A typical Sunday night for many college students looks like a grind. A lot of us can be found in cafes, furiously typing out essays, working through a problem set or furrowing our eyebrows at a confusing reading. But for me, Sunday nights look a little different.
On Sunday nights, I’m checking in with section editors about the status of articles for each section, corresponding with our digital director on the latest updates to the website and communicating with my co-editor-in-chief about priorities for the week.
Through Monday and early Tuesday, section editors and I will add edits to each article, going back to the writer if we need more information and finalizing the story for print. Then, as early as 11 a.m. on Tuesday, section editors trickle into our office and start laying out the stories and images on Adobe InDesign. My co-editor and I will each do a final read on each of the 16 pages we print every week, while section editors brainstorm story ideas and submissions for the next cycle of the paper. After each page is signed off, section editors upload stories to the website, and at around 1 a.m., we submit the paper to our printing house. Usually, I’m up until 3 a.m. that night, making sure the website is properly loaded and the digital side of things is working as intended.
The process is tedious. I outline it all here because not many people know what goes into producing the paper every week. Like many student organizations on campus, newspaper often feels like a second job. In our case, we put out a final product every week, often breaking important news or covering campus events so that our community of students, faculty, staff and alumni is as up to date as possible on all things Amherst College.
I joined the paper my first week of college, having had a taste of the adrenaline rush of journalism in high school. I still remember my first story, about the college’s efforts to increase environmental sustainability on campus, and how excited I was to see it in a sidebar on the front page. About a month into working as a staff writer for The Student, I stepped into the position of managing news editor with Isabel Tessier ’19. That’s when the work really began.
At the time, the most-read section of news was the crime log (it’s possible it still is). Isabel — with Emma Swislow ’20 and Natalie De Rosa ’21 joining later — and I wanted to make the newspaper indispensable to this college community. We covered the college’s designation of five tenure faculty lines to black and Latinx scholars, a response to the 2015 Amherst Uprising movement. We paid close attention to each campus protest that mobilized the community as President Donald Trump was elected and sworn in. We carefully followed the controversy over abrupt party policy changes and the resulting backlash.
There were strings of weeks — I think the most was five — during which Emma, Natalie and I all had to write stories because we didn’t have enough writers, but we kept with recurring issues on campus: lack of accessibility, first-year orientation leaders’ demands for compensation, counseling needs among the student body, lack of adequate support for faculty of color.
At the end of our junior fall, Emma and I took on the mantle of editors-in-chief. In a stroke of — dare I say — fate, Emma and I had first met at a Northwestern University journalism camp for high school students. Three years later, our friendship created a strong foundation for our work together. She managed the publishing side of the paper, navigating financial needs and leading the initiative to establish an endowment for The Student. I worked on the digital side, building our website with Digital Director Dylan Momplaisir ’21 and increasing the different kinds of content we put out on social media.
Our yearlong tenure saw the college community undergo a number of controversies, some of which were prompted by The Student’s reporting. It was often tiring but exhilarating to meet with sources, examine datasets, try to confirm information and make sure we got the story right each time. Our work was rewarded, too. We saw students, faculty and alums respond to our investigations with demands for change and transparency. The Atlantic, Inside Higher Ed and the Boston Globe have all cited our reporting in their stories.
Through my work with The Student, I have been made a better journalist and even more a better person. Every person I spoke with who trusted me enough to share their stories with me — from Bryan Torres ’18E and his important activism for undocumented immigrants to English Professor Marisa Parham who in the middle of our two-hourlong conversation seated me in her car and drove us to pick up her child from school — gave me their invaluable time to help me understand each story in its depth. Meeting with people who faced systemic barriers and witnessing their bravery in choosing to trust the institution of journalism, one that has often harmed more than helped, were constant reminders that I must hold myself accountable for every word I write.
As I got to connect more with different students, faculty, alums and staff across the college and campus community, I came to know the intricacies, complexities and contradictions that make up Amherst College, for better or worse.
Journalism can be a disheartening job. Just take a look at the news today. The constant cycle of political maneuvers, violent interpersonal encounters and blatant discrimination is difficult to stomach, let alone seek out as part of one’s job.
It has been the same, to a lesser degree, at Amherst. Many times I felt frustrated or helpless in the midst of forces outside of my control. As I talked with students who described their needs as ignored and professors who recounted instances of racism directed their way, it was hard to reconcile the Amherst College I’d envisioned as an applicant with the Amherst College I now knew.
But it also gave me the opportunity to see and attest to a community that desperately wants to live out the principles it espouses — as one that embraces and enacts the ideals of inclusion, justice and equity. And that gives me hope.
I myself found my sense of purpose and belonging in newspaper. Some of the most cherished moments during my time as editor-in-chief took place on Tuesday nights in the office.
I am not an easy editor. Many times, I have frustrated my section editors and writers with constant demands. I’m sure that there were Tuesday nights when they wished I was less nitpicky with corrections or less aggressive about meeting deadlines. And yet they’ve stuck with me through and through, consistently giving me opportunities to grow in my capacity as an editor and leader.
Throughout our long year together, the editorial staff really became a family. There was the night all the Americans were shocked to hear that Canadians (Ryan Yu ’22) pronounce their z’s “zed.” There was the time we watched President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address together and Ryan, Jae Yun Ham ’22 and Henry Newton ’21 got into a heated political debate. There was the Chinese food I ate with Natalie as we worked to write up Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s visit to campus, and there was the Asian-American editors’ ambivalent discussion on the ruling in the Harvard lawsuit.
One night, Emma’s accidental and unfortunately curt email to one of her professors sent the room into laughter as she panicked (don’t worry, it was later all okay). We had the editors known for talking insanely fast — Dylan, Zehra Madhavan ’20 and Julia Shea ’21 — as well as across-the-board agreement that Zach Jonas ’22 is the embodiment of a golden retriever. Julia’s Justin Bieber-esque looks were always captivating, Connor Haugh’s ’21 mustache made him a different person and the one time our constant badgering caused Henry to slip up about something, we all said, “I knew it!” That one you’ll have to figure out when he graduates.
What has The Student given me? It’s difficult to put exactly into words. The Student gave me the chance to expand my journalistic skills and the opportunity to demonstrate the necessity of the press. But even more so, The Student gave me a home with people who saw me at my best and worst and still trusted me as their leader. It will be strange to not have it sitting at the back of my mind every day next semester.
In the last year, concerned with my work-life balance, my academic and thesis advisor has gently prodded me — more than once — “When will you be finished with newspaper?” Now, it’s my last issue, and I don’t know what to say.
To each and every writer, social media manager, publisher, editor and delivery person that has put time into The Student, thank you. To my editorial staff, I couldn’t have done it without you. To Natalie and Olivia Gieger ’21, incoming editors-in-chief, I believe in you completely and know you’ll carry this paper with your whole heart. To my own editors-in-chief — Isabel, Jingwen Zhang ’18 and Lauren Tuiskula ’17 — thank you for giving me model examples of what it looks like to lead a newspaper.
To my mentors Scott Wilson ’88 and Brian Fung, I can’t thank you enough for walking me through all the thorny ethical questions I encountered. To my sources who risked possible repercussions to give me critical information, thank you for your courage. To the college community, thank you for opening up to me and trusting me again and again.
And to Emma, my partner-in-journalism, thank you for having my back, for sticking by my side when I was really going through it. You are the salt to my pepper, and I am infinitely grateful for your faith in me. Congratulations, we did it.
—Shawna Chen ’20