The Campus journalists courageous in face of their own fears

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014

Last Wednesday afternoon, a news story broke on campus: professor Kirk Nesset had been charged with one count of obtaining and one count of distributing child pornography. Students learned the news through social media: Yik Yak, Twitter, Facebook. Some broke the news to their professors.

Like many students, members of The Campus newspaper staff knew within less than an hour of the first news reports. Unlike their fellow students, the student journalists would be covering the story.

As the adviser to the paper, I communicated with the editors first by text and then by phone. I told them that they needed to report the story themselves and get the facts firsthand. They could not rely on other news sources or swirling speculation and gossip.

I advised them that they could not tweet, post or print anything until they had seen and read the federal court documents with their own eyes. They needed to contact the college administrators for comment.

And they had to go to Nesset’s house and ask if he had any comment, if he wanted to share his side of the story. Neither student who decided to go to Nesset’s house had had him as a professor.

The sun was slipping low behind the trees when an editor and photographer knocked on Nesset’s front door just after 6 p.m. last Wednesday.

He opened the door. They asked if he wanted to comment on the story of his arrest. He said he wouldn’t. They asked if he intended to resign, as a campus administrator had told them earlier. He said he didn’t know and he was in talks with the provost. The students observed that his trademark flip-flops were outside the front door and he was holding his dog while he spoke.

The students are the only journalists who knocked on his door to talk with him, according to Nesset.

The next morning, just after sunrise, I knocked on Nesset’s door. I brought him baked goods. I told him that I had not come as a journalist. I responded as a human being, concerned for his mental and physical wellbeing. He’d been publicly exposed and exiled from his community. I wanted him to know he wasn’t alone.

He told me that The Campus students had been respectful. He said that his house and garage had been egged.

Later that day, last Thursday, the faculty voted to cancel classes and give students and all members of the campus community a time to pause, reflect, grieve and express their emotions, including outrage and anger.

As I listened to comments on campus, I had images in my mind from an old black-and-white movie where villagers grabbed pitchforks and torches and drove Frankenstein from their community. I thought of The Scarlet Letter and Lord of the Flies.

In a meeting in Shafer Auditorium on Friday, I stood in front of a microphone and shared my thoughts.

Kirk Nesset is my friend. He has been kind to me. As a journalist, I am bound to a code of conduct that charges me to be fair and balanced. As a human being, I choose to reserve judgment until I know the whole story.

The FBI affidavit states that he waived his Miranda rights and admitted that he downloaded thousands of files. We don’t know the circumstances under which he waived his rights and admitted wrongdoing.

We know he’s been charged with a crime. He has not been convicted in a court of law. By law, we are innocent until proven guilty. Until the story hits the media. Then a person becomes guilty until proven innocent.

It’s the mob mentality that concerns and unnerves me, the ease and ferocity with which a community can turn against one of its own. As a journalist, I have covered conflict in the Middle East and Africa. I have witnessed what can happen when people turn on one another.

The fabric of civility and community can be so fragile and unravel quickly and violently.

A few people on campus noted that I couldn’t understand the anger and outrage because I wasn’t a mother. As if being a human being weren’t enough. I understand fear and pain.

Others asked if I weren’t afraid. Afraid? Afraid of speaking up.

I am a visiting professor. People believe I might be afraid of losing my job.

I am an educator at a liberal arts college. And I am a journalist. If I am afraid of speaking up, afraid of losing my job for speaking up, then I am not doing my job.

As I told those gathered in the Friday meeting, as I’ve told journalism students on numerous occasions, journalists are truth seekers. We shine a light in dark places and shed light on the facts. It’s not an easy job or a popular one. And it’s a vital one for our communities and democracy.

My journalist colleagues have been following The Campus newspaper staff’s reporting. I had two journalists visiting campus last week when the story broke. Both admitted that they hate covering such difficult stories. Journalists have to keep their personal feelings and biases at bay. They don’t want to knock on the door. It’s one of the worst things journalists have to do. And yet they do it. Just as the students did.

I am proud of the student journalists who volunteer for The Campus newspaper. They have demonstrated a commitment to the standards of journalism: balance, fairness, accuracy. They understand the responsibilities and role of the media on campus and in society.

They have chosen to report and publish when remaining silent is too often the norm.

They have been courageous in the face of their own fears.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.




How you play a golf course reveals how you live your life

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2014

A member of the Allegheny men’s golf team invited me to watch the team play during the recent Guy Kuhn Invitational at the Country Club of Meadville. I accepted and walked a number of holes on Sunday afternoon and a couple more on Monday.

