Exit Letter: Becca Says Bye

Editor-in-chief Rebecca Picciotto '22 reflects on her year at the helm of The Student with all of its highs and very real lows. In her last issue of The Student, she bids goodbye to a job that has challenged her sleep schedule but enriched her Amherst career.

​​Earlier this semester, for a STAT-231 project, I learned that I spend an average of about 24 hours per week on newspaper compared to about 33 hours on my four classes. Some quick math reveals that working at the helm of The Amherst Student has been, for me, almost equivalent to taking three extra classes. And the numbers don’t show the full picture. Those 24 hours do not include the many 10-minute spurts of email or Slack communication that spring up each day, along with the unquantifiable mental energy that goes into troubleshooting the crisis of the moment or trying to anticipate the next one.

I joined The Student as a Managing Opinion Editor during my sophomore fall, with hesitation. I spent my first year at Amherst trying to fall out of love with journalism. I had come from running my high school newspaper, which was a monthly publication that introduced me to both the things that infatuated me with journalism (gaining trust for exclusive interviews; localizing broader trends; amplifying local stories) along with the things I came to dread (the drudgery of the routine; the stomach-churning unease that comes with the mistakes). Granted, none of us 17-year-olds were formally trained, nor were we putting out many hard-hitters. Still, I felt a constant burden to make that newspaper important to my high school community, and despite hours of work, I never felt I succeeded. So, at 18 years old, I entered college already a jaded journalist. In hopes of finding a new love, I took Intro Econ and Intro Comp Sci and some math and philosophy (now my majors). But outside the classroom, I was still flirting with the newspaper, submitting the occasional op-ed every couple of months (which are now viscerally painful for me to read). When a Managing Opinion Editor position opened up, I decided to apply. As the lovers-to-enemies-to-lovers trope might have it, I was suddenly back in a newsroom.

Over the past two and a half years of working on The Student, I’ve seen it take on a couple of different looks. Under Shawna Chen ’20 and Emma Swislow ’20, the paper was an active mechanism of institutional accountability (reporting like Shawna’s “A Flawed System” series, about the obstacles of securing tenure as an Amherst faculty member of color, gives a good sense of the Chen-Swislow era). With Natalie De Rosa ’21 and Olivia Gieger ’21 at the helm, the paper also became a forum for student activism, running op-ed series like the Black Student Union’s #IntegrateAmherst. Natalie and Olivia, alongside Digital Director Dylan Momplaisir ’21, also oversaw the transition of The Student during the initial shock of the campus-wide Covid eviction. Somehow, while everyone was just trying to get through 2020’s post-spring break stretch from hell, they were also keeping the newspaper afloat.

In January 2021, with remote learning and pandemic uncertainty still in full swing, I assumed the role of editor-in-chief beside the intimidatingly smart kid from my first-year seminar, Ryan Yu ’22. With half of our staff on campus and the other half dispersed all over the western hemisphere, Tuesday production nights often took place in a depressingly unpopulated newsroom. It entailed staring into the Zoom ether for 12 consecutive hours, until the early morning birds began to chirp. Remote journalism was like remote learning: necessary but highly unsatisfying. Still, there were highs. Olivia started The Student Sums It Up podcast. I had a small dream come true when I got the chance to interview Jessica Bruder, the author of Nomadland. And most importantly, despite the challenges, the newsletter made it into readers’ Wednesday morning inboxes.

This semester has come with its own, unique set of highs and lows. We’ve gone back to printing copies, which meant The Student got physically visible again—on your way into Val, or Keefe, or Frost, or the Science Center. Our Editorial Board has doubled in size. We launched the The Student Voices program to provide paid positions for students from low-income backgrounds. A relentless and talented team of writers and reporters have covered everything from the college’s labor dynamics, to party culture, to mental health systems, and more. Our editors have gathered every Sunday to discuss (and often disagree) about how to comment on certain aspects of campus life. Our podcast department has doubled its number of shows and projects—from my quarantine brainchild to a full-blown operation with an official studio and two fearless leaders, Sam Spratford ’24 and Maggie McNamara ’23. Oh, and in case you haven’t noticed, we now have a weekly crossword. I am so proud of our entire team for making this newspaper what it should be for this community: a disseminator, a forum, an investigator, and an occasional meme.

