Nearly every "play date" between the ages of 8 and 12, I pretended to be Barbara Walters or Oprah Winfrey, interviewing my friends. And every morning, I'd wake up an hour before elementary school to watch ABC’s Good Morning America in my parents’ bed. The evening news was always watched at 6:30 p.m. (first Peter Jennings, then Charlie Gibson, then Diane Sawyer) and a major newspaper was always on the kitchen counter. I was fascinated by the news, and I wanted to be a journalist.
But growing up, I was told journalism was dead. Besides, I probably wouldn't make it. There were thousands of girls just like me who wanted to work in TV news. A career in business certainly seemed safer. Maybe I could go to law school. In fact, every other career seemed to offer more stability and better pay. There had to be something else for me.
By the time I reached college, I had nearly given up my dream. I turned down an acceptance to Northwestern’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism and went to the University of Michigan to “keep my options open” and cost down. Now, on a warm and humid June day, I can see that choice was one of the most important of my life.
My first three semesters at Michigan were spent trying to convince myself that I could pursue a career in journalism while also prepping for the inevitable “back-up plan” career after I failed. I was majoring in Economics and International Studies. The classes would provide a great basis for reporting and a solid resume for a MBA program when I needed to find a job. After my freshman year, I crowded my summer with additional courses in statistics, economics, and calculus.
I told myself that I would join WOLV-TV, Michigan’s student-run television station, as soon as I “adjusted to college” or “finished the semester” or whatever other excuses were convenient at the time. The truth was that I was terrified to join an organization of other people also trying to succeed in broadcast television. The thought of failing at my dream job while still in college was enough to keep me far from the studio.
But midway through fall semester of my sophomore year, I experienced my “quarter life crisis.” I moved out of my sorority house and dropped a 400-level economics class, among other things. Essentially, I pressed the pause button on my life and tried to understand who I was and where I wanted to go.
During this time of self-care, I thought a lot about what I was going to do with the rest of my time at this incredible university I had grown to adore. That question was intertwined with other anxiety-provoking questions about my career aspirations and true passions. I always knew what the answer would be when I was finally brave enough to face it. I was fascinated by the news, and I wanted to be a journalist, just as I always dreamed.
In winter of my sophomore year, I changed my major to Communication Studies and picked up a minor in Writing. I also walked into the WOLV-TV studio and found myself in a control room learning about sound boards and Teleprompters. It was absolutely terrifying, I had a lot of learning to do, and I had never been happier. Within weeks, I was a regular crew member for the Friday morning news/talk show, Wake up with WOLV.
My junior year, I served as News Director of WOLV-TV and the co-host of the Friday morning show. I grew as a leader: teaching new crew members about production and helping the Executive Board strengthen the station. I also grew as a journalist: covering influential movements on campus like “#BBUM: Being Black at the University of Michigan” and “UM Divest.”
In the classroom, I immersed myself in courses on the media and journalism. Two classes in particular taught by Professor Anthony Collings, one on journalism ethics and the other on the Supreme Court, only deepened my desire to be a journalist.
Most importantly, I dared myself to go out into the world and try this broadcast TV thing once and for all. I became an intern for WDIV Local 4, the NBC affiliate in downtown Detroit. I worked in the special projects unit, helping correspondents and producers on stories ranging from the safety of high school football helmets to the General Motors vehicle recalls. I went undercover in hookah bars, interviewed Olympic gold medalist Charlie White, and learned a lot about how to produce the news.
There was no turning back. I was hooked.
In May, I moved to Washington D.C. for a summer internship at ABC News, the very network I had watched intently for so many years. I work closely with Martha Raddatz, the Chief Global Affairs Correspondent, who I watched cover the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for over a decade. I have already helped her prepare stories on the release of POW Bowe Bergdahl and contributed to stories about the summer primary elections.
Every time I walk into the bureau under the “ABC News” flag, it feels surreal. Not a day goes by that I don’t picture the little girl interviewing her friends on “play dates” and feel grateful I get to be in Washington.
In the fall, I will be a senior at the University of Michigan, and I cannot imagine another place I would have wanted to receive my college education. I will serve as the General Manager of WOLV-TV and finish my remaining courses. Then, as most graduates do, I will start the daunting job search. But before I focus on any of that, I am enjoying this internship and reflecting on how I could have possibly ended up in a studio at ABC News.
These are my seven reflections that will hopefully be of use to or inspire others:
- There is no direct-flight/clear solution/one path to success: I wanted to be a journalist, so in high school, I researched the top journalism schools in the country. I was fortunate to be accepted to one and then turned down the opportunity, instead choosing a school without a Journalism major! Would I have learned a lot from the Medill School of Journalism? Yes. Would I have had access to a network of journalists who also attended Medill? Yes. Would the degree have guaranteed me a successful career in journalism? Absolutely not. No school, program, teacher, or internship will guarantee any amount of success (although it can help). I chose to attend a university without a journalism program and have been amazed by the amount of opportunities I have to still engage in the field. This is true of many schools. Do not feel limited by what you do not have, rather take advantage of the opportunities available to you. Many a CEO comes from a business school you wouldn’t recognize. Hard work, passion, and drive will take you far.