I watched a visiting player hurl his club after a missed putt on what must have been a bad hole for him. I heard another visiting player swear loudly after a shot he didn’t like. That would not fly in the Hatch family, I thought. At any sign of disrespect for others or the game, my father would discipline us.

I grew up in a golfing family and I’ve walked innumerable golf courses. My father has played golf for as long as I can remember. My brother played in high school and college and still carries a single-digit handicap.

I never played the game when I was younger. Never liked it much, actually. I rowed crew in college. Family vacations were often planned around the availability of golf courses and tennis courts. I wanted to scuba dive.

My mom is a natural, competitive athlete. She played volleyball, basketball and tennis most of her life, until her back had other plans. She picked up golf later in life.

Last month, my mom called, thrilled to share the news of her hole-in-one on the Tournament Player Course. Number Three. A water hole.

Giddy, Mom described her shot. She suspected immediately that she’d made a hole-in-one. Dad was playing ahead of her. He said he watched her shot but didn’t see the ball on the green. He said he figured it went in the water.

Of course you did, Dad.

I tried golf a few years ago. My instructor told me I had a natural ability so I decided to take lessons. I found a woman golf pro, whose approach to the game was the right fit for my style. She gave me a few tips on my swing and then told me to see the target and send the ball to the target. And I did. On my first drive, I hit the ball well.

How far is that? About 225 yards, she said.

Giddy, I called my dad that evening. Dad, I hit my driver 225 yards.Cheryl, you cannot hit the ball 225 yards.

Well, how far do you think I can hit it? About 150, maybe 180 yards, my dad said.

Huh. My instructor might have been mistaken, though I liked the idea that I could send the ball 225 yards.

The next time I visited my folks, I went with my father to the driving range at the country club. He sat right behind me as I teed up the ball. Tense, nervous and anxious to impress my father, I hit the first few balls poorly.Then I sent one flying. I looked back at my father. How far was that, Dad?

About 225 yards. I don’t believe it, he said. Then he dashed to clubhouse to find the golf pro.

As I played more golf, I discovered that I could learn a lot about a person’s character in a round of golf, sometimes after a few holes. It turns out, in my view, how you play a golf course reflects how you live your life.

People will offer unsolicited advice: there’s a bunker over that rise; there’s water on the left; the rough is brutal on this hole. They focus on the potential problems.

I don’t want to focus on the hazards or obstacles. I aim for the flag, the green, the goal. I know that where I send my mind, my ball will follow.

My father and brother often coach me on the reasonable shot or appropriate approach. Play it safe. Play it smart.

Once, my father told me I couldn’t reach the green on a water hole. The safe shot was to lay up short of the green. In other words, don’t go for it.

I insisted I could hit the green. My first shot went in the water.

Now you know the shot to play, Dad said. My second shot went in the water. I was headed for a “Tin Cup” moment; and, I still believed I could reach the green.

On my third attempt, I hit the ball so hard it flew over the water and the flag and landed behind the green.

I happily accepted the inflated score on that hole because I proved to myself what I knew to be true—that I could reach that green.

Golf has taught me to trust myself and have confidence in how I play. And how I live.

I play by feel, by intuition, and I don’t play it safe.

Some players focus on problems. I look at the target and go for it. Some players dwell on the negative. They swear and throw things when the going gets tough.

I usually choose to focus on the positive. On some rounds of golf, I simply remind myself how lucky I am to be alive, to have the sun on my face, to be healthy enough to swing a golf club and share the game with friends.

The day after the Gators finished fourth in the Guy Kuhn Invitational, the assistant golf coach emailed me, thanking me for showing up to support the team. The coach thanked me, too. The student who invited me sent a thoughtful, handwritten thank-you note.

You can learn a lot from how people play and their follow through.

Allegheny College’s golf team is a class act.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.











Fear the Turtle

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

Copyright 2014

As the summer sun rose behind me, I stood ankle deep in the brisk water of Narragansett Bay at Naval Station Newport, Rhode Island. I watched the swimmers in the first wave of the Save the Bay swim strike out for the opposite shore, two miles away at Potter Cove in Jamestown.

My friend Elizabeth stood next to me. Last year, when we committed to swim the race together, we were both recovering from health setbacks. Months ago, there had been plenty of time to train. Time passed. We didn’t train.

We were certain we wouldn’t have been standing there if we hadn’t made the commitment to each other.

