This is the third in a series of profiles celebrating the work of our alumni for Black History Month. Please see the newslider at the bottom of this article for additional profiles.
Kelsey Coffey (ABJ ’20) is a multimedia journalist at WEAR-TV in Pensacola, Florida. After graduating from Grady College in December 2020, she took a job in advertising before landing her current role.
“I was toying between PR and journalism for most of my college career,” Coffey said. “But, thanks to encouragement from Dean Davis and Professor Dodie Cantrell, I changed my mind.”
“Through that project, I learned so much about the history of UGA and really seeing how our institution played a big part in Black history,” she said. “We were on the national stage when that happened.”
Coffey built a relationship with Charlayne Hunter-Gault (ABJ ’63) while working on the documentary. She then was reached out to by the late Professor Valerie Boyd about an opportunity to work with Hunter-Gault on her book, “My People: Five Decades of Reporting About Black Lives.”
“For both of us to have an opportunity to learn from a trailblazer like her was was incredible, and to see how she has been able to speak about the Black community and advocate for the Black community throughout so many generations is incredible,” Coffey said. “No matter what was going on, she still was able to be effective in her reporting.”
What motivates you and keeps you going on challenging days?
My job is a gift and a privilege. It is difficult to be a journalist, especially in today’s world where people don’t trust us in the media and we get a lot of pushback. I believe that truth matters, I believe that fairness matters, and local journalism matters. People need to know what’s going on in their city council, on the school board and their local police department because those people and those entities are what impacts people’s lives the most on a day-to-day basis. The fact that I can live and work somewhere where I can try my best to do something, to make a difference in someone’s life – it’s great.
Looking back, is there anything you wish you would have done in college that you didn’t do that you think would have helped you in your career now?
I don’t regret any part of my story because it’s my own and things happen the way that it should have for me and my personal growth. But, I wish I would have taken more time to be involved specifically with the Grady College and do more volunteering with Grady Newsource, so I could have better prepared myself for what the real world was going to look like whenever I got a job. No one could have told me that I would have graduated in the middle of pandemic and my Newsource experience would have been virtual.
What does Black History Month mean to you?
Black history means celebrating a people that have brought so much to this country, even when they didn’t get the credit for it. The fact that we are such an intricate part of the fabric of American society is something that is worth being celebrated. I’m proud of who I am and where I come from. It’s a privilege to be a Black woman. I love it, and no one can take my identity away from me.
What piece of advice do you live by?
The first thing that comes to mind is really about loving God and loving others. As a young adult, when you’re in college, you’re so focused on what you want to do. Instead, you should be focused on who you want to be. I love my job. It’s difficult, and I enjoy doing it, but my job does not define me. The driving force that leads me in whatever I do and all of my decision making is the fact that I should be pouring into others and shining a light on other people. I may not be a journalist forever. As much as I enjoy it, it may not be my career for the rest of my life. But, whatever I do will be centered around loving God and loving people because that’s what I really feel like I’m put on this earth to do.
Where do you see yourself in five to ten years?
I see myself happy. I see myself continuing to live a life that I love, surrounding myself with people I love, and doing what I love to do. I don’t know what that looks like. I don’t know where I would live. I don’t even know what job I would have – whether it would be full-time reporting or full-time anchoring – maybe doing a little bit of both. Either way, I see joy.
This is the second in a series of profiles celebrating the work of our alumni for Black History Month. Please see the newslider at the bottom of this article for additional profiles.
Alex Woodruff (ABJ ’14) is a sales executive and independent filmmaker. He has eight years of experience working with C-level stakeholders, positioning technology solutions across all industries. He owns an Emmy Award-winning film company in Atlanta where he has produced and directed projects that spotlight underrepresented narratives.
What does Black History Month mean to you?
I passed a car in Atlanta yesterday with the message “Without Black History There Is NO History” scrawled across its rear window. I liked that. Black history is as essential and unstructured as water. And this month of remembrance is as much a vehicle for change against systemic bigotry as it is a means to champion unheralded innovators, activists and artists.
For me personally, I wish it were enough. Each February we exalt the stories of our forebears whose wisdom transcends generations. We mold our plight into a message that has the potential to truly move people, while acknowledging the leaders who got us here.
Then we witness the barbaric police murder of Tyre Nichols. Just two weeks later we find ourselves in a fight for whether schools will allow black history to be taught in full, or at all. I know our battles pale in comparison to those our parents and grandparents fought, but it still can feel insurmountable at times.
However I know that it isn’t. I hope this month serves as a space for reflection and unification among the community who will lead this generation in the spirit of those who came before.
What led you to your current career path?
My path is guided by a longing for artistic expression, healthy competition, and to provide for those I care for. I’ve meandered through different corporate and creative channels in pursuit of those three drivers until I found my current dual-career, which feels like the ultimate happy-place.
While in undergrad at UGA I sold glasses at the local LensCrafters to help pay my tuition and mounting student loans. There I developed my love for sales and the competitive joy of having a high-performing day. Simultaneously I managed my schoolwork and began to enter professional sales competitions (yeah, those exist) that I felt could lead me toward a career with financial freedom one day. By night I was producing music and videos both as a rapper and director, which led to opportunities to open for Kendrick Lamar and Big Sean.
