When Don Day first saw a tweet about the JSK Fellowships, he assumed he would need a college degree to apply.
“But when I clicked on the tweet and scrolled down the page, I saw [that] wasn’t a requirement. I didn’t have a lot of time to overthink it, so I just applied,” says Day, who lives in Boise, Idaho. If “you’re the right fit for the fellowship,” he says, “you’ll be selected regardless of how hard you try and be perfect.”
JSK Fellows come from a variety of backgrounds, perspectives and places. In fact, that diversity brings added value to the experience. Getting past the missing line on his resume helped Don Day make the most of his fellowship.
He “realized that if you’re ashamed of something like that, it inhibits you.” He shared his thoughts publicly because “your story is your story and your life will be your life.”
2013 JSK Fellow Latoya Peterson first heard of the opportunity through one of her mentors, journalist Dori J. Maynard. “[She] forced me to apply. I was convinced they wouldn’t want me. It’s important not to talk yourself out of the fellowship,” Peterson says.
Like Day, Peterson did not have a college degree. When she applied for the fellowship, she was freelancing, and she was the owner and editor of Racialicious, a blog exploring the intersection of race and pop culture. She used her fellowship year to better understand the potential of mobile platforms beyond devices and interactive public spaces.
Since completing the fellowship, Peterson has worked for a variety of news sites and startups, including serving as a senior digital producer for Al-Jazeera Media Network, as a deputy editor at Fusion, and as deputy editor, digital innovation for The Undefeated at ESPN.
Peterson credits the JSK Fellowships for teaching her how to focus on doing exemplary work in the service of journalism. She’s also able to lean on other alumni for support. “We’re always checking in with each other … It’s wonderful to have a bunch of people who understand you and that you can check in with to regroup and recenter yourself.”
Day echoes that sentiment. “You go through this intense, surprising, maddening and enjoyable experience together and you come out the other side different,” he says “The only people who will really truly understand it are the fellows and affiliates.”
The camaraderie among fellows is no accident. It’s one of the most important aspects of the fellowship that alumni come back to again and again. Every class is unique, and sometimes when fellows arrive at Stanford from all over the country and the world, they find that the only thing they may have in common is a fierce dedication to journalism. But the diversity of the fellows allows for a deeper cross-pollination of thoughts and ideas.
2014 JSK Fellow Umbreen Bhatti was a litigator before she applied to the JSK Fellowships. She first heard of the opportunity while working on a project to demystify Islamic law for American news consumers by offering credible, authoritative information.
She felt like she had “impostor syndrome” while working on her application, but she didn’t let that stop her, although her application took her over a month to complete. “I remember worrying about who would write my professional recommendation letters because I didn’t have an editor who I had worked with directly in a traditional journalism setting.”
In the end, she reached out to professionals who had worked with her in a variety of settings. She says she realized that it’s important that the recommendations come from “people who can speak to you and your character regardless of what professional space you’re in.”
Bhatti, who is now director of KQED’s Innovation Lab, credits the JSK Fellowships with giving her access to an incredibly rich community of people. “Some of the most creative and thoughtful ideas in media and journalism today are coming out of the JSK network.”
People from “nontraditional journalism backgrounds” should absolutely apply to the program Bhatti says, because: “We should all care about journalism. We should all feel like we belong. Journalism needs everyone.”
JSK Fellowships Director Dawn Garcia echoes that sentiment, encouraging applicants from a myriad of backgrounds to apply. “We’re looking to coach and develop leaders. You don’t need any specific education or training to apply,” she says. “We evaluate every individual on his or her merits and take into account their dedication, passion and innovation in solving today’s journalism challenges. Great people with good ideas come from everywhere.”
It’s simple: “Just apply,” says Sarah Alvarez, a 2016 JSK Fellow, and the founder of Outlier Media, a Detroit-based service journalism organization that identifies, reports and delivers information via text-message to empower residents. “If you don’t say, ‘I want my shot,’ someone else will be ready to fill that spot for you.”
Alvarez says when she applied for a fellowship, she questioned whether she fit into the journalism space. She remembers asking herself: “Was I a serious enough journalist?”
With a degree from Columbia Law School, Alvarez had primarily worked as a civil rights lawyer and as a legal consultant for social justice organizations. When a car accident during her second pregnancy put her on bed rest in 2010, she was forced to contemplate what she wanted to do next. Her younger brother suggested she listen to podcasts, and that piqued her interest in journalism. That led her to an internship and eventually to a job at Michigan Radio exploring how to engage the station’s news sources in different ways.
Although she knew she might have less experience working in journalism than other applicants, she didn’t want to wait to apply. “It’s more about whether or not you think you’re a match for this kind of program,” she says. “That is what’s important. Do you think the world would benefit from you getting this help? If so, you should do it.”
Each year, the JSK Fellowships brings together up to 20 fellows from around the world to explore solutions to the most urgent problems facing journalism. If you aspire to be a leader who can help re-imagine and transform journalism, you should apply for our program.
Elizabeth Tilis is a digital communications consultant based in Leawood, Kansas.