My kayak safety escort was a freshman at University of Maryland and a friend of my friends. He sported a T-shirt for his Maryland Terrapins.

“Fear the Turtle,” he said, citing the university’s slogan.

Fear the turtle. I laughed. Perfect.

I had three goals for the swim: finish the race; don’t be last; don’t get pulled from the water. Narragansett Bay is a shipping channel and the officials close it for only two hours. If you can’t make it in two hours, they’ll pull you.

Elizabeth was in the fourth wave. We high-fived, shivering slightly in now thigh-deep water. As we awaited the cannon-shot start, I felt a familiar flutter in my gut, a cocktail of fear and fierceness. My wave, the fifth, was the last group of 100 swimmers to head across the bay.

It was an ideal morning for my first open-water swim. The water was flat; the sky overcast. My fear-the-turtle kayaker, Sam, found me after a few hundred yards and paddled to my left.

I bumped into a kayak on the right. Oops. A bit later, I swam up to one of the safety boats in some kind of aquatic version of “Are you my mother?” I had debutante navigation skills. I asked Sam to paddle on my right. Problem solved.

I had no sense of distance. I did have the Newport Bridge to my left, so I judged my progress by the spans. Sam remained a calm, reassuring presence, paddling off my starboard.

Elizabeth had told me to remember to enjoy the swim. She said swimming across the bay offers a rare perspective. Several times I raised my head and swam breaststroke, admiring the sky, the bridge, the view. And yes, I would steady my breath before resuming my freestyle.

I passed swimmers along the way. Red caps were the first wave. Highlighter yellow, the fourth. Neon green, my wave. As we veered away from the bridge and toward the finish, we could see a congestion of caps of swimmers from earlier waves.

“What do you want to do,” Sam asked. “Do you want to pass them?”

Bless your heart, Sam. I had a secret, internal smile. Heck, yeah, I want to pass them. Once a competitor, always a competitor, it seems.

With the finish line in sight, I dug in and moved ahead, passing swimmers as Sam veered right and kayaked to shore. Cheering volunteers and red balloons greeted me when I crossed. A woman handed me a Popsicle stick with a number on it.

Elated, I accepted the participation medal and the big souvenir towel that volunteers offered me when my feet touched the shore. I posed with Elizabeth, her kayaker husband, Eliot, and fear-the-turtle Sam for celebration portraits. We lingered on shore, watching other participants finish.

More than an hour after I finished, one swimmer, surrounded by a small flotilla of boats, was making for the shore. I waded back into the water to cheer for the lone, last swimmer.

Congratulations. Is this your first race?

Yes, he said. My legs feel wobbly.

I offered my fist for a victory bump. It’s my first race, too. I’m Cheryl. David, he said.

He told me the Save the Bay swim was on his bucket list.

In January, he didn’t know how to swim.

His friend, who kayaked beside him, is a triathlete. He trained David to swim breaststroke for three hours. He swam breaststroke two miles across the bay in 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Next year, David had a new goal. “Freestyle,” he shouted.

Mountaineer W. H. Murray has a quote about commitment in his 1951 book “The Scottish Himalayan Expedition.”

“But when I said that nothing had been done I erred in one important matter. We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money—booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:  Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

Commitment. It’s the difference between setting a goal and achieving it. When David committed to the event, he couldn’t swim. When I started, I didn’t believe I could swim two miles in open water. I still told everyone I would.

Set a goal. Say it out loud and often. Follow through.

And fear the turtle.


Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.


Welcome back, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day

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Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014

On Mother’s Day last year, my mom was missing.

In January 2013, I’d gone home before the start of spring semester. My dad met me at the airport. Mom wasn’t with him. Odd.

Dad told me that I’d have to stay at a hotel. He would take me by the house first. On the ride, Dad tried to explain what had happened.

I got to the house. Dad opened the door and my mother shrieked and ran into the farthest corner.

“Don’t come in, Cheryl.”

Her face was gaunt and pale—a dull gray really. She had her arms pulled in tight. In her tiny, T-Rex hands, she clutched a disinfectant wipe and a white tissue. She literally wrung her hands, pleading with me to leave.

Mom was afraid. She thought she was carrying an infection, that she was toxic, a health hazard. She was trying to protect those she loved, as she had done for as long as I’d known her.

No one had an explanation for her altered state.

One night, I went to bed with my wife and I woke up with a different woman, Dad said. My wife was gone.

Around Christmas, Mom had been ill and an emergency room doctor prescribed a combination of antibiotics. Days into the medication, my mom said that she felt like she was going nuts.

