Over the last several months I’ve gotten pretty good at what I think of as my personal elevator speech. Usually it consists of me saying how I’ve moved back home after leaving a job working for the Air Force in Ohio, the other person saying that sounds really cool, me explaining that it wasn’t for me and providing little to no detail, then saying that I’m applying for jobs and grad school so we’ll see how it goes.
Outside of family and close friends, I assumed that most people were not interested in the long form of this story and would probably be confused as to how and why I had gotten to where I was at. For those reasons, and because maybe I figured I would rather repeat a 2 minute story a few times a day rather than a 20 minute one, I kept it vague.
However, maybe I was just trying to avoid the stress of thinking too much about what the hell I was doing.
So, now that I do know what the next step is in the crazy journey I set off on last October I wanted to share, with details this time, how someone who graduated less than two years ago with a degree in aerospace engineering decides to go to graduate school to study sports journalism.
This June, I’ll be enrolling in a Masters of Sports Journalism program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. This is the story of how that happened.
Although I certainly didn’t think of it as “journalism” at the time, sports media was something I first got involved with almost a decade ago. My high school had a club that did radio-style broadcasts of school sporting events that were broadcast on the school website. Over my four years of high school I had the chance to do play-by-play commentary of football, basketball, and hockey games. I even got a chance my junior year to call a state playoff game on local AM radio. I never knew how many people were listening (probably not very many) but this was something I loved to do and was one of my favorite things I was involved with in high school.
While I briefly considered the idea of applying to colleges with sports broadcasting degree programs, I decided that this wasn’t a career path worth pursuing. Looking back it’s hard to say what my exact reasons for making this decision at the time were, but I have some idea. Engineering was something that I thought made a lot of sense. Math had always been my favorite subject in school and I was good at it. I was a strong science student as well and though engineering was something I’d be good at. And hey, being a rocket scientist sounded really awesome so why not? As a kid the two companies/organizations I wanted to work for were ESPN and NASA so I think I was split on this from a pretty young age. I also viewed sports media as an incredibly competitive industry that would require incredible dedication and hard work as well as a bit of luck. I don’t think that assessment is wrong, I just think I gave up too easily.
I think knowing what I knew at the time that I was making what I believed was the best decision. However, I also think I was overly concerned with what I thought made sense, what I should do rather than maybe what I most wanted to do, as well as with what I assumed other people thought I should do.
So I applied to several aerospace engineering programs and ended up deciding to attend the University of Notre Dame.
Now, I do not regret for one second choosing to go to Notre Dame. I had a phenomenal four years there, made lifelong friends, learned a lot (as much outside the classroom as in it, which I think is how college is supposed to work), and grew as a person.
However, if I was supposedly so committed to the idea of being a rocket scientist and working for NASA maybe I should have gone somewhere else. I had the opportunity to go to schools with much “better” engineering programs than Notre Dame, and in hindsight from a purely career perspective maybe that would have been the better path. The thing was, from the moment I first stepped on the campus as a high school student I loved Notre Dame. I had been a fan of Notre Dame football for a long time so it definitely had an allure to it. In the handful of times I was able to visit it always just felt like home, like where I was supposed to be. Again, I can’t stress enough that I think I made the right choice.
I’m someone who has struggled a lot with the living in the past, regretting decisions, and really having to work hard to live in the moment, but I can confidently say I’m glad I went to Notre Dame.
I could have gotten involved with similar broadcasting opportunities at Notre Dame to what I had done in high school, but I think I was trying to firmly stick to my decision to pursue engineering and might have been afraid of what would happen if I got involved with broadcasting again and really liked it. I was literally afraid of doing something I knew I loved because I was afraid of the prospect of wanting to change majors, of maybe having to stay an extra year, and of all the stress and uncertainty that might bring. I also convinced myself that as an engineering student I didn’t have the time. So I stuck to the path I was on.
At some point in college I said to either my parents or a few friends that I wished I could turn my passion for sports or music into a career, it’s too bad I wasn’t better at either of those things.
Looking back now, that was an incredibly stupid thing to say. I already knew I way I could have turned my passion for sports into a career despite my mediocre athleticism yet I was willfully ignoring it. I can’t explain why, but maybe I just needed to figure that out for myself.
Senior year, finding a job for after graduation was really hard. I had done research on campus the previous summer rather than having an internship, which made things difficult, and honestly didn’t really know what I was doing. No one had ever shown me how this process worked. I just assumed filling out endless applications on the websites of all the big aerospace companies and waiting/hoping for the best was all you could do. The engineering school, the aerospace department in particular, didn’t give us much help or instruction on finding jobs and the University’s Career Center wasn’t all that knowledgeable about engineering in general (the Mendoza School of Business rules Notre Dame, part 872). Now, I have friends who were much better at engineering than me who worked incredibly hard and are now doing amazing things either at amazing companies or top-level graduate programs and I have enormous respect for them.