Graduating in 2015 with a six-figure sales job allowed me to build my financial footing, while benefiting from being able to make my own schedule. As an artist, that freedom afforded the time to pursue my craft, and the money to invest in it. Ultimately I found a new channel, filmmaking, that I grew to love. What enchanted me was the potential to create entire worlds from imagination and then dazzle a captive audience both sonically and visually for 90 minutes. Not even a great song can do that.
What experience during your time at Grady College had the biggest influence on where you are today?
In furtherance of the duality theme here, I was a double-major at Terry and Grady colleges during my time at UGA. While Terry gave me the on-ramp to my first job out of school, it was Grady that afforded me the license to explore myself as a student and a writer. As I transitioned my major from Newspaper, to Broadcast, then Public Relations, before finally settling on Advertising, I found myriad ways to professionally channel my creativity and passion for writing.
It’s hard to pinpoint the most influential experience I had, but the one that most closely mirrors where I am today was landing my internship at Mashable.com in 2013. This was an advertising position that required me to relocate to New York for 3 months. I’ll never forget that summer, because as a born-and-raised ATLien, I was forced out of my Georgia bubble for the first time in my life. I learned the speed and language of the corporate world, while being able to pursue my creative ambitions in a completely different environment. There are hundreds of Grady alumni in New York, many of whom are eager to pay-it-forward to the younger generation, and I took full advantage of that boost.
What is one challenge that you’ve faced in your professional career and how did you overcome it?
Being taken seriously. This particular challenge isn’t unique to me and, like many others, it is one I feel constantly pit against. In any forum I strive to bring my whole self: vulnerable, Black, curious, fallible and accomplished. Invariably, though, people want to categorize other people into pre-existing buckets that reinforce their worldview. Especially in a corporate setting, time is of the essence, and a strong elevator pitch is a prerequisite. As soon as you’ve uttered half a sentence, your audience is already forming their opinion about your words using everything from your clothes to your accent.
I struggle against these confines in nearly every new interaction because I despise stereotypical boxes. A related (and harder to admit) challenge here is that I never truly know how much of this exists in my imagination versus in reality, and the answer to that question often rests just beyond my reach. There’s a clip of Trevor Noah from “The Daily Show” musing on this phenomenon that I often think about.
Because of this, the way I combat those feelings of being commoditized or judged is to press forward with self-confidence. I center myself in the knowledge that I am where I am for a reason, and most reasonable people will understand that eventually, if not immediately. It’s not a curative approach, and it doesn’t solve the more pervasive problems that cause this challenge in the first place. But it helps me get by, and I think that’s a fine goal for now.
What is one piece of advice you live by?
That there are only two modes you can live by: in love, or in fear. Whichever mode you choose, the point is that you have to actively choose. I try to channel every decision through a loving lens.
I pursue my passion because I love it, not because I’m afraid of being a failure.
I care for my body because I love me, not because I’m afraid of what people will think of me.
And I love my people because I love my people, not because I’m afraid that they’ll stop loving me if I don’t.
Editor’s Note: Elise Kim is the author of this feature. She is a Yarbrough-Grady Fellow and a student tour guide at the UGA Visitors Center.
Nestled in the easternmost corner of campus, inside of the Four Towers Building, the University of Georgia Visitors Center has welcomed guests to UGA’s campus since 1996, when some of the Olympic Games were hosted at the university. If you have never been on a campus tour, you may have no idea what goes on in this picturesque building, but as soon as you set foot inside, you can tell that you have found something special.
Everyone who works at this magical little spot calls it “the happiest place on campus,” and a big reason for that can be attributed to Eric Johnson (ABJ ‘86).
Johnson, or “EJ,” as the student tour guides lovingly call him, is the director of the Visitors Center. Throughout the past 15 years that he has spent in this position, he has truly created something remarkable.
When I first sat down to write this profile, I knew it was going to be difficult to put into words the type of person that EJ is. I work at the Visitors Center with him now, and it is my favorite job — largely because of him.
When I asked some former tour guides how they would describe EJ to a stranger, these are some of the words that came up: special, remarkable, generous, intuitive, grounded, thoughtful, curious, funny, inclusive, well read, intellectual, guiding light. The list goes on.
EJ is warm and welcoming. He is deeply intelligent, always full of wisdom. I am convinced that there is a section of his brain that is dedicated to storing thoughtful quotes about life, which he regularly brings up in conversation. Often, when talking with EJ, he will say your name, and you will know he is truly listening — that he is interested in what you have to say.
He is humble. Even when I interviewed him for this story, asking him questions about his life and his experiences, he still found a way to make me feel like the special one.
One piece of advice that EJ tells all of the tour guides comes to mind: “Make the audience the hero of the story.” He is an expert at this.
EJ is a product of UGA himself, having graduated from the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication with a degree in telecommunication arts (now entertainment and media studies). A first generation student from Rome, Georgia, UGA was the only college he applied to.
When the time came for him to select his program of study, Johnson remembers carefully perusing a list of every major offered at UGA and telecommunication arts just caught his eye.
“I was like, ‘I love television. You can major in that?’ And that was really the amount of thought I probably gave to it,” Johnson said.
Once he got accepted to UGA, Johnson and his family came up to Athens for a visitation event and toured the school. That was the only college tour that he went on when he was a prospective student.
