The Life and Inspiration of John Muir

 

“Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” – John Muir

As spring has sprung in central Illinois, it’s become a lot more difficult to focus on projects and exams when I’d much rather spend all day outside. It also happens to be National Park Week, and today is the birthday of John Muir, the great conservationist and naturalist who helped in the establishment of two of my favorite places on earth, Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks.

I learned a lot about Muir’s life by watching Ken Burns’ “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” documentary — which everyone should watch — and reading a biography of Muir’s life by Donald Worster.

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John Muir (image via Wikipedia)

Muir advocated for the protection of nature and spoke often about how he believed that human beings are interconnected to nature. “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe,” he said in one of his many writings, My First Summer in the Sierra. He was changed by nature, and allowed himself to use this passion to make real change in conservation efforts. He gave President Theodore Roosevelt a tour of Yosemite National Park, which led to further protection of the park that so many have grown to love.

Everyone who visits Yosemite should make it their goal to see Lee Stetson’s portrayal of Muir. After learning about Muir’s life, seeing Stetson imitate a man who almost seems like an unreal part of history was pretty surreal. In a darkened room, Stetson, with his Scottish accent and Muir-like white beard, tells stories like of his beloved dog Stickeen. You can really imagine that it’s Muir sitting in a rocking chair, telling you a story about his dog that is both riveting and heartwarming.

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Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir (image via Wikipedia)

Muir’s life was both fascinating and inspirational, and you can’t help but wish it was a life you had lived — spending summers in the Sierra, going on adventures in Alaska, and going through Yosemite with Teddy Roosevelt. But in a way his life has been an inspiration for my own. It sets the example that if you truly love what you are doing, it’s easier to put in the work to see the rewards — for both yourself and others. When I’m stressed out over studying for final exams and scrambling to finish projects, I remember that I’m doing what I’m doing because I have passion for it and it allows me to make an impact in people’s lives. It’s a different kind of impact than what Muir made, but I’m thankful to be able to do it.

 

One Week to London

Last year, I went on an incredible trip to Belgium through the University of Illinois College of Media James Scholar program. It was my first trip out of the country and a completely life-changing experience. Going on that trip made me realize how much I want to travel.

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So when the opportunity arose to go on the same James Scholar trip again this year, only to London, I was beyond excited. I’ll be spending one week in the city with fellow College of Media students, visiting the BBC, seeing many of the tourist spots, and taking it all in as an aspiring journalist in the era of digital media.

My college experience has opened my world to so many new things, including my love for science journalism, my excitement about new and social media, and the pursuit of learning new things and meeting new people through my reporting. But being able to study abroad has been an added bonus on top of everything, and something I would’ve never imagined I would be able to do. London will be the largest city I’ve visited yet, so coming from a small town of 1,300 people makes this trip, once again, beyond exciting.

Until my flight leaves on Sunday, I’ll be reading up on London and thinking about the possibility of fulfilling the number one item on my London to-do list: getting that iconic Abbey Road crossing picture that every Beatles fan dreams of. Wish me luck.

 

Winter Weather at UIUC

This semester has allowed me to partake in a part of journalism I have never before experienced: photojournalism. In my multimedia journalism class, I’ve been challenged to move past my comfort zone of writing.

I’m no photographer, but attempting to be one has made me appreciate what photojournalists do every day. In my articles, I can use hundreds of words to tell one story. Photographers have to get an entire story into one picture, one specific moment in time. Just learning about how photographers master this is inspiring.

My first attempts of photography tried to capture the variability of a Central Illinois winter — the frigid temperatures, snow, rain, fog, and 60-degree weather that all happened within the span of two weeks.

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The Main Quad at the University of Illinois, blanketed in snow on Jan. 21, 2016.
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Green Street in Urbana, Ill., is shrouded in fog on the night of Feb. 2, 2016.
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Two days later, on Feb. 4, 2016, it’s a sunny day on the Main Quad.

 

The Best Stories I Read in 2015

I told myself I’d read 15 books in 2015. I ended up only reading 10, mostly because I took a novels course in the spring. I felt a little bad after not meeting the goal of the only New Year’s resolution I made this year.

But I’d like to think I made up for it in the articles and various other forms of writing that I read, though they weren’t in book form. To be a better writer, you need to read a lot, and this year I kept up with the news and read those things that for too long have sat unread on my bookmarks list.

2015 was also the year I became addicted to Medium, the blogging platform that lets anyone tell their story. This year, I often found myself spending way too much time browsing this site, finding stories of all kinds — some inspiring, some clever, some heartbreaking.

