was studying in the student union, attending social events, or doing man-on-the-street interviews for newspaper articles. In recent months I’ve spent a few Sunday afternoons at a local bar watching the NFL and chatting with whoever happens to sit nearby. I’ve gotten to know a former DEA special agent, a civil-rights lawyer, a dairy farmer, and numerous other people I would never have met otherwise.

I discovered coffee. This enlightening discovery has probably shaped who I am today more than anything else.

I learned how to survive for days on very little sleep. This is one of those life skills that you tend to develop during high school and build on once you get to college, with the assistance of caffeine. Even after I had mastered the art of barely sleeping, I would still fall asleep in class from time to time — once, I passed out while my professor was asking me a question. But bottom line, for most of college, I was getting somewhat respectable grades while running 25-30 miles a week and maintaining a social life, on an average of five hours of sleep a night.

I realized that getting eight hours of sleep is essential (for me, anyway). Breaking my no-sleep habit was difficult. I felt anxious if I went to sleep before 2 a.m. because I always had so much to do. But one night, during the first semester of senior year, my boyfriend coaxed me into bed just after midnight. I woke up at 9 a.m. and, just like that, I was a functional human being. It was mind-blowing.

A crash course in higher education

imageFun fact: I’m a little obsessed with education policy. And in my first eight days at the Chronicle of Higher Education, I’ve had the pleasure of reading, listening, learning, and writing about colleges and universities for eight hours a day. (Post-grad life ain’t bad.)

For those who are curious as to what I’m actually doing in my nascent journalism career or who ever wanted to know the slightest thing about the 2015 college and university landscape, I’ve compiled a higher education crash course of what I’ve gathered so far while working at the Chronicle.

For-profit schools: Basically the plague. Stay away.

Historically black colleges and universities: Wonderful people, wonderful purpose. But on the struggle bus.

Most public universities in Wisconsin, Illinois, Connecticut, Louisiana, Arizona, North Carolina, and about a dozen other states: On an even bigger struggle bus.

Small private colleges: They could use a hug. And some donors.

Elite private colleges (aka Harvard): Do really important stuff but also spend plenty of time kicking back, sipping martinis, and rolling in their dough.

Evangelical religious colleges: You’re welcome there if you abide by the following — creation > evolution; gay student ≠ straight student; gay marriage = destroying America.

State government support for higher education: LOL nope.

Free community college: It’s not that simple.

Public university/college presidents and chancellors: Professional cheerleaders in state legislatures and in meetings of politically appointed boards. (Bless their souls.)

Private university/college presidents and chancellors: Professional fundraisers. What UNC’s Carol Folt wishes like hell she could return to.

Tenured faculty: Academic freedom fighters. Write books, cure cancer, solve pressing political questions, teach multiple classes, serve on committees, have families, and do public service — but according to some critics, they’re not doing enough.

Non-tenured faculty: More than half of all professors today. You should buy them a drink.

Students: Alternately the intelligent and innovative leaders of tomorrow and lazy/irritating bums who don’t know how to write a complete sentence or how to get off their phones for an entire class period. Also commonly known as “customers.”

Student-athletes: Often known for winning national championships and starting scandals, sometimes simultaneously.

Student loans: Thanks for the degree, how will I ever repay you?

Graduate education: Prepare to be poor.

Career in academia: Don’t do it.

Online education: Stop trying to make “fetch” happen. It’s not going to happen.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs): Like, so 2012.

SAT: Like, so 20th century.

Affirmative consent: There’s now an app for that?

Affirmative action: SCOTUS, just hurry up and decide whether it’s constitutional.

Achievement gap: Bigger than ever.

Thank you, Daily Tar Heel

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It hasn’t hit me that it’s all over. I’m not sure when it will.

For the past week I feel like I’ve gotten a much-needed few days off from The Daily Tar Heel to take finals in classes that I’ve mostly attended but to which I’ve sometimes not devoted my full attention (dear professors: I really am sorry). I’ve pretended not to care about my grades anymore — because, well, it’s the senior journalism major thing to do — but I care a little.

Now I’ve finished my last exam and have no plans for the next five days besides cleaning, packing, Netflix and a beer or two. I feel kind of confused.

The DTH has structured my life five days a week for nine months. I knew I had to be in the office by 3:30 p.m. every day. Before then, I was frequently responding to texts and emails from staff writers who needed help with their story angle or who had called state legislator after state legislator and heard from none of them (no surprise there).

I squeezed in runs during the hour break between classes or between editing stories. Homework, papers and studying took a backseat until StatNat’s content was copyfit and the shells for the next day’s writers were written. That often wound up being 11 p.m. — or later.

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No, I haven’t gotten enough sleep, I haven’t hung out nearly enough with people outside the newsroom and I haven’t given a whole lotta love to my battered GPA. But I wouldn’t have spent my final year at UNC any other way.