Throughout his time at UGA, Johnson was very involved on campus. He lived in Lipscomb Hall for the entirety of his student experience and he was a resident assistant during his junior and senior years. He was also involved in campus ministry and University Judiciary, and he loved his journalism classes and the community that he found within Grady.
“It was a lot of fun and I learned a lot about writing and communicating and working with a team and I had a great time with the major,” Johnson said. “Even if you’re not in the journalism field, you’ll walk away with skills you can use in any career, any walk of life, any activity you pursue, because clear and effective and authentic communication is rare.”
Getting to D.C.
As graduation approached, Johnson realized that he needed to begin his job search.
“I’m a first generation college student, and my parents were just happy that I was in college. There wasn’t any expectation or pressure from them of, ‘What are you going to do next?’” Johnson said. “But it did start to dawn on me, like wait a second, all I’ve done all my life is go to the next year of school and there’s no more years of school left.”
He made a trip to Clark Howell Hall and then walked back to Lipscomb, career guide book in hand. He remembers reading the book in his dorm room, and in it, there was an article about working on Capitol Hill as a staffer for a member of Congress.
“I was like, ‘I’ve never heard of this, that sounds like fun.’ And so that’s what led me to my first career,” Johnson said.
His first job was working as a caseworker in the district office of his own representative, Congressman George Washington “Buddy” Darden III. Darden was a UGA graduate himself, and he was also a first generation college student.
After about six months, Representative Darden offered Johnson a job as his legislative assistant in Washington, D.C.
“I was living the life because it’s like me, a history nerd who loves this stuff, and I got to sit down with a member of Congress every day and talk about what’s going on on the Hill,” Johnson said. “I was very fortunate that he was a really good boss and a good leader to learn from.”
Johnson did legislation for two years and he also got to write Representative Darden’s weekly newspaper column, so when the congressman’s press secretary left, he naturally asked Johnson to fill the role.
After two more years, Johnson was ready for something new, so he moved back to Georgia, worked a couple of different jobs and traveled some while he thought about what to do next.
Back to his roots
“I said, ‘Well, what would be fun?’ It always comes back to what I think would be fun,” Johnson said. “I love UGA and it transformed my life. Could I work there? And I love Athens. How fun to be in Athens and not have homework! What a life I could have. So I just said, ‘How could I get myself to UGA?’”
What he thought would be a two or three year experience turned into 30 years of working at the university.
Johnson started out in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. He was in charge of the Georgia Recruitment Team (GRT), a group of student volunteers who led campus tours once a day. This was in 1992, so the Visitors Center did not exist yet, and EJ had the opportunity to select and train students to be part of the GRT. He was also in charge of the Foundation Fellowship selection process.
In 1995, Johnson stepped up as the co-director of New Student Orientation. The following year, he began running it all by himself, and he continued in that role for 13 summers after that.
“The more I did that orientation job and working with students through GRT still, the less and less I was interested in politics,” Johnson said. “Orientation really did change the trajectory of my career from being just an admissions guy for a couple years and moving back to something else, to saying, ‘I could make a career out of this.’”
The Visitors Center
By 2002, Johnson was married, and by 2007, he had two young daughters. He was still running orientation, but he started thinking about finding a job that was more suitable to his family lifestyle. Around the same time, the director of the Visitors Center happened to be retiring; it worked out perfectly.
“I always kind of had my eye on it. What a happy little spot,” Johnson said. “I always had this vision: ‘Ah, I could be the admissions guy who worked out of the Visitors Center. I would love that.’”
Johnson has been the director of the Visitors Center for 15 years now, and he said he is not thinking about retiring any time soon.
“I get to walk in every day and people call me by name and seem happy to see me and I get to be happy to see them,” Johnson said. “Those little touches of life, that’s what makes life worthwhile and meaningful.”
He referenced the “Cheers” theme song; the chorus goes, “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name,” and then, in true EJ fashion, he pulled out one of his favorite quotes.
“There’s a David Hume quote: ‘Friendship is the chief joy of human life,’” Johnson said.
“I’ve got good relationships and friends that care about me and that I care about, and I basically get to be Peter Pan. I get to be at a college that I love and never grow up,” he added.
This sense of community and family that EJ has built at the Visitors Center is not lost on the students. They value it as much as he does.
Emily Curl (ABJ ‘14), a former tour guide and the current digital social host for iHeartRadio, still thinks about the lessons that she learned from EJ every day.
“As I get older and venture into my life — and I’m 30 now — I’ve had many jobs in New York City, working with some of the best people you can work with in entertainment, and I just go back to EJ,” Curl said. “It’s just so rare to have a boss cultivate a community like he did, and I’m just so thankful that I got to be a part of it.”
One moment during her time at UGA will always stand out to her. It was her sophomore year and her parents were in town for a game day. She showed them around campus and then brought them with her to the Visitors Center tailgate.
“I’ll never forget overhearing my dad having a conversation with EJ. My dad shook his hand and he was just like, ‘I just want you to know that Emily talks about you all the time,’ and he’s like, ‘Thank you for taking care of my daughter,’” Curl said. “It was just this beautiful moment that I won’t ever forget.”
Kevin Schatell (ABJ ‘16) also worked as a tour guide during his time at UGA. Schatell and Curl met through the Visitors Center and have remained close friends since.