I know a story has resonated with me when I’ve done more than bookmark it. I’ll send it to my family and friends and then bring it up in conversation, asking if they’ve read it. These are the stories that I think about from time to time, the ones that stay with me, the ones that inspire me to be a better writer.

Here are a few stories that really resonated with me this year.

  1. “A Dying Young Woman’s Hope in Cryonics and a Future” by Amy Harmon

This was probably my favorite piece of the year, and an incredible piece of science journalism. It tells the story of Kim Suozzi, who died of cancer at age 23. Her last wish was to have her brain preserved, with the help of her boyfriend Josh. This story has everything for me: a clear explanation of the science behind it, a discussion of the ethics surrounding the issue, as well as anecdotes that drew me in.

It was impossible to know on that cloudless Arizona morning in January 2013 which fragments of Kim’s identity might survive, if any. Would she remember their first, fumbling kiss in his dorm room five years earlier? Their private jokes and dumb arguments? The seizure, the surgery, the fancy neuroscience fellowship she had to turn down?

More than memories, Josh, then 24, wished for the crude procedure to salvage whatever synapses gave rise to her dry, generous humor, compelled her to greet every cat she saw with a high-pitched “helllooo,” and inspired her to write him poems.

2. “The Really Big One” by Kathryn Schulz

One of the best and most highly acclaimed pieces of long form journalism of the year. You should take the time to sit down and be totally drawn into this story that explains the inevitable earthquake that is coming to the Pacific Northwest, and includes stuff like this:

Take your hands and hold them palms down, middle fingertips touching. Your right hand represents the North American tectonic plate, which bears on its back, among other things, our entire continent, from One World Trade Center to the Space Needle, in Seattle. Your left hand represents an oceanic plate called Juan de Fuca, ninety thousand square miles in size. The place where they meet is the Cascadia subduction zone. Now slide your left hand under your right one. That is what the Juan de Fuca plate is doing: slipping steadily beneath North America. When you try it, your right hand will slide up your left arm, as if you were pushing up your sleeve. That is what North America is not doing. It is stuck, wedged tight against the surface of the other plate.

3. “In Unit Stalked by Suicide, Veterans Try to Save One Another” by Dave Philipps

We know there is a high suicide rate for veterans returning from duty, but do we know what this is like, or how they feel? This story begins to tell what that might be like.

“When the suicides started, I felt angry,” Matt Havniear, a onetime lance corporal who carried a rocket launcher in the war, said in a phone interview from Oregon. “The next few, I would just be confused and sad. Then at about the 10th, I started feeling as if it was inevitable — that it is going to get us all and there is nothing we could do to stop it.”

4. “Split Image” by Kate Fagan

Everyone was talking about this story when it was published in May, and for good reason. I couldn’t stop reading this incredibly well-written piece about Madison Holleran, a college athlete who took her own life after struggling in college, a life that contrasted what her social media accounts portrayed. Not only did I feel like I knew Madison, but I thought about what this story can say about the larger problems regarding social media in general, and thought about how everyone, no matter how picture perfect their Facebook posts are, may be fighting their own personal battle.

A little over a year before she died, Madison posted on Instagram a snapshot of a quote from Seventeen magazine:

“Even people you think are perfect are going through something difficult.”

The image had been put through a filter.

Walking up to Strangers and Asking Them Questions

Two weeks ago, I was sitting at the desk in my tiny dorm room, staring at my cell phone as it rang. I was surrounded by several recording devices (because you can never be too careful) and the feeling that my heart was going to beat through my chest. I was waiting for Nate Ruess — singer, songwriter, and lead singer of the band fun. — to pick up the phone.

I had never done a Q & A with a musician before — let alone one who has won Grammys and collaborated with artists such as Brian Wilson. Since this was my biggest interview to date, it was the most nervous I had ever been, even though it was just over the phone. Fortunately, the interview went really well— meaning that I didn’t completely embarrass myself — and now I have a really cool memory of interviewing a celebrity. I know that if it weren’t for my job as a reporter for The Daily Illini, I would have never been able to interview such a prominent person.

In my journalism classes, I’ve often been told that being a journalist gives me the right to walk up to strangers and ask them questions. Throughout the three years that I’ve been reporting  —  and the nine-ish months that I’ve had some sort of clue about what I’m doing  —  I’ve been able to talk to people from a mix of backgrounds and professions.

Ever since I’ve grown more interested in writing about science and technology, I’ve interviewed a lot of brilliant professors, engineers, researchers, and innovators who give me time out of their day to tell me about what they’re doing and what they’re thinking. To get a glimpse of what’s going through their minds is not only extremely interesting, but inspiring as well. Most of the time, these are people who have worked their whole lives towards one goal. Though they have stacks of awards on their office desks, they’re talking about the next thing that they’re working on, the next step of their research, the next goal that they want to reach.

