I was a high school senior when Trayvon Martin was shot and killed.
The site of his death was less than 30 minutes away from my home in a smaller Florida town.
I don’t remember much from the day he died. According to my Facebook posts from that night I was sitting at home, watching the Oscars.
I do remember the next days though. We sat in AP English whispering about it in our corner of the classroom. The class was predominantly white, upper middle-class teenagers who at the time were deciding which colleges to attend. There were vaguely racist comments. There were other students shutting them down.
I remember sitting there silently. Even then I knew to just listen and observe. I remember one person turning to me.
“You think this whole thing will get blown up like Casey Anthony did?”
“I don’t know. This is different.”
When Caylee Anthony was kidnapped and murdered, Orlando became a nightmare. The death of a child turned into a soap opera. While many people recall watching the OJ Simpson trial, I remember watching Central Florida implode during Casey Anthony’s. A little girl’s death turned into a soap opera, and my hometown followed every second of it.
Facebook was a mess. Supermarket aisles were places to chat about the death of a toddler. It was impossible to escape.
The coverage of Trayvon Martin’s death was far more nuanced. Orlando learned so much from their mistakes during their last major media scandal. For the world, Trayvon Martin’s death was the start of a movement.
It was also about my home. It was confirmation that I lived in an area that had casual racism. It taught me to look past emotion, and focus on facts. It taught me ethics. It taught me humanity.
It made me want to dive into communities, and tell their stories.
I’m the only person in my high school graduating class of 480 who became a journalist. I’ve told plenty of stories about how the death of a 17 year old boy changed millions of lives around the country and sparked a new kind of civil rights movement.
Trayvon Martin didn’t make it to adulthood. Thousands of kids throughout the country won’t for the same reason.
I covered the death of Robert Dentmond, a teenage boy in Gainesville who died after threatening to shoot neighbors with an assault rifle. Multiple law enforcement officers shot him. Turns out, the gun was a replica covered in tape. We later found out that Robert Dentmond was suicidal.
I held a teenager’s hand that week as I asked questions about her friend during a town hall meeting. She cried, and I squeezed tighter.
James Means, a teenager in Charleston, was allegedly shot and killed by a 62-year-old white man. He was unarmed. The man admitted to shooting him. “The way I look at it, that’s another piece of trash off the street,” he told police officers.
I didn’t cover the immediate details of his death (I typically cover a suburban county just west of Charleston.) Weeks later, I covered a memorial service for him that doubled as an informational session for programs for inner city children. James Means’s friends and cousin sat with me that night. An 11-year-old began to sob on my shoulder while telling me about her friend.
I told them that night about a boy who died a few towns over when I was 17.
They knew his name. They knew his story.They knew Trayvon Martin.
Five years ago, Trayvon Martin was another kid who died a few towns over. Now, he’s a symbol for so much more.
Want to read some great coverage looking back at the trial? Here’s the Orlando Sentinel’s piece today.
Also from the Sentinel, In The Shadow Of Race, a series about racial and cultural division in Central Florida.
I don’t talk about this often to anyone, but driving is my therapy.
Some people meditate. Some vent. Some cry. I turn on my car, and drive to a destination for no reason.
It started when I was 18. I had my first job that paid well enough for me to survive. After my classes in Daytona, I’d drive to various beaches. It didn’t matter what I was wearing. I remember one night walking on the beach in a semi-formal dress after a gala, heels in hand.
In college I’d visit small towns surrounding Gainesville, until my poor Forrest Gump (my first car, now owned by my brother) started failing on me. After that I’d jump on the bus and people watch.
I rarely have a passenger. If I do, it’s an honor.
The soundtracks vary - Monday’s was Paul Simon’s Graceland. A few weeks ago it was just a playlist of four Michelle Branch songs on repeat (so not proud of this fact, by the way). On the worst days, it’s silence.
Sometimes late at night I plan the routes. At other times it’s completely unplanned.
That’s how I ended up on the top of a mountain at 10:30 at night after my first day at Gazette-Mail. There were no streetlights and no homes. Even worse, there was no cell service. I drove around that mountain for about 30 minutes straight on the verge of tears. When I finally got cell service, I called a friend.
“I’m stuck on the side of a mountain right now and Google Maps is confused and why did I move to West Virginia and I hate mountains,” I muttered, then began nearly weeping.
“So your first day went well?” he said.
It was pretty condescending. I deserved it. You know why? Because driving throughout Appalachia isn’t necessarily rational. It’s not cost-effective either.
But there’s something about being behind the wheel in an unfamiliar place, and discovering new landmarks. Without these trips I would have never discovered some of my favorite restaurants or spots to hike. I’ve seen a lot of sunsets I never thought I’d get the chance to see.