Schatell is a producer at the TODAY Show, so they both live in New York City. He is extremely grateful for everything that he has learned from EJ as well.
“When I think back on not only my time at the University of Georgia, but my life, one name stands out as the single most impactful person, and it’s Eric Johnson,” Schatell said. “He changed the way I approach just about everything I do, especially work and communicating with people, and he really redefined for me, the how and the why, for everything.”
One thing that stands out to Schatell is EJ’s work-life balance and the importance that he places on family.
“EJ loves his family. He loves Shanna and those girls more than anything and that shows, and he’s taken those family values to the students that he works with,” Schatell said.
Schatell is not the only one who has noticed this. Jason Hafford (ABJ ‘11), admires the way that Johnson prioritizes his family as well. Hafford was a tour guide and an orientation leader when he was at UGA, and he now works as a global agent for Creative Artists Agency.
“I think EJ does a really good job of prioritizing his family, and I think you can be really good at your job and care a lot about your job and what you’re doing, and at the same time, care about your family and prioritize your family as well,” Hafford said. “I always really appreciated that and thought to myself, ‘When I one day have this family, I want my family to sort of be like them.’”
Hafford, Curl and Schatell all talked about how much EJ’s influence carries into their lives today and the effect that he is having on UGA and on the world.
“EJ finds a way to relate to everyone, which I think is really special and unique. He can sort of meet people where they are and I think he sees the best in everyone,” Hafford said. “He’s really good at connecting people … he’s done that a couple of times for me way after graduation and I’m still friends with the people that he introduced me to.”
Curl remembers how much Johnson made a difference for her when she was a student here. She always had big dreams of working in entertainment, but she felt like there was something holding her back.
“I always felt like I wasn’t smart enough. I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t look the part, all these things that I would constantly battle with,” Curl said. “I’ll never forget EJ making me feel so important and so smart and so funny … he really built up my confidence.”
When Curl and Schatell were tour guides together, they wanted to start a YouTube show, but they didn’t have anywhere to film, so EJ let them use the Visitors Center. Schatell said that EJ is always doing things like that, bringing people together and lifting them up toward their dreams.
“I think we’ve reached our dreams largely because of EJ and his belief in us,” Schatell said. “He could see that we were excited and when he sees that kind of spark, I know that he just cares so much.”
Something else that really stands out to Schatell is a TED Talk that Johnson shared about awakening possibility. This is one of the mottos of the Visitors Center. Another motto — which is very connected to the latter — is, “The only reason to give a campus tour is to change the world.”
At first, that may seem like a lot of weight to put on a student tour guide, but it is actually the opposite. EJ consistently emphasizes the idea that the goal of giving a tour is not to convince people to come to school here or to sell the university to them; it is to awaken possibility in them. And if they happen to fall in love with UGA along the way, that’s great too.
“I wanted to give something to this audience that they could use no matter where they ended up going to school,” Johnson said. “That’s really powerful, walking in the door not to get something from them, but to give them something.”
With every interaction, with every story told, with every new and unexpected connection, there is an opportunity to ignite a little spark in someone else. You may not change the whole world, or even a tiny fraction of it, but you can change one person’s world, and that is everything that any of us can ever really hope for.
The legacy so far
EJ is changing the world.
Schatell said that the tour guide in him has never really left. Often, when he is on the plaza for the TODAY Show, he finds himself talking to students and their families about their college journey.
“When I talk to people about being a tour guide, they say, ‘Oh, my God! We went on a tour at Georgia! It was our favorite,’ whether or not life took them to Georgia as their college. When I think about that, I think of EJ because it’s like, of course the bar is set really high because of him,” Schatell said. “His legacy stretches so far beyond what he realizes.”
Curl talked about EJ’s legacy as well.
“I hope that he feels encouraged and loved,” she said. “And that he realizes how far his reach has really spread and how much he’s done for so many of us.”
At the Visitors Center, there is one word in particular that has become a part of every tour guide’s vocabulary.
“Remarkable: unusual or special and therefore surprising and worth mentioning.”
This is the definition of “remarkable,” according to the Cambridge English Dictionary. Schatell said that he never really gave much thought to this word before working at the Visitors Center, but it is part of the guidelines that EJ created for student tour guides at UGA.
There are four rules:
“The word ‘remarkable’ didn’t have much meaning in my life before I met EJ, but the way he described it — that is the gold standard. It’s my favorite adjective now because of him. Some things are just worth remarking about. It’s so good, you can’t help but talk about it,” Schatell said. “EJ is the definition of remarkable.”
Christie Johnson (ABJ 07), director of White House bookings for CNN, has been named one of six Grady alumni in the UGA Alumni Association 40 under 40 class this year. She has worked for CNN since 2014, where she has broken countless stories and arranged exclusive interviews. Prior to that, Johnson worked as an on-air talent, reporter and producer for TMZ, Anderson Cooper Live and Bethany Cooper Live. Johnson won an Emmy award in 2020 for an interview she coordinated with the U.S. Secretary of Defense at the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. We are pleased to highlight Johnson in her own words.
What skill or advice should graduates and young alumni have for success early in their careers?