When I interview people from startups or students, it’s a different kind of vibe completely. They have a lot of potential, but they’re just starting out their careers  —  they have no idea what their future holds. Yet they’re usually pretty excited about it. After all, I could be hearing about them twenty years from now when they’re the CEO of a company or making ground-breaking discoveries in their research.

Whether I’m interviewing a professor, a student, or a musician, I can always find a way to relate. Usually, I get inspired by the things people say just off the top of their heads.

When Andrew Kerr, a University of Illinois engineering alumni who I interviewed before he graduated, told me that “experiences are only as valuable as the people who you do them with,” I thought about how that applied to my own life and my college experience so far.

When Nate Ruess told me that one of the things he’d tell his 19-year-old self is to “let the bad moments happen and learn from them,” I immediately identified with that.

Eli Lazar, co-founder of a startup company called SNOOZ, told me the story about the time he was so close to quitting work on his idea that he packed everything up in a box and was driving away, only to be encouraged by a friend. He drove back, unpacked his things, and eventually successfully created his product after much trial and error.

He later went on to describe how he felt he was “in the phase where you get to dream about how big you can become.” You could also describe my life this way.

Even if you think you’re polar opposites from somebody, even if you’re at completely different stages in your life, even if you feel like you can’t find a single thing in common with them — you can learn something powerful if you just talk to them. I’m grateful that my journalism career so far has allowed me to do this. By identifying myself as a reporter, I can (most of the time) walk up to strangers and ask them questions.

Nate Ruess also told me that while he was singing with Brian Wilson, he learned to have gratitude for what he does.

“To see [Brian Wilson] light up as soon as the music starts, that kind of just taught me to appreciate what it is that I’m doing,” he said. “Because I should be so happy to get to make music for a living.”

Likewise, I am grateful for what I‘m getting a chance to do, and I should be so happy that I get to talk to new people every week, write about it, and learn something new.

Learning by Listening: The Art of the Interview

When I was fifteen, I decided that I wanted to explore a career in print journalism. My mom encouraged me to respond to a job advertisement in my local newspaper. The job was to be a stringer at that newspaper, a small weekly publication. With zero experience, I applied for and got the job.

What happened next was an almost three year-long crash course in journalism for which I will forever be grateful. It was scary to me, to think that my articles were going to be published when I had never formally learned how to structure one. And I’ll be the first to admit that my early articles were pretty awful. But what scared me the most was the interviews. I’ve always been a pretty shy person, so the thought of walking up to someone and asking them questions in a formal setting at that time was generally terrifying.

One of the first articles I wrote was a memorial to my kindergarten teacher who had recently passed away. Needless to say, it was an emotional article for me to start out with. I interviewed several people about how my teacher had touched their lives.

I vividly remember interviewing one of her family members over the phone. As the interview progressed, I grew more and more comfortable. Here was one person who had been affected by a much larger story; one more life that had been affected by cancer. At one point, I could tell that the person I was interviewing was crying on the other end of the phone. I started to tear up as well, and told them how she was my kindergarten teacher and about all the fond memories I had of her. In that moment, I felt connected to this person.

The point is that if you listen — just listen — you’re going to find the emotional side of the story. You’re going to find how people feel about things. How things have affected them personally. And once you have that, you have a story.

Listening is the easy part, and the part I love most about any interview. You sit back, you don’t talk about yourself at all, you don’t give your input. You make it all about them. Right then, they are the most important person in the world to you, and their story is all that matters. If you listen, if you let the pauses linger, then people will often open up to you and give you the heart of the story.

If you’ve never interviewed someone one-on-one, I encourage you to do so. It’s not very often that we have a conversation with someone that is so one-sided, where your own thoughts and opinions don’t matter. And to me, that’s humbling. In any social setting, I’d always rather sit back and observe rather than put myself in the center of attention. When I’m interviewing people, it’s my job to do just that.

I haven’t perfected the art of the interview by any means. I still cringe when I go back to my recordings and listen to how I worded questions or stumbled over my sentences. But with each interview, I learn something new. When someone rambles on about something that doesn’t relate to my article, I learn patience. When someone gives me insufficient responses, I learn how to craft follow-up questions on the spot. When someone skirts around my question, I learn to be assertive.

I’ve met so many incredible people and learned so many interesting things that I would have never known if it weren’t for my reporting assignments. And no matter how many mistakes I make, I know I want to pursue a career in journalism because it allows me to learn every day, whether I realize it or not.