Through a connection via a friend of mine (how I later realized a lot of people get jobs) I got a job with the Air Force as a civilian working at a facility at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio called the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, or NASIC for short.
To be fair, the name does sound pretty awesome. At a general and, more importantly, unclassified level basically what they do is try to determine the air and space capabilities of current or potential adversaries and supply the armed forces with this information in order to know what they’re up against and prepare personnel accordingly.
“So, you’re gonna be a spy?” was a question I got a lot the summer in between graduation and starting work. Not really, but if people wanted to think my job was cooler than it actually was I was happy to let them think that.
Suffice to say this job wasn’t for me.
First I had to wait for a temporary security clearance that would allow me to do my job while the full investigation was completed. I was told this would probably take between three and five months. In the meantime I spent a lot of time reading, watching the 2016 Summer Olympics, or just shooting the shit with the other roughly 15 occupants of a room both affectionately and officially (according to the sign on the door) known as the “Bull Pen,” a sort of NASIC purgatory where people were in various stages of waiting for clearance. Most of my friends from my time at NASIC I met in that room. Anyway, about five months in I was informed that my temporary clearance had been denied and that I would have to wait for my full clearance in order to do my job. That could take another several months at least; I believe at the time the hope was it would be by April.
They don’t tell you why a clearance is denied. Based on crowdsourcing from friends in the building regarding the background of other people who similar things had happened to, it was either because I had previously sought counseling for anxiety, knew a lot of foreigners, had traveled a bunch, my dad has business contacts in China, or a combination of these. Whatever the reason was, I now had a bunch of time on my hands. My supervisors and a former colleague of theirs who was now working on the other side of the Base at the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) as a research professor came up with an arrangement in which I could go work on research at AFIT that would both be beneficial to NASIC and help prepare me for my future work while I waited for my security clearance. Eager to get out the Bull Pen, particularly as most of my friends had received clearance and moved on, I was excited about the opportunity.
The excitement only lasted so long. I worked in a research laboratory environment both in college and at AFIT and let’s just say it’s not my ideal workplace. There’s a lot of quiet, and a lot of time your own. Furthermore, the subject matter I was researching was not something I was particularly interested in and so work became something that very much felt like a chore.
April came and went with no end in sight to the mystery of my security clearance.
It was around this time that I seriously started thinking about the future and what I wanted to be doing.
The previous fall I had started to think about trying to get involved in sports broadcasting again. I thought it could be a fun thing to do on the side (like high school) so I started searching around. I emailed the Dayton Dragons, a A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, who were willing to talk to me about doing play-by-play for their games. The problem was I had no recordings of prior experience to submit as a sort of resume. This was when I first realized that if I ever really wanted to get into broadcasting I may need to go back to school. I ended up helping out a local TV station who did broadcasts of high school football. I wasn’t able to do commentary on air, but I helped with camera, production, and even did a couple pre-game on-camera interviews. What I think I got most out of this was the feeling I got being in that environment, being around a broadcast. It brought back the memories of calling games in high school and how much I had loved doing that.
Nothing was changing with the job and to be honest, I was pretty miserable at work. At this point I was starting to think about leaving but decided I had to at least wait for my security clearance so I could see what the job I was actually hired to do would be like.
Another piece of the puzzle was Dayton itself. The adjustment to living alone in a new city was hard. I liked having my own apartment and a place to myself, but it was difficult coming home from a job every day that was very quiet and solitary to a quiet, solitary apartment. One thing that did make the transition easier was a good friend of mine, Dom, who had gone to the University of Dayton was still living in town and would be there until the following May. Through him I met some incredible people who became great friends and through who I got more involved in Dayton itself through things like rec sports and service organizations. It wasn’t that I didn’t have friends in Dayton, I think there just wasn’t quite enough going on for me. As someone who grew up outside the third biggest city in the country, moving to a town of a little over 100,000 is an adjustment. There is also a certain dynamic that comes with Dayton being a military town: everyone is married by 25, even people who aren’t active duty. The result of this is that there aren’t enough young people looking for things to go out and do in order to drive much of a social scene. I like to think I did everything I could to get involved in the city, and I think I could have grown to like Dayton more and made it work, but it just wasn’t for me.
On a positive note, I think the year I spent living in Dayton was incredibly valuable for me in terms of personal growth. Living on your own is something I would strongly encourage everyone to do at some point in their 20s (if financially and situationally viable). I got much more comfortable with my own company, became more accountable for taking caring of my living space, found cooking to be a great stress reliever and something I loved doing, and had a lot of time to think things out as I was deciding what I wanted to do. It was with all that time that I decided to start this blog. As much as living in Dayton may not have been ideal, I think it was an important experience, and maybe necessary to put me in a position to really think about what I wanted out of a career and what was important to me.