- If you don’t try, it won’t happen: I knew I wanted to be a journalist, and I had some idea of what it would take to get there: experience. Those experiences would not happen unless I walked into the WOLV-TV studio or applied to a local TV station online. It seems so simple, but it’s a huge idea! People have dreams, but they will not have a fighting chance at accomplishing them until they take the first step. I wanted to be a journalist. Great! Now what was I going to do to get there? I never would have guessed I’d be the General Manager of Michigan’s TV station my senior year. It wouldn’t have happened without that first email inquiry to the station several years ago. I never would have dreamed I’d be working at ABC News, but one night, I was watching World News with Diane Sawyer and I thought: why wouldn’t they hire me? That very night, I started writing my cover letter.
- Don’t give up: The first time I applied to intern at ABC News I didn’t get the job, and I was crushed. But the interview team encouraged me to apply again, so I sent in my materials once more after gaining more experience. I also applied to at least fifteen other summer journalism internships across the country. I never heard from 75% of them. Was it because I had a terrible application and would never make it as a journalist? I’d like to think not. Rather, not every attempt will result in success. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
- Stop listening to other people: Okay, take this one with a grain of salt. It’s always good to listen to others. I’m a big fan of asking for advice, being open to criticism, and doing your research. But, this mantra has its limits. If I had a dollar for every time someone said something negative about the media industry to me, I could have purchased the New York Times by now. At the end of the day, you want to be passionate about your life. You want to enjoy what you do. For me, that goal ended up being more important than what other people thought I should do. My family, friends, and teachers meant well, but at the end of the day, I’m the one who has to hear the alarm clock go off each morning. I want to be excited to get out of bed.
- Be open to other experiences: I’m the first one to admit I didn’t come to college with a plan. Looking back now, I find it easy to judge summers spent doing calculus and statistics as “wasted time” that I could have been preparing for a career in journalism. But when I really think about it, these “other” experiences are not a waste, but a positive contribution to who I am today. My time spent in economics, math, and international studies courses have undoubtedly helped me to comprehend the world around me and shaped my way of thinking. My summer spent in the Development Summer Internship Program (D-SIP) as a corporate relations intern gave me a much better understanding of business dynamics and marketing and developed my writing and communication skills. Now, I actively look for outside experiences that are not journalism-related. A great example of this is my participation with the Barger Leadership Institute (BLI). I have met bright, engaging students who have inspired me and helped me to grow in my own leadership. Skills and experiences I gain at BLI will stay with me in my journalism career and throughout my life. This is also why I work as a tour guide for the admissions office and compete on Michigan’s Waterski Team. I am building myself as a person, not just as a future journalist. Be open to new experiences and different kinds of people.
- Help others: I would not be half of what I am today without the help of other people. There are countless friends and family who encouraged me and incredible women at WOLV-TV who mentored me. There are past supervisors and co-workers who welcomed me into their networks and provided invaluable advice and hard truths. There are teachers, coaches, teammates, enemies, ex-boyfriends, and journalists-I-will-likely-never-meet to thank. And there will continue to be people who help and encourage me out of the kindness of their hearts. Now I want to remember to help others. Life may seem competitive (especially the industry I’ve chosen) but in the end, kindness and love are worth more than a leg-up on someone else.
- Nothing will be perfect, and that’s okay: I have the curse of forever striving for perfection. It’s in my DNA. But if there is one thing that I believe to be the most valuable lesson I’ve learned, it is that I will not be perfect, and that is perfectly alright. Instead of striving for the unattainable, I hope to be the best I can be. I aim for hard work, dedication, and a sense of humor. You will be late to work because of the weather or traffic. You will spill coffee on your favorite shirt. You will hurt someone’s feelings and have to apologize. You will lose your keys at the most inconvenient time. You will be disliked (and liked!). You will have lazy days where you accomplish absolutely nothing. Life goes on. Forgive yourself and others around you. No one is perfect.
In 1998, I asked my mom if there would ever be a woman president. She responded (correctly I hope) that of course there would be. “Is it going to be Lewinsky?” I asked.
My five-year-old self was already a news-addict, learning the names of people who were talked about on TV. Sixteen years later, Lewinsky is still in the news (she recently did an interview with Vogue), and I am several steps closer to one day being the journalist who exposes the next big scandal.
Where will my future lead? Who knows! But to the little girl pretending to be Robin Roberts or Katie Couric in her living room? Never ever give up.
Elizabeth McLaughlin is a senior, majoring in Communication Studies and minoring in Writing. She writes a daily news blog called News Compendium.