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IJEA Blog: Three life lessons from Room 216

More than 20 years after earning IJEA's top individual honor, former Illinois Journalist of the Year Lauren Lawley Head is still putting into practice the lessons she learned as a high school reporter and editor.

December 5, 2016

lauren-photoI don’t remember why I first wandered into Room 216 for a meeting of the St. Charles High School newspaper the X-Ray. But walking in that door and raising my hand for my first assignment was one of the most transformative experiences of my life.

During the next few years, I discovered a joy of writing, editing and designing that has provided a fulfilling career that two decades later is every bit as challenging and rewarding as the day I started.

All those late nights working on the next edition gave me confidence in my career choice and equipped me to step up for big assignments in college. But the lessons from student press life went far beyond the tactical of story structure and page layout. Here are three of the most powerful.

Lesson 1: What makes teamwork tick

Working on a student publication is a crash course in how to execute a big project as part of a volunteer team. For the editors, it typically is a first experience managing others, and it taught me a lot about the power of appreciation. In Room 216, the currency of thanks were handwritten notes left clipped to the wall, pieces of candy and these big, handmade fuzzy pompons that we inexplicably wore around our necks in times of stress. While I’ve never been brave enough to bring the pompons into the office, I’m still an advocate for public recognition, free food and offering a kind word as a “warm fuzzy” when needed.

Lesson 2: Belief that your work matters

Being a part of the student press provides an opportunity to be held responsible to a wider audience. We fought hard against the practice of prior review, but we did so with the understanding that our school community would read what we wrote. When we covered race relations or air quality or even the prom, we understood that the words we used, the quotes and photos we selected and the facts we presented could make an impact — for good or bad. When you get to feel that rush as a high school student, it is difficult to imagine pursuing a career that doesn’t offer similar meaning.

Lesson 3: The responsibility of good citizenship

When I look out across my friends who worked alongside me at the X-Ray, I am in awe of so many of them today. This is a group with a lifelong passion for giving voice to those who need one. They are accomplished professionals with experience in political action, nonprofit fundraising, education and business. They are involved in their communities and nurture their families. And while I’m confident this commitment to leaving the world better than they found it is something they brought with them into their student press journey, I’m also sure it’s a muscle they strengthened along the way.

Lauren Lawley Head is a graduate of St. Charles High School, where she worked on the X-Ray under advisor Candace Bowen. She was named Illinois High School Journalist of the Year in 1994. She has worked for the past 18 years as a reporter or editor and currently serves as publisher and editor in chief of Direct Selling News.

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