I would encourage anyone who gets a job right out of college to go shake hands and meet with as many people in the company as possible. Get to know everyone from the janitor to the CEO. It is shocking to me how many people don’t do this. In the news world, it is all about who you know. Down the line, the relationships you form are going to be extremely important in helping you stay connected in the industry and move up the food chain. Every so often, shoot an email to check in with someone to suggest a creative idea you think could help the company, take someone out to coffee to connect, etc. Early on in your career ask people if you can help them by taking on extra assignments (even if you’re not getting paid for it). Connect, connect, connect!
Is there a piece of advice from one of your Grady College professors that still guides you today?
I learned to never take “no” for an answer from Professor Hazinski. Every reporter is after the same story you are. If you make a call and someone tells you they don’t have any information or that they don’t want to talk, try another route. Who else can you call? Whose door can you leave a note on to call you back? Just keep going. Keep digging deeper. Think of unconventional angles that other reporters aren’t thinking of because there is somebody out there that knows the answer to what you’re trying find out – it just may not be the first official or person that you speak with.
Are you currently working in your “dream job”? If not, what is your dream role?
I am so happy to say that yes, I am working in my dream job. I actually don’t know of a lot of people who can say that. I absolutely love what I do. I’m able to work with the most powerful leaders in the world and manage interviews that provide critical information to the public at large…which is why I’m in this industry in the first place. If you’re not passionate about the media industry, and you’re working in it, you’re not going to survive. Also, the company I work for is amazing. After working hard and moving up the ranks within CNN, my boss agreed to let me work remotely out of South Carolina where I can raise my children close to family. I love that I can work out of my home office but I’m also able to fly to DC and NY monthly for in-person meetings or interviews that I don’t want to miss. I probably work even harder now that I’m down in South Carolina to prove that I can do my job successfully from anywhere. I love the people I work with and the work I do. It’s a win-win.
What would you tell your 20-year-old self?
“He’s not the one, pray more and don’t care so much about what other people think!” Kidding…kind of. In all seriousness, I would have told myself “Buckle up. Life is a lot bigger and more fantastic than you know. You’re going to be thrown a lot of curve balls and a lot of blessings. Jump into opportunities with both feet, stay true to yourself and the worries that are all encompassing right now won’t mean a thing in a couple years.”
Looking back at your time at Grady, is there anything you wish you had done (classes you had taken, skills you would have liked to have learned, clubs to be involved with) that would help you with what you are doing today?
I wish I would have taken more classes on politics. I left UGA pursuing a career as an entertainment reporter in Los Angeles. Years later, I ended up managing political interviews for CNN Worldwide. Talk about a 180! Thankfully, I worked hard and learned the ins-and-outs of the political world very quickly, but I still wish I would have studied politics more in college. Learning about how politics have shaped, and continue to shape, our country is fascinating. It is also extremely important to be an informed citizen politically so you can vote and make a difference in what is happening in our nation.
CNN’s 5 Things
One job-related tool you can’t live without?
Favorite restaurant in Athens?
Last Resort Grill
Favorite place you’ve traveled to?
Hotel Monteverdi in Tuscany, Italy. It’s a slice of heaven on Earth.
Item on your bucket list?
Traveling to Greece with my husband
Six Grady College graduates are represented in this year’s UGA Alumni Association 40 under 40 class. Grady College alumni honored in 2022 include:
Emily Curl (ABJ ’14)
Lauren Culbertson Greico (ABJ ’09)
Christie Johnson (ABJ ’07)
Chad Mumm (ABJ ’08)
Kevin Schatell (ABJ ’16)
Michael Waldron (ABJ ’10)
We will welcome five of the honorees back to Grady College on Friday, Sept. 9 for a “Message to My Younger Self” panel. Please join us in the Peyton Anderson Forum (room 238) at 10 a.m. A light breakfast will be offered.
For the past 20 years, Adam Pawlus (MA ‘01) has dedicated much of his career towards advocating for proper coverage of members of the LGBTQ community and promoting the need for diversity in newsrooms.
Currently, Pawlus serves as the executive director for NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists, an organization of over 1,000 journalists, news executives, communications professionals and educators that serves as a strong voice in the news industry, educating newsroom decision-makers about coverage of the LGBTQ community, promoting non-discrimination policies and the establishment of equal benefits, and creating educational opportunities to support the next generation of LGBTQ newsroom leaders.
Following is a brief interview with Pawlus.
GC: What classes at Grady College did the most to prepare you for your career?
AP: I believe the balanced curriculum, including the practical, theoretical and skill-based course components that Grady College offered me as a master’s student, prepared me for a career in communications, as well as in nonprofit management. Twenty years after graduating, I may not be able to recite the five stages of the Transtheoretical Model of Change, but the analytical and critical thinking skills that were sharpened by the case studies presented as part of the curriculum have helped me through my career.
GC: What does LGBTQ Pride month mean to you?
AP: In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, a group of LGBTQ people gathered outside of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village and stood up to systematic discrimination and oppression in what has become immortalized as the Stonewall Uprising. That event was covered by the New York Daily News, under the headline “Homo nest raided, queen bees are stinging mad.”
These days, a headline like that would never fly (pun intended). Thanks, in part, to resources like the NLGJA Stylebook on LGBTQ Terminology, journalists across the country know that stereotypes and epithets like “homo” and “queen” are not appropriate for coverage.