It’s hard to explain exactly how much the DTH means to me. I encountered that difficulty at our annual banquet in late April, when I stood up in front of 100 fellow DTHers and just didn’t know quite how to put it (even after two whiskey sours).

I’m a lot better at writing things down, so I’ll give that a try.

Thank you, DTH, for bringing me out of my quiet and shy high schooler shell to chase some of the state’s biggest and most controversial stories. This transition culminated in an occasion earlier this year where I marched into a meeting — that should have been public — including some of the most important people in North Carolina higher education, and I was thrown out.11141126_10152830959055197_8811459489697528560_o

Thank you for giving me people to laugh with (and drink with) when I needed it most.

Thank you for giving me a place to screw up pretty badly and learn from the mistakes. I’ve fielded dozens of angry source calls and cried about corrections, and I’ve gotten a damn good spine out of it.

Thank you for bringing me back when I thought I’d strayed away for good. During my spring 2014 semester abroad in Paris, I was sour on journalism, frustrated with writing and pretty confident that I didn’t want to do reporting anymore. Then the application process for 2014-15 desk editors began, and I somewhat begrudgingly asked for one and began filling it out. As I answered questions about why I wanted to do this job and what my plans were for the DTH, my mindset changed. The passion I had for the paper came flooding back.

Thank you for giving me the chance to work with some unbelievably talented and diligent journalists. My assistants and staffers reported dozens of stories and sat in the office for hours writing and editing and writing more — and while I occasionally paid them in cookies, they didn’t really get compensated for it. I love each and every one of y’all.

10835431_10153834749088539_3283717371625614529_oThank you for giving me a front-row seat to a hell of a year at UNC-Chapel Hill. We’ve covered countless angles on a scandal, on race issues, on college athletics and on the ousting of the state’s top university leader. And one of my most rewarding memories of the DTH will forever be watching our city and sports reporters drop everything and devote an entire 24 hours to putting out two special newspaper editions covering a devastating student shooting and the death of a basketball legend.

Thank you for making me deal with the frustration of technology, sources or whatever not going my way. You taught me how to problem-solve — how to suck it up, get around the issue and make the final product happen. Because that paper will go to print every single day, no matter what.

And thank you, DTH, for the miles of road trips and the hours of transcribing, for the long days and the late nights, for the 132 bylines and for everything else I inevitably have forgotten to include here.

It still hasn’t hit me that it’s all over. I’m not sure when it will.

Why I gave up USA Today to take an internship many people haven’t heard of

Let’s give this post a nice newsy lede — weird stuff has happened over the past week, and turns out I’m going to be interning at the Chronicle of Higher Education this summer. It’s my absolute dream internship, and I’m immensely lucky to get it right after graduation. Still can’t believe it, to be honest.

One of the Chronicle’s summer interns dropped out in late April, and I accepted an offer to be the replacement on Thursday. Doing so meant that I had to tell the USA Today editors who hired me that I was no longer going to be their summer intern.

When I came home to Southern Pines this weekend, several people inquired about my plans, thinking that I was still going to USA Today. I told them I was still going to D.C. but had switched internships, and when I told them where I was actually going to be working, most of them gave me blank stares.

I explained what the Chronicle was and how big of a deal it was in the journalism world, and they responded, “Oh, um, that sounds great!” A slight look of skepticism, however, remained.

I didn’t make the decision lightly. USA Today has the third-largest print circulation of any newspaper in the country. It reports from the front lines on many of the biggest stories — presidential campaigns, SCOTUS decisions, the Ferguson grand jury verdict, the NFL draft.

Now I’ve burned a bridge. I’m likely not going to be able to work at the publication in any capacity as long as those two editors are there. I understand and respect that. And narrowing your job prospects at all in journalism is generally seen as, well, an unwise move.

But I know I made the right choice.

Anyone who knows me as a writer is aware of my passion for higher education — issues facing colleges and universities, faculty, students. Anyone who has been following North Carolina news over the past five or so years knows that severe budget cuts and general shocks have rocked the public university world in the state.

It’s been an important time for journalists who know a thing or two about N.C. higher ed to step it up — including the students at The Daily Tar Heel, which serves a community that’s been roiled this year by a report detailing a two-decade academic scandal. The DTH has done incredible work on that front; see here and here (the latter being a story that we broke first).

Higher education nationwide is in the midst of an uncertain, but fascinating, era. How do we reconcile the fact that more people than ever need a college degree to earn a middle-class income and yet the cost is far higher than it’s ever been? What’s the future of tenure for faculty? What will the world of college athletics look like in a decade? How will colleges serve so-called “non-traditional students,” who come back to college after years away from school? What role will online classes and degrees and these MOOC things play?