For years, editors-in-chief of The Student (and their friends) have asked “Why do you do this to yourself?” Ryan and I have spent many a Wednesday morning racking our brains for some rational answer. For everything that makes this newspaper an incredible way to spend a college experience, there are just as many reasons not to do this club of all clubs. For one thing, the ethical dilemmas of this field can make you queasy (Ryan and I are both dealing with some of them in our respective theses). Then, there’s the weekly loss of a healthy Circadian rhythm. There are the crises that require driving 40 minutes to Springfield at 6 a.m. to pick up a print job. In this role, I have hit a couple of rock bottoms throughout the semester, each one seemingly lower than the last.

So ultimately, there is no rational explanation to satisfy the observer who is concerned for our sleep schedules, stress levels, and performance in classes. Perhaps any time I try to run away from this job, I’ll end up in a newsroom again, unsure of exactly what magnetic force pulled me back.

Given all of this, it might seem like I am exactly where I was when I entered this college: a jaded journalist. And yet, if I could go back and change anything about my newspaper involvement, it would have been to join earlier. This paper is a place where I had my heartiest laughs (likely between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. on any given Wednesday), pushed myself to my absolute brink (likely between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m.), learned the value of an impromptu nap (likely from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m.), and found some of the richest lessons of my Amherst career (the entire time).

So why will I keep coming back to this field? Yes, it’s satisfying to put out a final product and yes, journalists have a moral imperative to coordinate our society through the spread of information. But journalism is also just an intensely immersive way for an individual to experience the world. Any given story will entail having conversations, going places, investigating data, and seeing the underlying dynamics of a community in ways you may not have otherwise. Doing that work on The Student comes with the added bonus of working alongside some of the smartest people with some of the dumbest jokes (which will, despite your greatest efforts, put you in laughing tears).

And it is to those people that I owe so much.

To the Editorial Board, (you might not believe it but) I will deeply miss the void of distraction that inevitably forms when we’re all together—I now expect to hear Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” at ungodly hours of every Tuesday night. There are 22 of you so I’ll spare this letter an individualized list, but do know that when I say, “Thanks for your work,” as you leave the newsroom each week, it’s not a formality. You all are the reason this thing works.

To Olivia, Natalie, and Dylan, who kept this paper alive when everything was falling apart and somehow had faith that I could too, thank you for that trust.

To my friends and family who have dealt with my relentless tirades about the work of this paper, thanks for putting up with it.

To the people who have talked to reporters at The Student and shared their experiences and perspectives, thank you. It’s not easy to go on the record, but the stories you have to tell matter.

To anyone who picks up a newspaper (even just for the crossword) or opens our newsletter or listens to our podcasts or reads our website, thank you—please now make your friends do it too. The more people let us know when we’ve messed up, or write an opinion to disagree with our takes, the more this paper can become the two-way line of communication that it should be.

To the next editors-in-chief, Lynn Lee ’23 and Ethan Samuels ’23, enjoy everything of what is to come. There will be hard moments, as I’m sure you expect, but there is something irreplicable about this job and how it accelerates growth. I’m so excited to see the power of the Lee-Samuels era.

To Scott Brasesco ’22, the balanced thinker and authentically kind friend who joined me in the Opinion section just a couple of weeks before Covid sent us all home, thank you for working tirelessly to grow the section and congratulations: your editorial ghostwriting days are finally over.

And of course, to Ryan. If I have grown in this role, it is largely because of him. When people exaggerate about the smart kids you meet in college who “finish three majors early and run two publications and play musical instruments and take three extra classes every semester,” they are unknowingly describing Ryan. We came in as opposites—me, a Type-A compulsive planner who valued a 7-hour night’s sleep; him, an intuitive decision-maker who knew how to nap strategically. I would say that over the past 11 months with our 24 to 30-hour weeks, we have grown into complements. From him I have learned to trust my instincts, stand by my decisions, lean into disagreement, and most importantly, take naps. Ryan, it might be time to crack open that champagne.