In many ways, Pride month remains an opportunity to put a spotlight on the inequities faced by LGBTQ people and communities. Simultaneously, it is also an opportunity to publicly celebrate the people, successes and advancement the community has seen over the past half century.
On the most personal level, I see Pride month as an opportunity to celebrate the journey each of us in the LGBTQ community has taken in coming to terms with our own challenges, successes, milestones and self-acceptance.
GC: What advice do you have for a young member of the LGBTQ community who will soon be entering the workforce?
AP: Seek out allies and mentors who will support you to be your authentic self at work. Early in your career, it may be difficult to point out, and hold accountable, when you see people playing into stereotypes, using offensive, outdated language, or when you are on the receiving end of microaggressions. Find those leaders in your organization that can amplify your voice and help make cultural change when needed.
Also, join a professional network like NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists, Journalism & Women’s Symposium, Asian American Journalists Association, Native American Journalists Association, National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Society of Professional Journalists, Public Relations Society of America and others.
There are so many professional associations that have programs, scholarships, fellowships, job boards and mentoring opportunities geared toward helping young professionals launch and navigate their careers. Get involved and never stop networking.
GC: What has been your greatest accomplishment since graduating from Grady College?
AP: I still regard graduating from Grady College with a Masters in Journalism as one of my greatest accomplishments. After graduating, I expected to work in corporate communications or at a public relations agency. When I took an entry-level communications position at a small nonprofit, my career shifted faster than it started. I found myself moving more and more into the world of nonprofit management. Even with that shift, the foundation that Grady College gave me in journalism, public relations, branding, crisis communications, event management and ethical corporate social responsibility, has helped me become a successful catalyst for change. Finding my way into a role working in association management alongside LGBTQ journalists just seems kismet and is the current peak of my professional accomplishments.
GC: Any other comments?
AP: We are often asked what the state of LGBTQ news coverage is in the United States. The short answer is, we’re doing better than we were 50 or even 30 years ago. We’re seeing fewer mistakes in coverage, specifically surrounding lesbian and gay people. Reviewing increasing numbers of submissions to our Excellence in Journalism Awards, we see that coverage of the community is improving, not only in big cities, but also in smaller towns. We see that journalists are holding themselves accountable to produce fair and accurate coverage.
But as the base of knowledge around lesbian and gay people has grown, it’s becoming obvious where the gaps in knowledge and coverage lie. It has shown us where we still need to focus our efforts and programs. For instance, the most questions we get about coverage are around stories relating to transgender and nonbinary people. The transgender community faces much higher rates of violence than their cisgender counterpoints. Even in that group, transgender women of color are disproportionately affected. But beyond the mistakes, those critical stories are all but missing in coverage.
One of the groups that continues to be erased in coverage is bisexual people. Bisexual people are often misidentified as gay or lesbian. Not to mention, the age-old, harmful stereotypes that continue to come up in coverage.
It is critical that we properly report how people identify and avoid perpetuating damaging narratives.
Every fall, audiences gather for Out On Film, an 11-day, in-person and virtual film festival annually featuring more than 150 films by, for and about the LGBTQ community and its allies. The director of the festival is none other than Jim Farmer (ABJ ’88), who oversees the programming and scheduling of Out On Film, while also working with filmmakers and talent attending the event.
Following is a brief interview with Farmer.
GC: What clubs and activities did you participate in at UGA and Grady that were instrumental to your success?
JF: I was in Cinematic Arts, which handled film programming for students at the Tate Student Center. I wrote about the arts for The Red & Black student newspaper. I served as president of Di Gamma Kappa broadcasting fraternity. I was also a student judge for the Peabody Awards.
GC: What does LGBTQ Pride Month mean to you?
JF: For me, Pride Month is a time to remember and honor all of the LGBTQ pioneers who have made our lives today possible and celebrate everyone for their diversity and uniqueness, while also remembering that we have work to do still.
GC: What advice do you have for a young member of the LGBTQ community who will soon be entering the workforce?
JF: That is a tough question. Today’s workplace is different than when I first entered it. I took a job many, many years ago for the salary but had to remain closeted. It was in a Georgia county that had a history of LGBTQ intolerance. When I did come out, I was fired a few months later for “my job performance.” I vowed never again to take a job for the money and to find a place where I could be comfortable. Luckily, I have been able to do that. My advice is to find out everything you can about the company, your colleagues and the climate beforehand and make a decision accordingly. It’s obviously important to find a job that allows you to make a good living, but it’s also important to be in an environment that respects you for who you are.
GC: What has been your greatest accomplishment since graduating from Grady College?
JF: I’m old, so I have several! I am proud of what my team with Out On Film has accomplished over the years, the support we provide filmmakers and that we have grown into an Oscar® qualifying film festival. I am an arts reporter as well and proud of the stories I get to write and cover every week. Most of all, I feel lucky to continue doing what I started doing during my UGA days, do it professionally and be happy doing exactly what I want to be doing.
Editor’s Note: UGA students looking for more information to learn about resources and support the LGBTQ community here on campus are encouraged to visit the UGA LGBTQ Resource Center website.
Editor’s Note: This is one in a series of spotlights highlighting the work of some of our alumni in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. Please watch for more profiles in the weeks to come.