I don’t know where I’ll be in a few years. I could stay here, but I could be across the country. To be honest, I could even be in an area where cars are useless.
I’ll always remember the feeling of finding the perfect milkshake in a small town, or getting my boot stuck while hiking through a trail I accidentally ended up dead-ending into.
Tomorrow I think I’m going to take my first trip to Ohio.
When this photo was taken, I had just gotten off a plane from Atlanta to Phoenix. I had spent 10 days prior in Alabama, having the greatest reporting trip of my life. While my teammates (understandably) took naps, I changed out of my airport sweats and slipped on a dress.
I had never felt so inspired in my life. As I ran to the newsroom in the 110 degree heat I couldn’t stop thinking of the days prior - sipping sweet tea in Selma, staring down the halls of the state capitol, and sitting quietly in Tuskegee’s city hall.
I still remember everything about that day - eating leftover donuts, gushing to friends about the trip, our newsroom debating over who would be named “newsroom president” (I never said News21 was filled with normal, boring young journalists), and going to a friend’s 21st birthday party that night in my pajamas.
I can tell you what was written on that board - notes from the overview team, phone numbers for Cronkite News, a bell curve, our newsroom “person of the day,” and a quote from The Bee Movie (see last parenthetical note).
However I don’t remember who captured this moment, so forgive me for the lack of photo credit.
At this moment, I felt like I was on top of the world. The next day I sat on the light rail with friends on the way to Tempe, and I felt like I was actually shining for the first time in about a year.
After that things got a little messier. Life got a little tougher. To sum it up, life got complicated.
I wish I could go back and tell myself a few things -
If you’re reading this you might be going through the same thing. You might have just come back from the opportunity of a lifetime, and feel like you’ve been changed forever. Maybe it’s an internship, a study abroad trip, even a volunteer mission. We used to call it a “camp high” when I was a kid.
You might not ever be the same. When you talk to your college friends about it, they might not get it. Your family might shrug it off.
There are different ways you can commemorate the trip. I have friends who got tattoos in foreign countries, or piercings with their friends from internships. I brought back a pile of notes, maps of Phoenix and Alabama, and a “tan.”
Either way, keep that glow. Keep that shine.
You won’t realize how much you’ll miss it until it’s gone.
If you told me a year ago that I’d be working for a newspaper in West Virginia, I probably would have cackled. Last year I was on the track to work in broadcast journalism as a producer or a radio reporter. I already had casual job offers at a few TV stations throughout Florida.
When I graduated college I had no idea what I was going to do. The answer I gave people changed often - public radio producing, digital reporting and producing for TV stations, MMJ-ing for newspapers, or even just pursuing a career in social media. I said I’d decide after News21. By then I’d know what I wanted to do, right?
Wrong. After 10 weeks in Phoenix, I was more confused about my future than ever. More opportunities were in front of me than ever. I applied for almost 200 jobs, and waited. I interviewed with some of them. After years of people telling me I was talented, people were telling me that I just wasn’t ready. In their defense, I wasn’t ready for a lot of the jobs I interviewed for. Don’t ask me why they even called me. The word potential was thrown around a lot. So was the phrase “call us in a year or two.”
By the end of September, I was slowly losing my mind. I was a finalist for a lot of killer positions, but then I’d lose out on them to more experienced reporters or Ivy League grads.
I won’t go to in depth into my interviewing process with the Gazette-Mail, but for the first time I felt almost confident. I was passionate about the stories they were doing, and interested in the changing nature of West Virginia. A good friend had also recently accepted a job there, so that was another plus.
But there were also negatives. Would I be able to handle life in West Virginia? How would I adjust to going back into the newspaper industry after being gone for almost 3 years? Would the staff take a 22-year-old Floridian with a broadcast journalism degree seriously?
When I was offered the job, I quickly accepted and hoped for the best. I bought a new car, started looking for apartments and sweaters, and did a lot of panicking
The transition has gone far better than expected. Yes, I check my AP Stylebook more than I should (it’s been a while, y’all.) I’m still writing notes during interviews slower than I expected. I’m adjusting to this whole “inches” thing, too.
A couple of my stories gained a lot of traction this week, as a lot of you may know. I’m not addressing it much further - if you want to read them, I have the first linked here. The interview requests poured in, as did congratulations from the same recruiters who rejected me from jobs a few weeks prior. Calls and emails came in from all over the world. It was my 7th day at the paper, and I was just as shocked as you might expect.
