Posted by Jeremy Pittenger on July 3, 2014
Katie Kather’s passion for telling people’s stories is resulting in professional accolades and personal rewards. During a trip to war-torn Sudan when she was 18, Kather began contemplating what she could do to make a difference in the lives of others. She returned to the U.S. with this question in mind and began exploring different opportunities. Knowing she wanted to finish her college degree, she enrolled in the Aurora University adult degree completion program. Soon she discovered how she could effect change based on her experiences in Sudan and at AU.
“By the sixth or seventh day in Sudan, I was discouraged,” she said. “I complained to the trip coordinator that we weren’t doing anything. I burst into tears and said, ‘All I’m doing is shaking people’s hands and telling them hello in Tigrinyan. I’m not doing anything.’ He looked at me and said, ‘You’re showing them they haven’t been forgotten.’”
Later, around the time she began her studies at AU, Kather went through a period of what she calls “rapid-fire self-discovery.” That’s when she discovered journalism. “I took an intro to journalism course with Associate Professor Heidi Schlumpf and loved it,” she said. “We wrote news stories and features, among other things. I was invigorated by this class. I looked forward to it every week, and I did really well. I decided to write for the Spartan Chronicle online student newspaper at the end of that semester.”
The experience with the Spartan Chronicle launched a professional path for Kather. “Professor Schlumpf told me that if you love something and you’re good at it, that probably means something,” said Kather. “It was like a light bulb went off. Soon I was the editor in chief of the Spartan Chronicle and filling out applications for journalism graduate programs.”
It was also at that time when Kather began making the connection that journalism was the solution to her decade-long question about what to do after visiting Sudan, “The answer, ‘You’re showing them they haven’t been forgotten’ can be applied to this field,” she said.
Kather credits her experience writing for and editing the Spartan Chronicle for getting into the journalism graduate program at Columbia College Chicago. She believes it made her a more a competitive candidate, and encourages current undergraduate students to pursue different opportunities, including ones that will take them out of their comfort zone. “I always enjoyed writing, but the concept of reporting was intimidating to me: navigating places I’d never been to talk to strangers was scary to me. I remember my first assignment for the Spartan Chronicle to report on a student art gallery at the Paramount Theatre. I almost didn’t go because I was so intimidated.”
Now Kather becomes energized at the very things that used to scare her about reporting. “I love covering social justice issues, and look up to journalists like the Chicago Reader’s Steve Bogira who have made telling those stories their mission. He once told me people want to point to something concrete, like a change in policy, but that’s not how most important changes happen. ‘I want to believe there’s a modest shift in how [the reader] thinks or sees things…that they see the human, the person, and become more empathetic because of that. I want to believe that happens because of journalism,’ he said.”
Kather’s own love of storytelling was recognized when she received a scholarship through the Studs Terkel Community Media Awards earlier this year. She was honored for her thesis project, which was an in-depth multimedia package on two communities—Austin on Chicago’s west side and suburban Oak Park—and the physical and metaphorical dividing line between them—Austin Boulevard. “The question that sparked it all was how can these communities be so different when they are so close physically?” said Kather. “How can one street make such a big difference? The answer is there is no easy answer. My reporting shows a complex history in the area dating all the way back to annexation in the late 1800s through the phenomenon of white flight in the 1950s and 60s.”
For more information on Aurora University’s communication programs, please visit aurora.edu/communication.