In the words of Henry Luce: “I became a journalist to come as close as possible to the heart of the world.”

With every interview, I’m getting closer.

Find this post on Medium.

Reflections on Freshman Year

The weather’s getting warmer, classes are winding down and finals are looming, libraries are full to capacity, and summer is so close you can taste it.

My freshman year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is over, but I don’t want it to be. Mainly because I can’t imagine it getting any better than this.

I went into my freshman year with a lot of slanted expectations, and of course nothing ended up going exactly as I’d imagined. Some aspects of this year ended up going in an entirely different direction. But for that, I’m grateful. For the most part, I ended up being pleasantly surprised, both at the great opportunities that came my way as well as the things that I accomplished. I never knew what I could do until I was truly challenged.

You know you’re doing something right when everything seems to fall into place. Nine months later, I’m getting paid to write about brilliant, talented and interesting people (I still can’t believe this one), I have an amazing group of friends, I’ve been published on the front page of The Daily Illini, I was able to travel to a foreign country for the first time in my life thanks to the College of Media James Scholar Program, and I’ve seen my perspective on journalism and the rest of the world be enriched by my studies and experiences.

Proof that I've been an Illini fan my whole life.
Proof that I was destined to come to this school.

As a fifth-generation Illini, I have always loved this university. I went to basketball and football games my whole life, visited campus often, and dreamed of going to school here. I wrote in a sixth-grade journal that I wanted to study journalism at U of I one day, and here I am doing exactly that. I wish I could go back to my sixth-grade self and tell her all that I’ve done and accomplished, because I’m pretty sure she’d be shocked.

IMG_3591Though I’m sad this year is over, I’m looking forward to the opportunities that are bound to come my way as my college career continues. And I’m continually amazed by how blessed I have been this year, not only to have had so many opportunities and challenges, but for the friends I’ve made this year. I’m surrounded by incredibly talented, incredibly brilliant and all-around amazing people that have shIMG_3888ared their experiences with me and opened up my small world to a much larger one. I’m more grateful for that than anything else I’ve experienced this year, and I’m so glad I get to spend the next three years with them.

Exploring Twitter

Much of the initial buzz surrounding Twitter has faded away since it was launched in 2006.

But as an aspiring journalist who loves everything about social media, Twitter is a very exciting part of my career.

What’s most exciting about it is the fact that journalists are still figuring out how to use it best. It’s still a new frontier that we are learning about, exploring, and mastering. I love the fact that not everything is completely figured out, and that every Twitter user has the chance to be an explorer.

Online, the use of Twitter in both the journalism world and beyond has been debated. Is it necessary to be a journalist on Twitter? Is it effective? Does it provide for reliable accounts? Many have gave input on their views, including journalism blogger Steve Buttry, who criticized editors who don’t embrace Twitter, and stated: “Using Twitter doesn’t ensure that you’re embracing change and racing into the digital future. But refusing to use Twitter actively is a certain sign that you think change is someone else’s job.”

Twitter was even an aspect of a prominent issue on the University of Illinois campus, when Steven Salaita had his job offer to the American Indian studies program rescinded because of his political tweets. This event has sparked conversation about free speech and the use of social media.

The age of social media exploration that we’re in is not all that different from the times when print newspapers or broadcast television networks were first getting started. Nobody knew how to manage these new tools. Nevertheless, the pioneers of these types of media fearlessly toyed with ideas, made mistakes, found a way to make things work and be effective, and made extraordinary breakthroughs.  Their work through their explorations in media have allowed future generations to know what is expected of them in a journalism career.

Similarly, as journalists pave their way through the ethics and standards of Twitter, future generations will be able to look back and learn the ropes to know what is expected of them.

That’s fascinating to me. We’re in an age when we’re making history. News organizations are figuring out how to manage their websites. Having a social media presence is more important than ever, especially to reach younger audiences. To be in this time of learning makes me thrilled that I am a journalist.

I started using Twitter in 2009 and instantly loved the fact that I could so easily be connected with the world. Following every news service and prominent person that I could, I soon found out that too much information on Twitter is not a good idea. It’s great to follow a variety of news outlets and people, but if your news feed is overflowing with information, it can be too overwhelming. It’s best to follow what you’re really interested in — tweets that you’ll read, link to, favorite, and retweet.

Personally, I can’t get enough of Twitter. We have a tool that allows us to get people’s first-person experiences from anywhere in the world — instantly. Not only does it enable us to be completely informed, but it allows journalists to get their work out there and be connected with what other journalists are doing. To me, that’s too good of an opportunity to pass up.