For the first time in a while, I can say that I really believe good things are ahead. West Virginia as a whole has been so kind, loving, and accepting. I’ve hugged way more people than I ever expected, and most of you know I’m not a big hugger. I’m starting to get the hang of things.
Will I still freak out during my first snowy winter? Probably, and I accept the fact that all of my editors will tease me mercilessly during it. Will I still occasionally look dumbfounded when someone asks me if I know my way to an assignment? Yes, and I know Google Maps will be my friend for a while. Will I eventually know all the words to Take Me Home, Country Roads? I have the first verse and the chorus down at least.
How long will I stay here? Will I continue to work in print? When will I finally get to eat a chicken tender Pub Sub again? I can’t answer those questions yet. But I’ll let you know when I can.
My name is Ali Schmitz, and I’m a multi-skilled journalist available for hire. I’m passionate about breaking news, investigative reporting, and politics.
I’m a proud graduate of the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications, where I was awarded the Doris Bardon Award for Broadcast News. Go Gators!
I was last seen at Carnegie-Knight’s News21 investigating voter disenfranchisement and access issues, and being the newsroom’s resident #FloridaWoman. My stories mainly focused on Shelby County v. Holder, Voter ID laws, and African-American voting rights. Our website is launching August 20, and we’re so excited to share our work with you. Until then, you can see some our work here.
Before that, I was a producer, reporter, and anchor at WUFT News in Gainesville. I worked on all platforms in the newsroom: radio, web, and television. I started off by helping launch the newsroom’s social media strategy, and ended my time there managing radio producers and reporters, anchoring local segments of NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and reporting for all platforms. During my time at WUFT I was one of NPR’s youngest contributors, and lead statewide coverage for local NBC and CNN affiliates for breaking news stories based in North Central Florida.
If you want to know a little bit more about what I’ve done, my LinkedIn is here.
When I’m not in a newsroom (which is rare), I’m probably exploring new places, or at home reading and (let’s be honest) watching videos of dogs.
Hi, my name is Ali Schmitz. I’ve lived in the state of Florida for my entire life. My parents traveled quite a bit when I was a kid. I’ve been to 27 states, and I’ve been on 3 separate cross-country road trips. When I was in the second grade, I earned bragging rights for it.
That’s why I told myself around this time last year that I was going to go somewhere unexpected for my first job, or for a post-grad internship. I made a list of markets, highlighted and color-coded based off of location, potential pay, and novelty.
It became a game… One my friends and co-workers didn’t like very much. Most of the cities I liked to joke around about moving to were in states that I’d never even stepped in: Des Moines, Milwaukee, Omaha, Hartford… Eventually it turned into a “Would You Rather” game. The most famous edition was “Maine or Alaska?” Maine won: 47-9.
Then I applied for News21. I didn’t expect to be UF’s nominee for the program at the time. I had just done it on a whim. It was my top choice after graduation, but in the same way a high school underachiever says he’s going to apply to Harvard, despite his 2.6 GPA. When I found out that I got accepted around Thanksgiving, I was shocked. The list was put away.
Ali Schmitz, the hypothetical traveler, had an actual destination - Phoenix, Arizona.
The last time I was in Arizona, I was 14. I was in the start of my angsty phase. I didn’t really want to be spending a summer traveling the country with my family. I remember sitting in Tuscon, being very upset because my friends were all at a birthday party without me. My FOMO was strong.
I like Arizona, but unlike many of the states I visited, I had no real connection to it. My memories of it weren’t either good or bad. I liked the food, hated the fact that I saw a bobcat way too close to our sliding glass door, and once almost fainted from the “dry heat.”
It’s now been a week since I boarded an early morning flight to the desert. It’s been a week since I entered the airport in Phoenix, hopped in a cab, and moved into my new apartment.
Sometimes it seems surreal - Falling asleep in the Tempurpedic in the apartment, walking past bank buildings while grabbing lunch, gushing to my executive editor about how reading Failure Factories changed my life…
And sometimes I miss home - Publix BOGO sales, my students and friends crushing it at WUFT, and Gators Baseball….
But as I look out my window now, in between writing records requests and listening to podcasts (more on that later…), I realize that this is only a temporary stop. In August I’m heading to somewhere else. That’s yet to be determined. I may not spend the rest of my life looking at mountains and palm trees from my bedroom.
But for the next nine weeks I’m going to tell some very important stories, eat mexican food, and try to not get too sunburnt. I’m going to laugh with the other fellows, try not to trip into cacti (not that it’s almost happened multiple times now or anything), and continue to silently fangirl over the fact that this is real. I may be tired, but I am so happy.
Thank you ASU for making my dreams come true. Thank you UF for supporting me as I work hours on end. Thank you to everyone who has listened to me babble about the communities I’m covering.