No one listened. She followed the doctor’s orders and stayed on the meds.

My father is an engineer. He searched for answers on the Web and from a variety of doctors and specialists. He wanted to rule out physical causes.

I am a photographer. I took a visual, storytelling approach to my mom’s disappearance. Holistic. Metaphoric. Less literal. And a less practical or realistic approach, according to some.

Mom had a voice. She wasn’t being heard. In spinning “out of control,” my mom was actually in control.

She was losing weight, vanishing physically as well as mentally, before our eyes

My mother and father grew up on an island, a mile apart from one another. She followed my father throughout his military service, shelving her own career as a teacher to be an officer’s wife and mother of four.

It’s been years since either has traveled anywhere without the other. My dad was not going to leave my mother. He just wasn’t sure how to bring her back.

I told my dad that my mom was still in there. Her intellect. Her humor. Her powerful will. I told him that she was trying to find her way back. He wasn’t convinced. He was frustrated and frightened.

I thought of the ocean my mother loves so dearly.

It’s like we’re in the ocean, I told my mom on a subsequent visit. We’re treading water. I’m right here with you. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll tread water with you as long as it takes. And when you get tired, reach out your arm and I’ll hold onto you.

I looked into my mom’s eyes and made a promise. I will never leave you and I will not lie to you. Call me any time, Mom.

She called often—sometimes a dozen times in a row—and I listened to her frantic, fragmented sentences and thoughts. Sometimes I’d call and hear her former voice on the answering machine, chirping, light, happy. Have a good day. I missed that voice.

It was a long, terrifying journey for our family and for mom. It was staggering how quickly she’d left and how far she’d gone from us.

I flew home for a long weekend nearly every month. With each visit, mom and I would make a goal for the next visit. Next time I’d get to stay at the house.

Dad admitted he wasn’t a patient man and Mom’s relentless and often completely contradictory barrage of worries and pleas were wearing on him. Her deteriorating health weighed on him. His helplessness in the face of her suffering crushed him. His nerves were shredded, his emotions raw.

We didn’t always agree on what was happening or what was best for mom. I’d argue. Shout. He’d growl. Shout.

When Dad took me to the airport after one visit, he hugged me tightly. Never stop defending your mother, Cheryl. Count on it, Dad.

As the months passed, Mom made slow progress. We celebrated small events like the epic accomplishments they were. Mom started eating more. She left the house for short walks if Dad would follow in the car.

She fought her fears each day and through her sleepless nights.

I took her for a pedicure, a favorite ritual before she’d gone M.I.A. She wanted to bolt that day, but she stayed the course and left with painted toes. She deserved an Olympic medal for the strength she showed.

She tried on the new clothes we’d bought her. That July, she made it to their favorite restaurant for dinner. She nearly turned back several times. The owners had prepared a private table in a corner, far from other patrons. Not for romance but to assuage Mom’s fears of contaminating others. When they raised a glass that night, they had more than Dad’s birthday to celebrate.

One fall day in October 2013, my mom walked out of her bedroom.

I’m back, she announced. And she was. The cause of her departure remains a mystery.

In November 2013, I was walking the beach on the island where my parents grew up. Mom called. She was walking, too. In Texas. A time zone away from where I was and light years away from where she’d been.

“I love the sound of the leaves under my feet.”

Welcome back, Mom. My strong, brave, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.





Women: Celebrate your bodies and revel in your strength

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Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014

When I was a college student, I would often leave my apartment and go for a 12-mile run for fun, to unwind after a tough class or a long week. I would swim two hours nearly every evening, conjugating French verbs or writing a story in my head as ticked off laps like a metronome.

When I was younger, I would see middle-age women in loose T-shirts and running shoes, laboring under extra weight and shuffling along the sidewalk at a barely-more-than walking pace. In my youthful ignorance, I’d think ‘how did she let herself get like that?’

Now, I am that woman.

My first semester at Allegheny, a student mentioned my pregnancy. I wasn’t pregnant. It was a wonderful teaching moment in our journalism class. Get facts. Don’t make assumptions. And never ask a woman if she’s pregnant. As a professor, I handled the moment gracefully. As a human being, I was devastated.

Two years ago, I was preparing for my second embed with the 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team in southern Kandahar Province. I’d returned to do a story on the women soldiers of the Female Engagement Team for The Christian Science Monitor. I walked on daily patrols with 19-year-old soldiers. It was a point of pride to hold my spacing and keep pace with the young men and women, even though I felt my age and extra weight on those long marches.

