Mills may not have a traditional journalism school, but alums have used their liberal arts degrees and time on the student paper to forge meaningful careers.
By Rachel Leibrock, MFA ’04
(Note: Click here to read about the history of the student newspaper at Mills!)
Before Heidi Wachter ’01 attended Mills College, she’d never considered becoming a journalist. But when a friend approached her to join the student newspaper (now known as The Campanil), she decided it was worth exploring.
“I’d never imagined myself as a journalist,” says Wachter, even though she’d worked on her high school student publication and had also interned at a local newspaper. “But I wanted to learn more things about writing, and what I discovered is that journalism is exactly that.”
At Mills, Wachter reported on various campus issues, working alongside what she describes as a “skeleton crew” of diverse women. As a women’s studies major and a 27-year-old returning student, she appreciated that many of her peers were also “resumers.”
“At the time, I had classmates who were in their 40s and 50s,” Wachter recalls. “I had already worked a job and gone to college for two years, and then dropped out to work a lot of random jobs in advertising and marketing.”
By being part of a small but scrappy staff, Wachter says she gained invaluable skills that have set her apart in the job market more than 20 years after graduation. “I learned photography working on a story because there wasn’t a photographer with me,” says Wachter, who now freelances for various publications, including Experience Life, a health and fitness magazine. “And now everybody [in journalism] is taking their own photographs, and everyone has to learn multimedia.”
Although Mills College may not be considered part of the bigger pantheon of competitive journalism schools such as Northwestern University or Columbia University, many students and alumnae say that the College’s smaller class sizes, focus on intersectional feminism, and rigorous commitment to intellectual discourse gave them a solid education. And time spent in the newsroom at the student paper, no matter its name, can help crystallize the skillset needed to succeed in the larger media landscape.
“One thing that sets Mills apart from other schools is its focus on critical thinking,” Wachter says.
‘I knew how to stand up for myself’
Mills College’s academic journalism program isn’t even technically a program. The subject is offered as a minor, which in many ways is part of its appeal and effectiveness. That’s just one option toward building a journalism career; students representing diverse majors work on The Campanil, often without taking a single journalism course.
Ari FitzGibbon ’22, The Campanil’s editor-in-chief for the spring 2022 semester, is an English literature major who never enrolled in journalism classes.
FitzGibbon, who grew up in Sitka, Alaska, decided to pursue the subject after studying it in middle and high school. Mills interested her, she says, because she wanted to attend a historically women’s college that, in a way, mirrored her small-town upbringing with limited class sizes, but also offered a vibrant LGBTQIA+ community.
Though initially intimidated, she says she came to see the newsroom as a welcoming place for collaboration—even if all but one semester took place during the pandemic that forced pitch meetings and editing sessions to an online format.
In March 2020, at the start of lockdown, The Campanil and many other college publications switched from a print/digital edition to online only. Although the change to remote work was at first “disorganized,” FitzGibbon says, it also offered valuable experience as the staff communicated via video conferencing and other online messaging systems.
“We were able to settle into it over time, and I’m really proud of the content we were able to put out,” she says.
FitzGibbon credits the highly collaborative nature of The Campanil’s staff for those successes. “I enjoy the peer-focused environment we had in the newsroom, and working with people who are often in the same stage of life as you are,” she says. “But there was also a range of people—we worked with both undergraduates and graduate [students].”
FitzGibbon, who enjoys arts and entertainment reporting, says she learned about interviewing by reading the work of other Campanil reporters.
“It’s something I was always told to do, and now I pass that advice to others,” she says. “When you have a question about some element of an article, go look at a previous example of the [same type of] article…. This has been integral to me in crafting interviews and interview questions.”
Unlike FitzGibbon, Rosina Ghebreyesus ’22 took every journalism class possible, but her takeaway is similar. Ghebreyesus, who transferred to Mills as a communication major, says the small class sizes appealed to her. Once on campus, the experience exceeded her expectations.
“It was a real community, everything was discussion-based— it was more about what you as a student were bringing to the table,” Ghebreyesus says.
Likewise, Amy Pyle ’80, now the national investigations editor at USA Today, credits Mills with giving her an edge. Although Pyle never worked on The Campanil, she says her degree in French, as well as the journalism classes she took with the late Peggy Webb, provided her with an essential tool: learning how to learn.
Even with a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern, she emphasizes that her liberal arts degree has been more functionally useful than a specialized degree in the newsrooms where she’s worked.
“When I got my first journalism job, I realized how much more I was relying on what I learned at Mills,” Pyle says. “As journalists, we need to synthesize a whole bunch of information and get up to speed on things we don’t know anything about. You have to be a generalist.”
At Mills, Pyle adds, she learned how to ask questions that could take a story “in unique directions.” She also learned the importance of editing. “Writing was a big part of classes at Mills, and editing your own work was part of it, too,” she says. “There was the emphasis that it’s all about the language, no matter what subject.”
The chance to study at an historic women’s college also provided an advantage, she says. “You can’t undervalue the strength of being at an institution where the editor of the paper is always a woman and the president is always a woman,” Pyle says. “That was empowering.”
It gave her the self-assurance to walk into male-dominated newsrooms and know that she belonged there. “I had the confidence to do that in part, because at Mills I’d been told, ‘Don’t let that hold you back,’” Pyle says.