Augusto Michael Trujillo is the national advisor for leadership development and training at Catholic Relief Services. Trujillo graduated cum laude from Grady College in 2005 with degrees in journalism and political science. On campus, Trujillo was a member of the Pi Sigma Alpha Political Science Honor Society, Delta Epsilon Iota Academic Honor Society and publicity chairman and leadership committee for the Catholic Student Association. Trujillo has served on the Grady Society Alumni Board since April 2020.
What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you?
Hispanic Heritage Month is an opportunity to celebrate the richness of the Hispanic and Latino community. During this month it is important to learn about and remember the pioneers and pillars who fought for equality and justice in many different facets of society. I volunteer with the Latin American Association and as a Guild Member, I execute and plan the Latin Fever Ball each October. This event raises critical funds to help the Latin American Association with its mission of helping Latinos in Georgia become self-sufficient. In 2019, 600 people attended the Latin Fever Ball and more than $700k was raised.
How does your Hispanic and/or Latin heritage influence your work?
As a Cuban American, Hispanic Heritage Month is a time to pause and recognize how my family fled the Communist regime in Cuba. They emigrated to America with few material possessions and very little funds. They were dedicated and driven to thrive in the U.S. Their story is very common as many Latinos fled difficult situations and are doing all they can to thrive here in the U.S.
Being Latino has a large influence on my work ethic because I have that same drive. I currently work for Catholic Relief Services, one of the largest international relief aid and development organizations. In my role, I am determined to complete the best work I can because I want to help those suffering throughout the world.
What advice would you give to young students of Hispanic origin who will soon enter the workforce?
While potential employers are interviewing students for a new position, I would encourage young students of Hispanic origin and all students to also interview the employer. It is important for you to select a company that respects your authentic self. You also want to select an employer who values diversity, equity and inclusion in their words and actions.
Editor’s Note: This is one in a series of spotlights highlighting the work of some of our alumni in celebration of Black History Month. Please watch for more profiles in the weeks to come.
Simone Banna works as a strategic partnerships manager in sports for Twitch, a live streaming platform for gaming and sports. Before joining Twitch, Banna worked for five years with the National Basketball Association, where she focused on digital strategy and content partnership. Banna graduated magna cum laude from Grady College in 2014 with a degree in public relations.
What does Black History Month mean to you?
To me, Black History Month is the acknowledgment of the rich, nuanced history of Black people in the United States. More importantly, Black History Month is a celebration of Black people and Black culture. In recent years, the latter has become even more critical. Beyond the sometimes painful history of Black people in the United States, there are incredible moments, traditions and trends by Black people that deserve to be celebrated.
What clubs and activities did you participate in at UGA and Grady that were instrumental to your success as a career professional?
The on-campus organization that I credit with jump-starting my career was Creative Consultants. Creative Consultants was Grady College’s student-run PR agency that connected ambitious PR students with businesses and nonprofits in the greater Athens community.
While internships and on-campus jobs provide great experience, the average college student rarely gets an opportunity to grow a business. Through Creative Consultants, I was an account executive for an Athens-based yoga company. Our team provided sophisticated PR, marketing and digital services that had a measurable impact on the business. That was incredible experience to speak to in interviews, especially as a college sophomore.
I recall my interview for my internship at the NBA, and the hiring manager basically asked, “Do you have any non-yoga related examples?” Although I had several internships at the time, the experience I got through Creative Consultants was the most translatable to the “real world.”
What does the recent movement to continue the fight for racial justice mean to you personally and professionally?
I firmly believe that one way to overcome racial inequality in the United States is to create opportunities for Black people. Recently, tech giant Apple announced a hub for historically Black colleges and universities in my hometown of Atlanta, a developer academy in Detroit and a venture capital fund for Black and Brown entrepreneurs. To me, this was an incredible example of a company creating opportunities for Black people.
As a Black woman in sports, entertainment and tech/media, I recognize that Black people have been some of the biggest contributors to these spaces (e.g., #BlackTwitter). Professionally, it has become even more critical that I advocate for monetary investments that create opportunities for Black creators, Black athletes, Black musicians, etc.
What advice would you give to young students of color who will soon enter the workforce?
As a Black person, a woman and the daughter of an immigrant, I was programmed to believe that I would never have any power over my career. I’d often hear that I’d be rewarded if I kept my head down, worked hard and played the game.
My advice for young students of color entering the workforce is to understand that you can control your career. In my six years since graduation, I’ve learned that being passive will stall career growth. Be active and take control of your career. That means – network, ask for that six-figure salary, pitch your idea to your company (or another company), move to another city, dump that job if you’re not developing.
My other piece of somewhat-related advice is to figure out what you want in your career — and your life — early on. Don’t fall into the trap of only aspiring to be a VP with a corner office managing a team of 10. Figure out what would make you truly happy and chase that.
What classes at Grady College did the most to prepare you for your career?
The two most impactful Grady College courses that I took were public relations administration with professor Lynne Sallot and public relations research with Professor Kaye Sweetser.
PR administration trained me to think about PR as a complement to business strategy. The main project in PR administration was a comprehensive PR audit of a publicly-traded Fortune 500 company. That one major assignment laid the foundation for how I’ve leveraged my PR background in my career to focus on strategic partnerships and branding that helps companies and entities achieve real business goals.