By late March 2012, I was in a hospital bed in Kuwait, struck by some “fever of unknown origin” and a wicked infection that set up camp in my lungs so fast it was like a flood of refugees fleeing a war zone. The disease threatened to take my life. It didn’t win though it left me weak. The doctors warned my recovery would be slow and I needed take it easy.

I asked about yoga, running and swimming. Swimming? The doctor looked at me. No, he said. Walking. Only walking.

Surviving Afghanistan and its aftermath, I have a newfound appreciation for my lungs, my life and my body—the very body I disparaged as a young woman.

In college, I was lean with a mere 9 percent body fat. I was on the crew team and we usually worked out when the guys on the football team lifted. My friends on the offensive line would spot me when I bench pressed more than my body weight. They pushed me to make a record 13 pull-ups.

I was an accomplished college athlete and a Pac-10 champion. And I never felt strong enough, fast enough, pretty enough or good enough.

It hurts me to think about it now.

I have become the woman I mocked in my youth. I want to believe I’m also a wiser and more compassionate woman. I’ve learned that things happen that change our bodies and challenge our health: bearing children, bearing witness to suffering and death, battling diseases, exhausting ourselves banging on some glass ceiling or mirror.

This past year, four women dear to me were diagnosed with breast cancer. They’ve taken different paths to healing: surgeries, chemotherapy or a combination of interventions. Each one is finding her way back to health, into her body and into her life.

I want to find my way back to health and fitness, back to my body.

I called one of my friends who is recovering well. Let’s swim the Save the Bay this summer, I proposed. (It’s a two-mile swim in open water.) She accepted and she’s already started training for the July 16 event.

I may not have much muscle at the moment. I do have muscle memory. The athlete I’ve always been is still there; she’s simply out of practice—and yes, a bit overweight.

I know I have plenty going for me on my road to recovery. I still have the mental toughness that kept me upright on those Afghan patrols. I have the will that kept me rowing when I wanted to bail. I come from a long line of athletes, including my mother. She played college basketball and volleyball long before Title IX changed the rules and opportunities for women.

I hope young women—and all women who read this column—will not judge, as I once did, any woman who is doggedly pursuing her personal path to wellness. Especially, if that woman is you.

I encourage you to celebrate your bodies. Be grateful for your health.

Revel in your strength.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.



Fundamentals of journalism also apply to creating a good life

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Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014

In my first semester at Allegheny, I explained the fundamental tenets and practices of journalism. I stressed that fairness and accuracy in reporting, writing and photography are essential. Hitting the deadline is imperative. I told students that a misspelled name, a factual error or a late story or photograph would result in a zero.

I was clear that I’d been clear, yet students didn’t turn in their first assignments on time.

One student told me after class that his high school teacher had let him turn in his work late. He assured me that he’d been always been able to charm her into getting an extension. I told him that we weren’t in high school and I certainly wasn’t that teacher.

I was also told a number of times how other professors routinely give students extra time to complete their work. Again, that explanation has no bearing on our class. Journalism is deadline-driven.

I looked for ways to better communicate the importance of the rules I’d outlined.

I created a document that I now hand out the first week of class. We discuss the document and find examples of the principles. I ask the students to sign it to signify that they’ve read, understood and agree to the principles.

An Understanding: four crucial principles/actions to succeed in this class (and in life)

pay attention to details

A journalist notices details. Observation is a key skill. Accuracy is imperative. If you spell a name incorrectly or get a fact wrong, you will earn a zero for that assignment.

I ask the students if they’ve ever had their name misspelled in a newspaper article. Most have. I ask them how it made them feel. I tell them to remember that feeling.

follow instructions

Read assignments and directions completely and follow them. If you don’t, you will lose points.

This practice seems simple. And some directions are simple: put your name on your paper; double-space your copy.  In class, you lose points if you fail to follow instructions. In life, there are situations where you could miss an opportunity—to witness your friend’s wedding, to meet your mother at the airport. In some circumstances, if you fail to follow instructions, you risk your life.

show up

Physically, emotionally, mentally. Be present. Be on time. If you are late, your assignment is late; and, you will earn a zero for that assignment.

It’s human nature to get distracted, to sit in class and think about the last class or the next class. Or lunch. Or a fight with parents. Or the grade on an exam.

