newspapers with tea

How Publishing Work as a Student Shaped My College Writing Experience

By Talya Phelps

It’s a story familiar to any graduate of a liberal arts college: beginning freshman year with concrete academic and career expectations and emerging four years later with an entirely unexpected degree and life plan. Having spent my first two years at Vassar College studying such disparate subjects as economics, English, computer science, and Italian, I’ve put in plenty of time unsnarling the twisted threads of my multiple and conflicting interests. Yet though ultimately settling on a film major and an education minor allowed me to expand my mind and knowledge base in ways I never could have imagined, it was not in the screening room of the film building nor the halls of the education department where I found my life’s passion but rather in the cozy hole-in-the-wall office of Vassar’s student newspaper.

I started my career at the Miscellany News as a lowly copy staffer, putting my grammar obsession into practice with weekly forty-five-minute shifts fussing over the style guide and eschewing serial commas under the guidance of the head copyeditor. I soon picked up a layout shift, during which I derived inexplicable satisfaction from wrestling with Adobe InDesign. It wasn’t until my second semester at Vassar that I tried writing for the paper—specifically the humor section, where I published an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” about the struggles of a college student burning the midnight oil. Next came a woefully dorky rap battle between Holden Caulfield and Ferris Bueller, and, soon enough, I was hooked on the intoxicating satisfaction of seeing my name in print.

After a sophomore year spent cheerfully fielding late-night layout requests and haggling over minuscule details as design editor, I had to bid goodbye to the Miscellany for my semester abroad. But I couldn’t keep myself from publishing work even from three thousand miles away: as soon as I touched down in Prague, I began submitting weekly News and Features articles to the paper and penning blog posts for the Miscellany’s travel site, as well as for the Student Voices blog run by my study-abroad program. Amid the wonderful, overstimulating whirlwind that was life across the pond, I found that writing helped me make sense of my experiences and work through the often complicated emotions they brought forth, while giving me a convenient way to share updates with my family and friends back home. Two years later, whenever I’m feeling stifled in my sweltering New York City apartment, I read over one of my old posts and momentarily escape to the cobbled streets of the Czech Republic.

Upon returning to campus, I took on the role of senior editor and then of editor in chief. Spending twenty to thirty hours in the newspaper office each week as I edited the full content of the paper largely precluded writing articles, but I would occasionally be called on to submit something at the last minute—such as when an Opinions piece had to be dropped at eleven p.m. on production night, leaving a gaping four-column hole in the paper. Sequestered inside my office, I set about filling the blank space and was shocked at how easily the prose flowed from my fingertips. Editing thousands upon thousands of words over the past semester and a half had shifted something fundamental in my writer’s brain, and it seemed as if I could revise my own work in the space of time between forming a sentence in my head and translating it to the page. It was my best article yet, and seeing my byline two days later felt just as special as it had the first time.

For the first three years of college, crafting articles for the paper had been a respite from the drudgery of academic essay writing, but everything shifted after my Opinions article. I enjoyed a renewed sense of confidence in my own work, and—for the first time in my educational career—I began to enjoy academic writing. I was ready to see myself not only as a student but also as a scholar and to engage in respectful dialogue and debate with other academics through my writing, instead of simply parroting the words of more established authors. Finishing my last read-through of an essay and handing it in, I started to feel the same sense of ownership elicited by publishing a piece in the paper and to take comfort in the methodical nature of my writing process: research, outline, draft, revise, rinse, repeat.

When I moved into the advisory role of contributing editor, I was eager to once more write articles regularly. Throughout my last semester of college, draining days of thesis planning and job applications were punctuated with research for my investigative pieces: I penned an exposé on the controversial demolition of faculty housing, reported on appalling standards of care at a local hospital and subsequent student activism, met with Residential Life advisers to discuss hiccups in student housing procedures, and published a personal narrative on problems with my own study-abroad program. For the first time, I realized that my words had the power not only to touch others but also to create substantive change.

By the time I collected my diploma, I had more than sixty articles for various platforms under my belt, but more important, I had finally decided to pursue a career in publishing—a choice that, in retrospect, was a long time coming. Today, I will happily advocate for any student, regardless of experience or commitment level, to join a college or university publication, whether that means a newspaper, literature review, blog, fashion magazine, or photojournalism platform. Doing so need not be limited by area of expertise or interest, either: as was the case with the Miscellany, publications tend to offer roles in all different departments, including writing, editing, Web site coding, layout, social media, and business management. Although I can’t deny that there is a special joy in seeing one’s name at the top of an article, contributing to a publication in any capacity offers numerous rewards and opportunities for personal growth, while fostering a sense of motivation not driven by grades or monetary gain. More broadly, in an era of rampant misinformation and attacks on the free press, maintaining a strong tradition of student journalism is crucial. So, to students present and future, go forth and publish—for your country, for your classmates, for your college, but, most of all, for yourself.

Published 24 September 2019

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