I thought about other friends of mine and their personal situations. I realized that (almost) everyone had at least one of three things:
- A job they loved
- Living in a place they loved
- A strong relationship that could help them get through struggles with 1 or 2
I didn’t have any of those things. Maybe I’m exaggerating how good everyone else comparatively had it (the older you get the more you realize everyone’s got “stuff”) but I couldn’t think of anyone else I knew who was in a situation quite like mine.
On one of my drives from Dayton to Chicago (I don’t remember exactly what I was coming home for, it was sometime in the summer) I came to the conclusion that I would be happier living at home, working for the family business, and broadcasting my high school’s football games on Friday nights. It was this sort of epiphany moment, accompanied by a beautiful sunset as I drove down back roads in western Indiana after terrible traffic had forced me to take a detour, when I fully accepted that I needed to make a change. Which is kind of fitting when I now find myself on a sort of life detour.
Finally, in September, over a year after I had arrived in Ohio, my security clearance came through. There was a two week period where I was splitting time between finishing work at AFIT and getting acclimated to my new surroundings at NASIC. At the end of these two weeks I was scheduled to make a final presentation on the work I had been doing at AFIT. A few days before that I had decided that would be my last work in Dayton. My “new” job would have involved, mostly, sitting in a cubicle staring at a computer screen trying to take raw data and turn it into something meaningful. The building doesn’t have any windows (for security I guess, which I never understood because the NSA building looks like this) and the office spaces are often minimally lit. It was dark and quiet, and somehow it felt even more isolating than the bright, spacious lab I had worked in at AFIT. I had only been there a few days but I had my answer. I had “seen behind the curtain” and didn’t like what I saw. After my final presentation, I informed my supervisors that I would be leaving. The following Friday would be my final day.
Over the next week everything happened very fast. I went about telling my friends, trying to make sure I saw everyone before I left. I would be moving the following weekend as well because it worked well for my dad to come help me get all of my stuff home. That week flew by and the next thing I knew I was back home in Chicago.
It was really bewildering. I had just quit my job and didn’t know what I would be doing next. This is probably a good time to thank my parents for their generosity, their patience, and their encouragement during this whole process. I had a lot of friends tell me that they didn’t think their parents would have been ok with them quitting a job without something else already lined up. I’ll admit it was certainly a big risk, but I’m fortunate that it wasn’t a risk I was taking alone.
So now what? Over the next several weeks I completed applications for grad school, to Northwestern as well as a handful of other schools. I was terribly stressed about those applications, giving that I didn’t have any journalism background to speak of, was submitting blog posts from this site as writing samples, and had references who included a physics professor and a priest. I also applied to a handful of aerospace engineering jobs and got in touch with an engineering headhunter.
Then came a lot of waiting. I knew then and am certainly confident now that leaving my job in Dayton was the right choice, despite all of the uncertainty at the time.
When I first visited Northwestern I was blown away. The masters program for the Medill School is located in a high-rise building on Wacker Drive in downtown Chicago, overlooking the Chicago River and Lake Michigan with beautiful panoramic views of the city. I had the chance to meet students and professors, and quickly could see myself being there. When I had applied, I had been told I was guaranteed to hear back in February so I had put it out of my mind. Thus, I was incredibly surprised when I got a call on December 23rd from someone at Northwestern informing me I had been admitted to the program. It was a surreal moment and an early Christmas present.
A few weeks ago I got back from what would be my final visit to a school (a big thank you to everyone who took the time to meet with me at Arizona State) and figured it was time to make a decision. By this time I had decided I would definitely be going to grad school. On the engineering job search side of things, not only had things not gone as well in terms of job offers but it became apparent that the type of job I would have really wanted would have again required moving to a new city where I didn’t know anyone, and although Dayton had given me some practice at that and I knew it was something I could do, I decided it wasn’t something I wanted to do right now.
On the grad school side of things, this was certainly a reason Northwestern was attractive from the beginning. Not only is it a well-regarded journalism school but it’s in Chicago, and as I enter this very new chapter of my life I think it will be extremely beneficial to be surrounded by people and places I know so well.
I made the final decision to pick Northwestern after a couple of follow up meetings with Northwestern’s program director and a current student who I’d been in touch with (thank you to J.A. Adande and Darren Zaslau for their time and insight) which made me confident that this was the right decision.
I’ll be starting school in June and am incredibly excited for this new adventure and opportunity. Thank you again to my family, friends (here, Dayton, and scattered across the country), and everyone who has offered their support as I’ve been working to figure things out over the past several months.
This means I’ll be in Chicago until (at least) June of 2019. I don’t know what comes next after that but if I’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s that you have to take life one step at a time. I can’t wait to take this next step.