I remind students that if they’re going to come to class, it’s best to bring their energy and focus to the class, to put their minds and hearts in play. I tell the story of a couple I saw in a restaurant. The man talked on his cell phone throughout their entire meal. From first course through dessert, the woman ate in silence, alone, with the man right across from her. He was there but he didn’t show up.

hit your deadlines

If you have an appointment with a source for an interview, be on time. You garner and earn respect by being professional. If you have a story due, turn it in on time. If you don’t hit your deadline, you will earn a zero for that assignment.

If you miss your deadline in the news biz, you won’t have your work published. You won’t have a job for long, either.

I love the competiveness of a hitting a deadline. Sometimes I’m competing with myself. Sometimes I’m competing against fellow journalists. The first one to file gets the double-truck in Paris Match or the front-page photo in The New York Times.

At this very moment, I’m struggling to hit my 10 p.m. Tuesday deadline. I made choices that put me in this tight spot. I attended the opening of the Marcellus Shale Documentary Project in the gallery on campus from 8 to 9 p.m. I wanted to support my colleagues in the art department—and set an example for the students I’d encouraged to attend the opening.

In fact, I started this column to set an example for the student journalists in our classes and on the staff of The Campus, the college newspaper. It’s one thing to put words on paper and share them at the start of each semester. It’s another thing to put them into practice.

I believe it’s important to walk the talk.

At the end of the document, I invite the students to enjoy the class, the challenges and the collaboration with their fellow students.

I remind them to have some fun. And hit their deadlines.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.



I tip my sparkly tiara to the people of Meadville

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Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014

I conducted the first interview for my job at Allegheny College by cell phone from a hospital bed in Kuwait. Later, as I weighed the pluses and minuses of my job offers, I asked Sgt. Robert Taylor one question: why Allegheny?

Taylor is a 2005 graduate in economics and a member of the 2003 championship football team. As a journalist, I had walked in his footsteps many times on patrol in the Horn of Panjawai’i (cq) in Afghanistan in the winter of 2011-2012. I respect him. I trust him.

Excellence, Taylor said, smiling. Excellence.

I believe in excellence and in Taylor. I accepted the job and my new home sight unseen.

I am an Army brat, so I’m used to being the new kid. I am also a photojournalist who’s lived in different countries and cultures. I am resourceful and resilient. I know how to adapt. And still, my first year at Allegheny was frosty and lonely.

I don’t make resolutions as I start a new year. I’m a journalist and a traveler; I make observations—then course corrections, if necessary.

As I write this column, I have been watching a dove nestled in the slender shelter of the roof of the birdfeeder in my backyard as the snow swirls around it. I know well the blessing of quarter in a storm, the true gift of warmth and hospitality offered to a lone traveler.

As we begin a new year, I want to thank those people who made me feel welcome.

It is fitting that I first thank an innkeeper, Sherry Mims Vardaro, who owns Mayor Lord’s House Bed and Breakfast. I stayed at the bed and breakfast for one summer week in July while I searched for a place to live. Each day I would start with a list of possibilities. I made calls and visited apartments and houses for rent. Prospects were limited and grim. I’d return to the comfort of the inn and grumble, well, whine, some nights.

I called my friend in California. “Can you resign before you start,” she asked.

I called my parents.  “Ask if you can live in a room at the bed and breakfast,” my mom said.

Each morning at breakfast Sherry offered me hope with my oatmeal.

“You’ll find something,” she’d say.

On my last day in Meadville, a place found me. I thank my landlord, John. We didn’t meet before I left town. We spoke on the phone as the sun set. I outlined my requirements. He promised to make repairs. We agreed on the rent. A conversation, an understanding and an agreement, all wrapped in integrity and kindness.

I can walk to work from my home. I have a garden where I planted sunflowers and vegetables. I have a deck where I sit some nights and watch the stars. And I have a kitchen that’s divine—a perfect place for sharing conversations and pie.

My first semester, I woke up one morning blind in my left eye. I was sad and scared. I could not get a ride from campus to the clinic in Erie. John called his friend, Ellena, who designed my divine kitchen and owns E Rose Design in town. She’d never met me, yet she rescheduled her business appointments and took me to the doctor’s office. She was waiting for me with a hug when I returned with the news that I would need surgery on my shooting eye.

On my early days in Meadville, I discovered the Market House and its town square. I believe we vote with our money. I spend my money locally and support Meadville businesses.

Viki at the Creative Crust was friendly from the moment I set foot in her family’s bakery. She offered me ideas and contacts when I was house hunting. And I’ve carried their challah bread to friends on both coasts. It makes a fabulous French toast.