Those are the questions that the Chronicle’s journalists try to answer. They do it through investigations, exclusive interviews, data reporting and meticulously written explanatory pieces. It’ll be an honor to work within such a venerable newsroom.

As for USA Today, it has a very particular place in the American media industry. It has the unusual job of publishing stories that every U.S. resident, from Maine to Arizona, will (theoretically) want to read. Many of its articles involve aggregation, where it links out most of the facts to other news outlets, and its stories are usually no more than 300 words long.

These short snippets might be the only way many people get news, though. What USA Today does is incredibly important. I know I would have gained valuable experience there.

Still, given the choice, I had to follow my heart. And the journalists I’ve told have commended my decision. If I really do have to leave the blissful bubble of Chapel Hill and enter the real world, this is about the best way to do it.

I can’t wait to get started.

Why I love Congress (sort of)

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I love Congress.

There, I said it. Man did that take a weight off my chest.

I’ve been hiding it for at least three years. It’s not “cool” to love Congress.

To clarify, that doesn’t mean I’m in the 14 or 15 percent of  people who actually approve of the job that the institution is  doing. Congress is notoriously becoming a big ugly building filled with gridlocked do-nothing Washington elites who get paid to bicker all day and espouse extreme views on biased cable news, all under the guise of “representing their constituents.”

But I’ve realized something while serving as The Daily Tar Heel’s State & National Editor and taking an upper-level honors course this spring: Congress is fascinating.

On the first day of that class, my professor asked us, “Raise your hand if you like Congress.” No one moved a muscle. “So,” she said, “then why are you here?”

Three months later, “Legislative Politics” has become my favorite course this semester. When the 15 of us enter Graham Memorial every Tuesday and Thursday, we spend more than an hour in non-stop discussion. We talk about parties, elections, committees, bipartisanship (or not), the role of the media in politics. We talk about our nation’s two-party system and what implications it has for representation and productivity.

Today, we talked about polarization. Is the American electorate moderate, or is it becoming more polarized? And if we are moderate, why are we electing extremists with no interest in compromise who only push a staunchly socialist or anti-Obama agenda? Some political watchers suggest that a third party in the mix might set Congress straight. Of course, that’s virtually impossible in a first-past-the-post electoral system.

As we neared the end, one of the class’s conclusions was something along the lines of “this new era of polarization and people hating Congress is all the media’s fault. … Oh wait, sorry Sarah.” I laughed.

Still, I’ve been thinking about it all afternoon since then — is the news media why people hate Congress?

Today, all of the ugly aspects of Congress are circulated widely, thanks to a 24/7 news and media cycle and an Internet that makes off-the-wall remarks or eleventh-hour policy drama go viral. So as far as explaining why, exactly, public approval of Congress is so low, I haven’t found a better answer than the media.

In trying to publish an “objective” story, we journalists generally try to give both sides of the issue the same weight. That’s especially true in political writing. There is a proposed change to current U.S. policy, and there are people for it and people against it. We’re accused of bias if we don’t offer both angles an equal voice.

The way journalists cover it, there’s inherently a conflict over every legislative bill — which always causes partisan gridlock, which halts productivity, which further worsens Congress’ reputation. It’s a lot easier as a journalist to sell stories of the most extreme aspects of Congress, marketing elections as a two-horse race and floor debate on key proposals as a game of tug-of-war.

But sometimes, that isn’t completely fair. We only write about what goes wrong in Congress on major policy matters — a narrow, cherry-picked view of the institution itself. If there are success stories of bipartisan compromise on smaller, less prominent issues, journalists don’t tell them. The public therefore only sees the ugly aspects of creating laws (also known as sausage-making). And they see a lot more of it in this age of digital media and 24-hour news networks.

Congress and I have a weird relationship. I see the stubborn lack of agreement. I see the nasty attack ads and obscene amounts of political campaign spending. I see politicians go on the record and say some really dumb things (oh Michele Bachmann, how we miss you). On the other hand, that conflict, that reality-TV-esque drama — that’s an easy way for journalists to sell a story. Given that I’m going to be looking for someone to pay me for journalism in the incredibly near future, that matters to me.

At the same time, I’m aware that the stories I’ll be telling might misrepresent some aspects of the institution and the people in it.

No, I don’t like the job Congress is currently doing. But it’s sure made me think deeply and critically about American society, about politics and about the role of journalism in covering it. The institution not only has a fascinating history, but it’s also important. It matters. A lot.

That’s why I love Congress.

EDITORIAL: UNC students should consider voting at home

Since the start of the school year, persistent voter registration volunteers have fanned out across UNC’s campus — shaking clipboards in the faces of stony-faced students sitting in the Pit and averting their eyes, or panting as they frantically speed-walk to class.

“Are you registered to vote at your Chapel Hill address?” they ask, over and over again.

But these political groups and volunteers should have been encouraging in-state UNC students to consider voting at home.