Professor Sweetser was ahead of her time with her PR research course curriculum. In 2013, I learned about data and analytics, social media, social media analytics, reporting, SPSS and marketing research in her class. The skill set that I formed in Professor Sweetser’s PR research class has been critical to my career growth.
Dominic Brown (ABJ ’05) is the chief meteorologist for WIS-TV in Columbia, South Carolina. He was recently named TV Weathercaster of the Year by the Radio Television Digital News Association of the Carolinas. In the profile below, Brown reflects on his time as a student at Grady College and how it has forged his path to his current work.
What skills learned in college do you most use in your job today?
Dominic Brown: “Storytelling is a huge skill I learned at Grady that I use daily in my job. In fact, being able to tell a compelling news or weather story is one of the most important things about my career. As a meteorologist, effectively communicating the day’s weather story to my viewers is vital to what I do every day on the air. I work hard to connect to my viewers through that skill in order to relate the forecast to them and to make a difference. Even though I don’t shoot video or edit stories as much as I did in my previous on-air jobs, I haven’t lost those skills from Grady. However, I have had to report, enterprise stories and do live shots in my current job, especially during big weather events or after destructive storms – all skills that I learned as a student at the University of Georgia. I’m grateful for all of it.”
What advice would you give to young alumni either looking for their first job or pursuing career advancement?
Brown: “The best piece of advice I would give to young alumni is to stay encouraged and find a mentor. Landing your first job in this industry can be tough. In fact, I can remember mailing my resume tape/reel (Yes, a VHS tape!) to station after station after station before I landed the right job for me to begin my career. I was so discouraged through that process, but I hung in there, and I’m so glad I did. Mentors are also very important. They can help guide you through your career and be a shoulder to lean on for advice.”
What gives you energy and enthusiasm for your work?
Brown: “I think it all comes down to knowing that I’m making a difference in my community and that I’m helping to save lives. As a broadcast meteorologist, I strive to give the best forecast I can on a daily basis. People depend on me, especially during severe weather. Viewers make decisions based on my forecasts, which can affect their families and/or their livelihood. Also, I love to inspire and motivate students through my job. It’s rewarding to know that I’m making an impact and inspiring students to strive for greatness. All of this gives me a lot of drive and energy to be the best meteorologist and communicator I can be every day.”
How do you use social media in a productive way?
Brown: “Social media has played a huge role in my career over the years. It has allowed me to stay connected to viewers beyond our television newscasts. I often do Facebook Lives to give viewers a more detailed look at forecasts and answer any questions they may have for me. I even do short forecasts tailored just for kids on Facebook, so that they’ll know how to prepare for school the next day. Social media has been a great tool to keep my viewers informed. At the same time, I’ve depended on social media to stay connected with the community and with viewers who may have storm reports and pictures to share during certain news and weather events. Those relationships with viewers are so important, and social media has made it easier for those relationships within the community to continue.”
How has your University of Georgia community helped you post-college?
Brown: “I’m so grateful for my UGA community. I’ve made lifelong friends through the University of Georgia, and I’ve met a number of amazing UGA football fans who have always had my back. It’s been a strong and dependable support network for me. There’s nothing seeing another UGA grad or fan in my community and we start calling the Dawgs! That’s love right there. That’s uplifting, and it’s therapeutic! Also, since graduating from college, I’ve stayed connected with several UGA classmates and grads through the University of Georgia Alumni Association and UGA Black Alumni. I’ve had the honor of “coming home” to Athens to be the keynote speaker for the Georgia Scholastic Press Association’s Spring Workshop and Awards luncheon. The UGA community has also stayed in touch with me! Grady College stays in touch with its alumni and checks up on us. Grady has played an instrumental role in my career and keeping me motivated to keep on keeping on. The UGA community has been my backbone, and I’m truly thankful.”
What is your favorite memory from your time in college?
Brown: “I have so many great memories from my time in college, from football games at Sanford Stadium to concerts on campus. But one memory that sticks out is when three friends/UGA classmates and I hit the road to Jacksonville during Fall Break to see Georgia take on Florida. That was an awesome road trip! I’ll never forget it!”
In honor of AdPR Week, we are profiling select Grady College alumni who are using their Grady education in the creative industries they serve. In this series, they discuss their career paths and offer advice to current Grady students.
Neil Hirsch, APR, graduated from Grady College in 2000 with a degree in public relations. He is the director of corporate external communications for the Americas at InterContinental Hotels Group. Hirsch was part of the inaugural Grady College AdPR Advisory Council in 2014.
Grady College: What are some of your everyday duties?
Neil Hirsch: I’m responsible for external communications for InterContinental Hotels Group across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean. This includes corporate media relations, issues management and executive visibility.
GC: How did you get your start?
NH: My first full-time role after graduating from Grady was in a mid-size PR agency in Atlanta. It was a great place to start – you’ll never work alongside more PR professionals than in an agency environment.
GC: What skills did you learn at Grady that have helped you throughout your career?
NH: Grady provided me with a solid foundation for my career in public relations. Beyond what I learned in the classroom, it’s what I learned and the relationships I created through my involvement in PRSSA, Grady programs and my internships that distinguished me from my peers.
GC: Is there any additional advice that you’d like to give?
NH: Take every opportunity you have today to prepare you for your career. Ask questions. Make meaningful connections with professionals and with your peers. Have a vision for your future, but also be open-minded about where your career may take you.