Viki has extended the same hospitality to Allegheny students. When a young woman in our photojournalism class needed a subject for her photo story, Vicki, Paul and their daughters gave Haley total access to the place and made her feel welcome. She, in turn, made a successful class project.

When my parents came to visit, I took them to the Market Grille; I call it “the diner.” Dad ordered chili. We went back to the diner every day for chili and I’ve been going ever since.

Cindy, the owner, and her staff have also been kind to Allegheny students. We’ve hosted guests such as Sheryl Stolberg, of The New York Times, Tom Flynn, of CBS, and alumna Judge Susan Cox for lunches and a taste of Meadville. Such gatherings give students a chance to break bread and learn from professionals in a friendly, informal setting.

As the adviser to the award-winning student newspaper, The Campus, I am grateful to Sherry, Viki and Cindy for offering the paper in their businesses each week. Sarah, at Confections of a Cake Lover, sets a stack of papers right next to the display case with all her festive, sumptuous cupcakes. Having local businesses support the students and their journalistic efforts helps build a bridge between the college and the community—something I care deeply about.

The journalists at The Meadville Tribune have been beyond generous with the journalism students. Pat Bywater, Mary Spicer, Dan Walk, Pete Chiodo, Richard Sayer, Lisa Byers and Konstantine Fekos have attended classes and participated in discussions. They have graciously allowed students to shadow them on their jobs. They’ve offered writing and photo tips in the newsroom and on the sidelines of Allegheny sports events.

They’ve shared their experience and time with students in news writing, photojournalism and beat reporting classes. They’ve shepherded quite a few to their first bylines in the local paper.

My neighbors make my house a neighborhood. We have shivered in the fall air as we waited for trick-or-treaters. They expressed their shock and sadness when strangers broke the flags I had planted along my yard to observe Veterans Day. Bob and John invited me to their August wedding and we sometimes share a bench in church. Tom and Jane keep an eye on the place. Maya always offers a shout and wave when she sees me as she plays across the street.

I was planning to spend my New Year’s Eve writing this column and grading finals. John sent me a text and invited me to join he and Ellena for dinner at the Venango Valley Inn.

As we celebrate 2013 and herald 2014, I’ll tip my sparkly tiara to the people of Meadville.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.



I believe the most precious gifts cannot be bought


Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2013

In our journalism classes, I encourage students to write thank-you notes. I tell them that it’s an invitation not an obligation; and, I offer incentive points to the students who thank others who have given generously of their time and expertise. Each semester, 10 to 20 percent of the students make the time and take the initiative to write personal thank-you notes.

My mom taught me to write thank-you notes as a child. She always made sure that we kept the tags from our Christmas and birthday presents so we could keep track of the people we would write. As a kid, I would sometimes grumble at the task. As an adult, I realize that it takes time to choose the stationery or card. It takes time to write a thoughtful, sincere note. It’s the time as much as the thought that counts.

‘Tis the season.

On TV. On the radio. On websites and highway billboards. In newspapers. Everywhere I look, advertisements are pushing, prodding and cajoling me to shop. Buy. Buy. Buy.

I believe the most precious gifts cannot be bought. The most valuable gift we can offer others—and ourselves—is time.

We tend to live as though life and the future are guaranteed. I’ll do it later. I’ll call her tomorrow. I’ll go home for Christmas next year. I’ll make that trip when I’ve lost more weight. Or saved more money.

Spending time as a journalist in conflict zones taught me to value life, even as I repeatedly risked my own. In Somalia, a sniper’s bullet missed me and ricocheted out of the bed of the truck transporting me. In Liberia and Somalia, child soldiers pointed guns at me more times than I can count; each time they chose not to pull the trigger. In Mozambique, our jeep hit an antipersonnel mine; it damaged the vehicle while we escaped unscathed.

And this time two years ago, I walked on daily patrols in southern Kandahar province in Afghanistan with soldiers in the 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team. I came home. Not all the soldiers did.

All the loss and near misses clarified for me what I would miss. The weddings. The graduations. The great loves. The heartbreaks. The road trips. The bumpy detours. I understand in my bones, to the core of my being, that my time on this Earth is a gift.

This season of giving, I encourage you to consider that the simple things are indeed priceless. Take your time and be present. Make time for your life and the people and beauty that share it with you.

Listen when someone talks to you. Not the kind of listening when you’re not truly paying attention, when you’ve already moved on to the next thing on your list of things to do. Or worse, you’re texting or typing while your friend or loved one shares a story, woe or concern with you. Listen with your ears, heart and spirit. Stop whatever else you’re doing and listen.