Here’s to telling the stories that matter.
Here's to Rory Gilmore.
Rory Gilmore is fictional. I'm fully aware of that. But I relate to the girl more than I ever thought I would as I'm about to embark on adulthood.
My teenage and college years have some similarities to Rory’s, minus the whole leaving school for a semester thing. And stealing a boat.
I'm either silent or babbling. There's no middle ground. I love my books, which I started packing last night as I prepare to leave Gainesville next week. I'm currently eating a bag of chips as I lay on the couch typing this. I also speak in aged pop culture references.
My mom is my quirky, funny Lorelai. And while my parents are married, my dad is definitely a Luke.
I dated a Dean, a Jess, and a Logan. I learned so much from all of them, even though some of them broke my heart. They have shown me how strong I can be, even though they sometimes pushed me down. And I'm sorry for never telling you guys about all of them. But I promise, they're not jerks. But if you pitted them all against each other, just like we do to the poor guys Rory dated, you'd probably have a favorite. I'm Team Rory, though.
I have my Lane, my Paris, and even my Marty. I'm grateful for all of your friendships. Yes, even my Paris.
I have my Mitch Huntzberger. I hate the words you said to me, and I hate that you made me doubt myself. You made me cry much more than anyone else ever has. But thank you for doing that - because proving you wrong has been my favorite hobby in the last year.
When Rory graduated from Yale, she snagged a job covering the Obama campaign after freaking out about not having a plan. Next month, I'm moving to Phoenix to cover voter disenfranchisement. After this summer, I have no idea what I'm doing. And I'm scared just like Rory Gilmore.
But there's one quote that describes her that I relate to so much.
“Emily, please. It's Rory. What she tackles, she conquers. This girl could name the state capitals at 3, recite the periodic table at 4, discuss Schopenhauer's influence on Nietzsche when she was 10. She's read every book by every author with a Russian surname and had a 4.2 grade-point average at one of the toughest schools on the east coast. If she's excluding salmon puffs, she has a good reason to exclude salmon puffs. And I, for one, have complete confidence in her ability to tackle this job, and so should you.” - Richard Gilmore, Rory's incredible grandfather.
My (great) grandfather, who was a huge influence on my life and career, would have probably said a similar thing about me. He died almost two years ago.
He was incredible - a journalist who traveled the world, sharing captivating stories on three continents. He also was a Marine with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
There's a part of me that wishes he was here to see what I've accomplished since he passed away. I wish he could have listened to me on NPR. I wish he could have heard that I actually managed to get a job in investigative journalism (even if it's temporary). I wish he knew I was working with Len Downie, an editor who he likely respected quite a bit.
So tomorrow, when I across the Swamp to accept my degree, I'll have these words on my cap. I tackled. I conquered.
And I hope to continue to do so wherever I go.
Here's to you, Rory. Thanks for being a realistic human being in the last few seasons. Thanks for being awkward, quirky, and smart.
I'm proud to be constantly compared to you.
When I was 18 I reached out to my first mentor. I was a community college freshman who would have rather been Medill or Mizzou. He was a very young editor at an unnamed online news site.I wanted to be him.
So I sent an email to him, which I have an excerpt of below:
I really admire your work, but I admire your honesty on social media even more. I'm still trying to balance between being a journalist and being a person. I also want to work in newsroom management as an editor like you one day.
Do you have any advice for me as I build my "brand?"
And for some reason, he replied. A friendship was born, as he gave me tips on my writing, my online presence, and even on how to not make a fool out of myself while interviewing people who I knew were not taking me seriously.
Now after years of meeting professionals , older students, and professors, I could stuff all of my mentors in a room. They’re scattered across the world (I can say world when one of them lives in Canada, right?)
They’ve all taught me different things, spanning across a variety of mediums. One taught me how to create extensive spreadsheets with Excel. One watched me tap dance in an empty newsroom after I got my first big interview. One even taught me how to contour my face - not that I ever do it, but I at least know how to do it now.
I have so many good things to say about every single one of them - even if we’ve never actually met in person. That’s why I was so scared when I became a TA in the Fall. Even with years of listening to advice, in no way did I feel qualified to give it.
The first time a student came to my office hours I broke from the robotic TA mode for a second -
“This is my first time doing this,” I said to her while I looked through a packet.
“I think you’re doing well,” she smiled.
Today I watched that first student, Morgan, find out she won one of those College AP Awards. We posed for this photo - me, her, and a man who has mentored and taught both of us, Forrest Smith. As I went to grab lunch, it dawned on me - “my kids” are growing up. Forrest gave me the same look the first time I got picked up by NPR.