It’s no secret that youth voters tend to side with the Democratic Party. And Chapel Hill and Carrboro are considered liberal bastions in a “purple” state whose voters can often lean either way. Both towns have openly gay mayors and voted overwhelmingly in favor of Democrats in 2012, the last national election — nearly 76 percent supported Barack Obama.

There’s little to no chance that Chapel Hill’s political leanings will shift if fewer students vote in the town. In other regions of the state, however, students’ votes could make a difference.

Consider the race for North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District, pitting incumbent Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers against celebrity singer and Democrat Clay Aiken. The district, including Fayetteville, Fort Bragg and suburbs southwest of Raleigh, was drawn in 2010 to favor conservative candidates.

But Aiken, with his name recognition, is down just eight points and has a small chance at an upset.

Student voters who have permanent addresses in that district and would rather see a Democrat in Congress could head home to vote, or vote absentee. Given that North Carolina Republicans have gerrymandered their party into congressional and legislative majorities until at least 2020, Aiken’s candidacy represents a significant opportunity for a Democrat to steal an unexpected victory.

Furthermore, it is the N.C. General Assembly that can have the most direct impact on public university students — and the Republican supermajority in the current legislature has not prioritized the UNC system in its last two sessions.

If students want to encourage UNC-friendly policies, namely lower tuition and fewer budget cuts, they should cast votes for state Democratic candidates in their home districts in hopes of at least reducing the stronghold that the GOP maintains.

It is more of a hassle for students to drive home or submit an absentee ballot. But in the future, UNC’s voting advocates can begin efforts in mid-August, well in advance of early voting, to educate students about their options. They can employ their large volunteer base to explain why students’ votes might mean more in their home district.

The tireless voter registration efforts at UNC should be commended — just 23.5 percent of eligible voters aged 18-29 cast a ballot in the 2010 midterms, reflecting a gaping hole of nonvoters and room for improvement. During this cycle, students have a role to play in a U.S. Senate election that could determine the chamber’s majority.

But every North Carolina voter will cast a ballot for the Senate race, regardless of their town or city of residence. The elections for the U.S. House of Representatives and for the General Assembly are district-specific.

It’s too late for student political leaders to change their tune before the Oct. 10 registration deadline. But in the future, these advocates should keep in mind that while every vote matters, a vote elsewhere might have a greater impact than a vote in Chapel Hill.

Students need a better understanding of the UNC Board of Governors

When I attend UNC Board of Governors meetings as The Daily Tar Heel’s beat reporter, I am more often than not the only student in attendance.

Various student groups — including the N.C. Student Power Union and UNC Student Government — have lobbied in the past for a student voting member on the board. A new student group, the UNC BOG Democracy Coalition, formed on Thursday and aims to secure a bigger say for students in the decision-making process.

But before students can consider themselves qualified to make broad claims about how undemocratic the board is, they need to attend these meetings regularly and understand how the board truly works.

The desire to have a student voice with voting power on the board is understandable. There is one student who sits on the board — the president of the UNC Association of Student Governments — but he or she only remains on the board for one year, can’t speak in meetings unless spoken to and can’t vote on policy changes.

The Board of Governors is the impetus behind a lot of UNC-system policy that directly affects students. Recent examples include a system-wide ban on gender-neutral housing and a 15 percent cap on the amount of tuition revenue that a campus can use for need-based aid.

This major policy-making, however, is not all the board does. When I write about a board meeting for the DTH, I cherry pick the hot-button issues, like tuition, that students care about.

In between those glitzy, spirited debates about financial aid and SAT admissions requirements, the board discusses campuses’ capital improvement projects; net funding reductions; the different financial sources for the university system among federal funds, escheat funds, the N.C. General Fund and private funds; and the system’s audit reports.

Unlike student protests — with colorful signs flying high, a feeling of solidarity and a wealth of enthusiasm — it’s not glamorous stuff.

You could argue that these political appointees to the board, many of them business executives, have little to no higher education experience, even less than students do. But they do often have in-depth knowledge of the way appropriations, audits and policies work in a conglomerate like the UNC system.

Students in the midst of obtaining an undergraduate degree rarely, if ever, have this kind of expertise. It’s been clear during meetings this fall that ASG President Alex Parker is sometimes left behind in the whirl of discussions — and that’s a little-known fact among student activists.

One possible solution that would expand students’ role on the board could be a student forum as part of the Thursday or Friday board meeting, in which half a dozen board members address student concerns for an hour.

To the credit of the UNC BOG Democracy Coalition, a number of its members attended parts of last Friday’s board meeting, including an important working group discussion of a system-wide review of centers and institutes.

Still, students who want to assert that the board needs to be reformed should attend additional meetings and learn more about the board’s often tedious but important work — not just read the newspaper.