Offer to run an errand for a friend. Drive someone to the airport. Shovel the snow from your neighbor’s sidewalk. Read a book to a stranger in a hospital or assisted living facility. Babysit for friends who love their children and would also love some time alone with each other. Write a thank-you note to someone for an act of kindness or a gesture that altered the course of your life. Write a thank-you note to someone who has loved you, to anyone who has made a difference in your life.

For years as a journalist, I gave everything to my job. I worked 60, 70 hours a week. Ninety-hour weeks were not unheard of. I sacrificed my well being in service of a never-ending news cycle and a profession I adored and in which I excelled.

It took me years to learn to make time for myself. And I learned that lesson the hard way. It’s not selfish. It’s self-aware. It’s self-care.

You cannot give to others if you are depleted. You will have nothing to give.

Rest. Relax. Make time for prayer. Meditation. Coffee. Conversation. Make time to enjoy the beauty around you. Watch your breath in the cold night air under a twinkling-star sky. Make snow angels. Make a fire and watch the flames.

Have fun this holiday season—and every season. Your mind, body, spirit, your breath and your life are sacred.

Each moment is an invitation.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.


Do what terrifies you

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Outside the Box: a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

Do what terrifies you.

The words in the students’ PowerPoint slide flashed on the large screen at the front of the classroom.

In our news writing class, they were sharing their insights from a reading in  “Letters to a Young Journalist’ by Samuel G. Freedman. I had assigned a group of students to present on each of the book’s four sections: temperament, reporting, writing, career.

Freedman’s career advice: do what terrifies you.

“That’s my motto,” I said to myself, out loud. I consider it life advice.

It’s true. I launch myself in the direction of my fear. And I still fall prey to my fears.

For the next several minutes, students voiced their fears, and I realized that we share the same fears, big and small.

Fear of failure. Fear of what others think. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of rejection.

As a young girl, I was a strong swimmer and spent long summer hours at the pool. One day, I decided I wanted to go off the high diving board. I can’t recall why. Perhaps I wanted to impress my father. Or I wanted to be like the older kids leaping with flair and abandon off the springboard and plummeting 25 feet into the deep water below.

My dad granted his permission and exacted a promise: if you go up, you have to jump off. I agreed. No turning back.

I was giddy as I stood in line with the big kids to climb the ladder to the top. As I reached the top, I realized how high I’d climbed and suddenly I was scared.

I walked with trembling legs toward the end of the board, clutching the shiny rails until the midpoint on the plank. I didn’t want to let go and walk to the end. My dad was below, treading water, encouraging me to jump. I’d made a deal. I had to do it

I stood on the end of that board for an eternity. I looked back at the ladder. I wanted to turn back. I saw all the kids waiting in line at the base of the ladder. I saw the entire crowd watching me, waiting for me to jump. And my dad, still treading water.

For at least half an hour, I stood on the edge of that board, feeling it sway under my weight as I curled my toes over the end. I was stuck. I couldn’t break my promise to my dad, who was still treading water. And I was scared to jump.

I jumped.

When I surfaced, I swam to the side, climbed out and got in line to go again.

I discovered something that day: on the other side of fear is fun. Usually.

This past Tuesday in our “We’ve got the Beat” reporting class, a student stood to give a presentation on his job shadow experience over Thanksgiving break.

He had attempted since news writing class last spring to make a connection with people at a sports radio talk show in his hometown.

Earlier this semester, I asked how things were going this time. He had a contact. Someone in his neighborhood. He’d emailed her. Weeks had passed. No response.

Did you call her? No, he said.

Let’s call her now.

I don’t have her number.

Let’s look it up. What’s the name of the station?

One of his classmates looked up the number on her laptop.

I’ll do it later, he said.

We’ll do it now.

No really, I’ll do it later.

I dialed the phone number and handed my phone to him as his classmates watched.

During his presentation, he admitted that he’d been scared to make the phone call in class. Really scared.

In spite of his fear, he jumped.

He told us that he’d spent four hours at the radio station. He met plenty of people and made good connections. One person invited him to do a job shadow on the news side of the station over winter break. He accepted.

He said the experience had taught the importance of persistence. He also left the station with a better understanding of his interests—and himself. “Knowing who I am,” he said.

I learned at an early age, if something makes me nervous or fearful, there’s something in it for me.

Something to learn. Something to gain.

Do what terrifies you.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College. 

copyright 2013