I think I’m getting pretty good at being a mentor. I’ve mentored about 45 Radio 1 students. Two of them won College AP Awards on Saturday. Two others were finalists. Two got the wrap they worked on together picked up by NPR. They’ve got great internships heading their way. Even though some days I want to scold them, most days I say “That’s my student.”
Even if they drive me crazy some days - like that time one called me crying about a project while I was on a first date. I answered the phone instead of talking to the very nice, but very confused guy sitting across from me. Needless to say, there wasn’t a round two.
Mentoring isn’t easy. It’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. But it’s been so rewarding to watch my students learn - and I hope my mentors feel the same about me.
Sundays used to be my favorite day.
There’s a quote about it in Silver Linings Playbook
Now, Sundays are a little different. I work six days in the week in the newsroom. Sundays I work at another job, and attempt to catch up on my work during breaks. Sundays are the days to race to the finish. Sundays are the days where I sit in front of a laptop, trying to piece anything I forgot over the week. Sundays are the day where I call my friend weekly right when church gets out, while typing up an analysis on a play I half read for a class.
Today that friend’s on a plane, traveling across the country. There’s no play to be read. There’s a pile of public records I should be sifting through right now. There are scripts to be written, sound bites that need to be edited. Instead I’m distracted. I keep staring at a mark on the living room wall. I repeatedly braid a strand of my hair.
Today I’m reminded what Sundays are really for - cuddling in bed with a cup of tea and a book. Long walks by Lake Alice. Catching up on CNN's Reliable Sources. Bagels from my favorite place across town.
Right now, I’m missing the real Sundays.
But now my phone is ringing - the call is a few minutes late, but my friend is still there. The stack of sheets next to me has shifted slightly as I jump for my phone. I pick it up.
“Hey,” he says. I can almost hear him smiling through the phone, and a dog barking in the background. “Happy Sunday.”
I open up a new tab on my laptop, and begin typing up my scripts. I listen as he laughs about his week. He listens as I tell him about my job interviews. In the background he can hear the sound of chatters upstairs, and I can hear the noise of a highway as he drives home.
And then he reminds me - there's always good in every day - even Sundays.
I hate New Year’s resolutions. I really, really do. I think that many people use them as temporary fixes to make themselves better, but often don’t follow through on. I make them any way. Usually, I follow them. Here are some resolutions from days of yore:
2013: Document life more frequently…
A series of Facebook albums from that year show all the photos I took. So does a private journal with notes from every day.
2014: Take risks.
A lot of risks were taken that year… I have some regrets, but more happy memories.
2015: Be less self-conscious.
This led to me placing a ban on makeup during Lent, forcing myself to attend events where I needed to speak up, and finding what made me comfortable, but not too comfortable.
Now it’s 2016, which will be, undoubtedly, one of the scariest years of my life. I’m graduating, moving to Arizona for the summer, and then heading to the real world. At some level I want to say that my resolution is “Don’t screw up,” or “Don’t be a colossal failure.” However, I’ve learned so much from my mistakes this past year. Every triumph came after doing something that others might call regrettable.
This year, I’ve decided to be more authentic. I’m going to do what I want, but I’m not going to change who I am. In a year full of change, I don’t want to change for the worse. No matter where I go, I still want to be the same person sneaking candy canes into the newsroom weeks after Christmas. I still want to be passionate about what I do, even on bad days. And most of all, I still want to be ME, and not a journalism robot.
That’s why I’m writing this post today, so I can confess some things to the internet -
Those are sweet, cute confessions… But being authentic is more than that. So let’s be honest -
I’m a nervous wreck some days. I had my first anxiety attack in about a year this morning while I was getting ready for work. This morning, I sat in bed fully clothed, my hands shaking like crazy as I attempted to put on lipstick. I ended up missing work this morning, as I laid in bed in a dress and dressy flats while I listened to the church service above me.
I promise, I’m okay. I’m not asking for pity in any way, either. Hours after the fact, I’m thinking about how lucky I am to have gone without one of these episodes for so long. This blog isn’t a statement on mental health. If you’re living with mental illness however, I’ll link this column from the Tampa Bay Times by Ayana Stewart, a former classmate of mine at UF. It’s powerful, brave, and incredibly important.
I just want to clarify - I am not always brave, I am not always powerful. Authenticity isn’t always beautiful and bright. But then again, I’m not always beautiful and bright.
But some days - I sparkle.
Multiplatform journalist. University of Florida Grad. Last seen at News21 and WUFT News.
"Good news is rare these days, and every glittering ounce of it should be cherished and hoarded and worshipped and fondled like a priceless diamond."