Emily Mibach ’16 shares this sentiment. An English major who minored in journalism, she served as editor-in-chief of The Campanil and now works as a reporter at the Palo Alto Daily Post. “I found that because I went from the all-female/nonbinary newsroom of The Campanil to an almost entirely all-male newsroom that I knew how not to get man-splained,” she says. “I knew how to stand up for myself. I had a backbone.”
‘A civic literature of life’
When Ghebreyesus explains what elevates Mills above other programs, she points to The Campanil’s current faculty adviser, Keli Dailey.
“This was the first time in my two years of college where I had a Black and woman professor, and that was a game changer,” says Ghebreyesus, who hopes to pursue filmmaking. “[Dailey] has so much experience in journalism, and she’s teaching us the same things you learn at a school like Columbia: you’re just learning it at a different house.”
An adjunct professor and head of the communications program, Dailey calls journalism “a civic literature of life” and a core teaching principle. “I tell my students that journalism is the only job listed in the Constitution,” Dailey says. “What we seek to teach is an appreciation for one of the most important elements of a free democracy.” She has produced work for the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, and the San Antonio Current, among other outlets.
The Campanil operates as a “First Amendment paper,” which means that as an adviser, Dailey doesn’t make editorial decisions or read copy before publication. “Hands-on work is the best teacher,” she says. “It’s self-governing.”
As in any learning environment, that means mistakes are made. For the most part, Dailey says, the College’s administration has been supportive. “They see it as an opportunity for students to learn and grow and test out their ability to communicate [what they’ve learned],” she notes.
Whether it’s through corrections or letters to the editor, Dailey says The Campanil has always been a public forum for the responses of the administration, students, faculty, and staff.
Still, some students remember pointed clashes with the administration, even the student government. Mibach, who was managing editor in 2015, recalls the numerous times when The Campanil’s budget was slashed. The particular incident when she was managing editor came at a time when many campus groups also faced cuts, but it seemed like The Campanil was hit especially hard.
“It was unclear, at least to me, if it was because of something that we had reported on,” she says, “It made you feel like, ‘Perhaps the [student] administration isn’t supportive of my paper.’”
She also recalls when she wrote an article as a first-year about changes to the College’s financial aid process, which angered the department. “To this day I still don’t fully understand what they wanted corrected, but boy, were they upset,” she says now.
Then, after the paper published a series of op-eds critical of the administration, a stack of issues disappeared from an on-campus distribution spot. “We would place some of the papers right near the president’s office because a lot of people passed by that spot,” she says with a laugh. “Who’s going to take a stack of 50 in one go? We weren’t that popular.”
Mibach says that The Campanil’s then-adviser, Sarah Pollock, handled the incident by emailing the administration with a reminder. “She said, ‘This is against the First Amendment, and if you have an issue then do what anyone else would do: Write a letter to the editor,’” Mibach says.
Not all clashes at The Campanil were external. As in any college newsroom where late nights and exhausting deadlines are the norm, the atmosphere is often fraught with a chaotic and intense energy. Jen Ramos ’15 remembers a time on The Campanil that left them frustrated enough to take a break. An English major, Ramos joined the paper after seeing a listing advertising for an online editor position.
“I didn’t have any journalism experience, but as someone who grew up on the internet and knew [computer] programming, I figured I could do this,” Ramos says.
For two years it was great, Ramos says, but then staff changes, personality clashes, and various editorial decisions at the top left them exasperated. Ramos left for a semester, but agreed to return after a conversation with the editor-in-chief and managing editor.
“They listened to my concerns,” they say. “And the year that I returned was easily the best year I spent on staff.”
Ramos, who went on to earn a minor in journalism at Mills and a master’s in journalism from the University of Southern California, now mentors youth in journalism as a program coordinator for We’Ced Youth Media in Merced through the Youth Leadership Institute, where a colleague of Ramos’ is a fellow alum of The Campanil. Mills, Ramos says, gave them an essential foundation that led to sports reporting gigs and an internship with the San Jose Sharks. Later, they undertook an internship with the Center for Investigative Reporting—which, at the time, was led by Amy Pyle as its editor in chief.
“My quality of work was at least on par with some of the folks who were coming out of Berkeley or Stanford,” Ramos says. “Mills got me more places than my degree at USC did.”
They look back at Mills as a place of growth that left a profound impact. “You’re a part of a community of friends who are willing to have these conversations about gender, race, and ethnicity, and all these different intersections,” Ramos says. “The relationships built in that newsroom are fundamental.”
Other alumnae making waves in journalism include the luminaries below:
Tracy Clark-Flory ’06, author and staff writer for Jezebel
Laura Cucullu ’06, strategic operations director at Bay City News
Kira Garcia ’00, freelance writer for The New Yorker
Leslie Griffy ’03, managing editor of Santa Clara Magazine
Sarah Gonzalez ’09, host and reporter at NPR’s Planet Money
Tracy Hamilton ’99, story editor for the San Antonio Express
Lita Martínez ’06, reporter/producer for Southern California Public Radio
Martha Ross, MFA ’98, features writer for the Bay Area News Group
Alyia Yates ’17, producer for the podcast Mogul