Alumni Profile- Joanna Richards ’01

 

Joanna Richards 2

Describe your path after leaving St. Francis. 

After St. Francis rescued me from a life of destructive delinquency, I went to Oberlin. Like St. F, it was a perfect place for a natural troublemaker to channel her rebellious energy in productive directions. The one I eventually stuck with was journalism (my first internship, at LEO, hooked me). Writing, learning, talking to people, and sticking it to authority on occasion are my enduring loves, and reporting gives me license to do those things.

I wrote features in Louisville, then became a daily news reporter for a small family-owned newspaper in Northern New York. I didn’t know what I was getting into, moving to an Army town in the middle of dairy farming country, but five years there solidified my reporting skills and introduced me to a very different slice of America than I had grown up with. Fort Drum’s soldiers were heavily deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and my work and my personal life became entangled with the preparations for and human impacts of war. I also fell in love with kayaking, swimming in Lake Ontario, getting stuck in the road behind flocks of wild turkeys, and bragging to my southern relatives about the mountains of snow and -45 wind chills I was surviving.

The area happened to have a great NPR station, and I eventually made the switch and learned radio by the seat of my pants. Last year, I came to Cleveland to report for the NPR affiliate, WCPN. I’ve gotten do some work for national shows like Morning Edition, Here and Now and Marketplace – and I hope to do a lot more!

Narratives like this always gloss over the tough spots and imperfections, so as a reporter I feel bound to include just a few: the job I have now is the first I’ve had in journalism that pays more per hour than my concurrent food service gig. Movin’ up! I’ve struggled a lot with depression over the years; it’s made building and keeping a career tough and sometimes shaky. Also, after college, I got fired from Heine Brothers. I’m a crap barista…I guess that’s why their coffee’s so good.

Looking back at your time at St. Francis, what stands out? Do you recall a specific teacher or friend that influenced you in some way?

St. Francis is a rare place where young minds are taken seriously, and likewise expected to reflect seriously on their own experiences, the stories of others, intellectual ideas, information, art – and the intersections and conflicts between all those things. The culture is at once genuinely challenging and deeply humane, which I think is the most fertile ground for all people – but especially young adults – to learn and grow. The two teachers who embodied that spirit for me are Cia White and Stu Cipinko. They’re two of the very best teachers I’ve ever had, and friends still.

How was your experience at St. Francis a factor in determining your career path?

Righteous fury fuels most reporters in one way or another, and I had an abundance of that as a teenager. St. Francis helped me channel that energy in a broader and more reflective way. It gave me a sense of the scale of things out in the world I’d like to know about, a glimpse I try to pry open a little more with each story I write. St. Francis also cultivated my identity as a writer, a constant learner, and lover of people – the fundamental traits of a journalist.

 

What advice would you give to St. Francis students and new alumni?

Live a rich, messy, risky life. Put yourself in as many uncomfortable situations as possible – ideally, for long enough that the discomfort fades. Talk to strangers everywhere. Make friends across all kinds of boundaries. Exposure makes you smarter and more interesting, and also gives you options.

Get into as little debt as possible. It limits your ability to make decisions for reasons other than money. Do you really need a graduate degree to do the kind of work you want to do?

Do internships and volunteer work and take on responsibility for things you’re totally unqualified to do. Then ask for help, and learn from useful criticism.

When considering a life or career path, find out what your day-to-day experiences will actually be like. Do you really want to live like that? You might love science in an abstract way, but are you the kind of person with the fortitude for repeating an experiment 8,000 times? Know what you’re getting into, and consider how you prefer to spend a good deal of your limited time on this planet.

As you narrow down potential paths, find people who live lives you might like and ask them in detail how they got there, and also what their complaints are. Gain a practical sense of how best to implement your ideals and your plans in the real world; take calculated risks and make intelligent compromises.

There are ways to make money and ways to enjoy yourself and ways to live out your values. Sometimes they overlap and sometimes they don’t. They don’t always need to. But you need all three.