NCSMA student assistants ensure high school journalism programming continues
By Hanna Wondmagegn
I remember attending my first North Carolina Scholastic Media Institute (NCSMI) like it was yesterday: arriving in Chapel Hill with the rest of our high school newspaper staff, giggling excitedly as we moved into our rooms. Walking around what was then the School of Media and Journalism, staring at all the banners and awards in awe. Sitting in Room 111 as the opening ceremony commenced, surrounded by high school journalism students from all across the state. Waking up early to make the class sessions for the day and going to bed late after a night of editing scripts and reading my classmates’ work.
It was 2016 and I was a rising high school senior at the time. By the end of the Institute, I knew that UNC was the school that I wanted to attend.
Four years later and I was a rising senior at UNC, excited to spend my final summer on campus working at NCSMI as a student assistant with the North Carolina Scholastic Media Association (NCSMA). Inspired by the program that first introduced me to Carolina and affirmed my love of journalism, I joined the NCSMA staff in my first year of college. While I had spent three years working with the office during the school year, I had not yet had the chance to work at the Summer Institute. I was excited to spend time watching other high school journalism students fall in love with storytelling the same way that I did. But then COVID-19 entered our lives and like many organizations, it forced us to re-evaluate much of what we were able to do.
Located on the second floor of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media is the NCSMA office, Room 284. One could easily overlook the room as they quickly pass by. Some may find themselves slowing down to look at the various photos hanging by the room. Some may give a brief wave or flash a smile while on their way to classes. And of course, our loyal passersby always stop by to say hello and grab a peppermint from a glass bowl seated at the desk by the office entrance.
While relatively unknown to those who aren’t already aware of NCSMA’s mission, the office does what I think is some of the most important work in the school and the state of North Carolina. NCSMA was officially founded in 1941 as the N.C. Scholastic Press Association with the mission to promote and support scholastic journalism in NC. For 79 years now, the association has continued to do just that through outreach programs, student media contests events and workshops.
Among the many programs that NCSMA hosts, our three summer programs are our most well-known: NCSMI, the Carolina Sports Journalism Camp and the NCSMA Journalism Education Fellowship. Collectively, these three programs reach hundreds of journalism students and advisers across the state and in some cases, outside of North Carolina. Every year without fail, our summer programs have commenced, but with the increasing spread of COVID-19 and the university’s decision to shut the campus down for the summer, there was a chance that for the first time we would not be able to deliver.
“It was a process coming to grips with the idea that we were actually not going to be on campus for the summer, and I think that was a process we all had to go through,” Monica Hill, director of NCSMA said. “Once reality set in, I was determined that we were going to offer everything because I think what we do and our work is too important not to make certain we’re continuing all of those programs.”
At that point in the year, virtual events were still relatively new as people started to transition into virtual events. While younger folks tend to be well-versed in technology, the idea of turning our three programs into full virtual events was incredibly daunting for us four NCSMA student assistants.
“At first, it was slightly overwhelming,” Pete Villasmil said. “It seemed like a gargantuan task to move such a complex program into a digital realm.”
For Emma Davis, the logistical process of turning in-person programs into virtual ones was a nightmare.
“My initial reaction to doing everything virtually was, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Davis said. “I had mostly everything ready for an in-person Institute and contests, and literally everything had to be changed because of the virtual format.”
Meredith Ammons, another student assistant, also had her doubts.
“I had a kind of ‘oh, no’ feeling,” Ammons said. “I was a little scared of how it would all come together.”
I, for one, was excited but had absolutely no idea how we would pull everything off. What usually took months to prepare for, we had to turn virtual in a matter of weeks. Coupled with the fact that the student assistants were balancing internships, jobs and summer classes while our director and advisory board were juggling transitioning to virtual teaching during a pandemic, and it quickly felt like we were biting off more than we could chew.
Once we all came to terms with attempting to do what felt like the impossible, we began to restructure our three summer programs into virtual settings.
“Virtual programming is no joke, especially when you have to adapt a long-standing in-person program to happen online,” Davis said. “It’s fueled by coffee and good wifi, and lots and lots of effort.”
From meetings among student assistant with our director and meetings with the NCSMA Advisers Association and NCSMA student officers, to meetings with teachers and Hussman administration, we began working towards continuing the tradition of those three summer programs.
“Decision making was a community effort,” Hill said. “It began with these called board meetings on Saturday mornings and the involvement of journalism teachers all across the state.”
But despite all the meetings and planning, many of us involved didn’t think that we would be able to pull it off. It became a weekly practice to give each other a call, expressing our worries and doubts, wondering if this would all work.
Tim Crothers, an adjunct instructor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, has held the position of lead teacher for the Carolina Sports Journalism Camp for seven years. Crothers felt that a virtual program wouldn’t be the same experience as in-person and worried about what a virtual program would look like.
“I honestly had my doubts about whether we could keep high school students engaged online for all of our rigorous two-day program,” Crothers said. “But I found this summer’s students to be as enthusiastic as any group we’ve taught.”
“I believe that, despite the added hurdles, we made the right decision to stick with it,” he said.
And the right decision it was. Over the course of two months, we successfully hosted NCSMI, our Sports Camp and teacher fellowships virtually for the first time in NCSMA history. While the loss of an in-person experience was greatly felt, we soon learned that there were many perks to hosting virtual programs.
“The virtual format provided more accessibility to students across the state,” Davis said. “I think we reached students and regions of NC that we don’t normally reach, which is what made the effort worth it.”
So why do what we did? Why spend days making what seemed like the impossible, work? While I can’t speak for every single person involved, I know that for us student assistants, working at NCSMA isn’t just a job. We’ve all in some way been directly affected by the work that NCSMA has done and understand the importance of what the organization does for journalism.
“I attended some NCSMA sponsored programs in high school. They exposed me to the world of journalism and inspired me to consider pursuing a career in journalism,” Villasmil said. “It impacted me. I wanted to help to not only give back but to hopefully inspire other students to pursue careers in journalism.”
While the decision to host three summer programs virtually was not an easy one, ultimately it was the right one and it was one that was motivated by NCSMA’s mission to serve and promote scholastic journalism.
“NCSMA plays an important role in the state in educating young people and assisting educators who work with students who inform their school communities and record their school histories,” Hill said. “Based on the commitment of the students and the teachers and the need for news literacy and journalism education, we will continue to be an organization focused on meeting those needs and encouraging those areas.”
Right now that means continuing to host virtual programming to address the needs of journalism students and educators across the state this fall semester. This programming includes adviser and high school student editor roundtables and journalism workshops in partnership with news organizations and universities.
As I enter my final year working with NCSMA, I am immensely proud of what we have been able to do as an organization both before COVID-19 and during. I know that I would not be where I am today had it not been for my NCSMI experience back in 2016. And, while the future remains uncertain, I know that NCSMA will continue to do important work, inspiring and motivating hundreds of other students across the state. Pandemic or no pandemic.