A promise to keep on

11231036_10206439186115425_7479951697701760541_n-2 For so long, I wanted nothing more than to go to grad school for journalism in New York City.

I worked my butt off to perfect my applications so I would get accepted to Columbia, CUNY or NYU. I took my personal essays and rewrote them tons of times, each time filled with even more dread and anxiety.

And then I waited for several months, heart in my throat, for the response. I vacillated between certainty that I would get in and the absolute knowledge that I would be rejected from every single one of my dream schools.

Until the emails started coming in: CUNY, yes; NYU, yes; Columbia, yes.

I cried. My dreams were coming true. Within a few months, I accepted NYU's offer of admission, packed my belongings into a bunch of boxes and drove from South Carolina to New York City.

My dream was coming true.

And now I don't know how to go forward.

Because I don't know if I can do this, after all. I don't know how to be unafraid, how to go after a story like a hound dog and not care who gets in the way.

I'm terrified, every night, of failing. I'm filled with anxiety, wondering if this is really what I'm supposed to do with my life. Perhaps I'm better suited to a simpler life, a life with fewer hardships and less angst.

I got into journalism because I wanted to tell stories. OK, that's not exactly true. I got into journalism because I liked writing and wanted another avenue; and the more I learned about it, the more I got into it, the more I discovered the possibilities. Journalism offers a chance to tell people's stories when they can't do it themselves, to give hope sometimes and yes, to uncover injustice and lies and generally bad things.

The longer I spent studying journalism, the more passionate I became. My first "real-world" work experience was at the Sochi Winter Olympics, when I spent nine days putting together video packages with other students. As hard as that experience was, as many blisters as I got and as many late nights as I lived through, I would have stayed for weeks and weeks longer.

Then I did a summer internship, and that just set my passion into stone. I got to cover events and tell stories of incredible people and that's when I knew, that's when I knew for sure, that I was going to pursue this for the rest of my life.

And now I don't know. Now I'm living my dream and facing the prospect of that all coming to naught. Because what if my fear is going to keep me from doing this job? What if my instinct to believe people when they say what they're doing is good will actually keep me from being great at the job I've dreamed of for so many years?

What if I'm standing in my own way?

Maybe I should have just kept to creative writing. I shouldn't have gotten into such a demanding, high-pressure field.

Maybe this is why The New York Times keeps rejecting my internship applications: they sense, in the way that I can't, that I'm not suited for this career. They've seen through the facade and understand that I'm not going to add anything to their newsroom, because I have nothing to add.

I'm in the midst of an identity crisis. For the past four years, I've been a journalist. Sometimes a student journalist, sometimes an intern and sometimes a freelance journalist, but always a journalist. I don't know who I am if I'm not that anymore.

More importantly, I don't want to give it up. This is what I'm passionate about. I mean, I've dreamed of this for such a long time! I want nothing more than to be a successful journalist living in New York City.

I know the field is hard, and the city is hard, and the person I am today is too weak and untested to survive either.

But I'm not willing to give up my dream just yet. I'm not willing to let a few blows knock me out completely.

I will keep pursuing this career as long as I can, until I'm bloody on the ground and unable to get back up. I will fight to be Karis Rogerson, journalist extraordinaire. Nothing can keep me down.

This is my dream. I'm scared of continuing to pursue it, but for once in my life, I'm not going to let my fears keep me down.

When the story doesn't pan out, and the value of reader trust

The 89th annual feast of San Gennaro is currently taking place in Little Italy. As a pseudo-Italian myself, I knew I wanted to at the very least make an appearance. And because one of my grad school assignments involves weekly stories based off of New York City events, I decided to combine my two loves and write a story about the feast.

The entrance to the feast, on Mulberry Street.

So on Thursday after class, my friend Leann and I headed downtown and spent two hours wandering the streets of Little Italy, talking to vendors and residents and, in Leann's case, attracting the interest of all the eager Italian boys.

The sign welcoming visitors to the feast.

I spoke to 10 different people and gathered a hodgepodge of views on the festival as well as Little Italy itself. I thought it was going to be a great story, one that highlighted how gentrification had changed the culture of the once-tightknit community and even altered people's perceptions of the feast. There was just one problem: the residents and vendors who spoke negatively of the area refused to give me their names.

I guess they were scared. I get that. And in my eagerness to write the story, I forgot one important rule: we can only quote anonymous sources under mitigating circumstances.

So I wrote my story and sent it to my professor.

It didn't go over well. The story, it turned out, was a flop. Worse: there was no story, not without someone being willing to come forward and put their name to their words.

There's something terribly discouraging about realizing that you've failed in your reporting. Not that I think there was anything more I could have done — I bartered with my sources, but both refused to give full names, and nobody else seemed willing to speak disparagingly of the event. But it's still a disappointment to feel like you have a story at your fingertips and have to let it go.

But I understand why that's what had to happen. It's one of the basic rules of journalism: honesty and transparency. If I don't let my readers know where my facts are coming from, how can they trust that I'm not just making them up?

Earlier this week, I spent a long time researching Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter who was fired in 2003 for fabricating quotes and stories. What he did was wrong not just because he failed his employers, but because he failed his readers. He presented as truth something that was, in fact, falsehood.

As journalists, all we have is the perception that our word is good, that it's worth something. If we lose that, well ... we have nothing.

So as hard as it was to let go of my story, I knew I had to do it. Not just because my professor told me to (although of course I do like to follow my teachers' instructions, on account of them being smarter than me and all that), but because I don't want to start my journalism career on unstable ground.

I want to be the kind of journalist that people trust.

I want to be someone sources have no fear entrusting their names to, knowing that I have great respect for the privilege they are affording me and that I will do everything in my power to protect them.

But I also want to be someone readers believe in, someone whose words matter. I want to be the kind of reporter who is so honest and open about where my information comes from that, if I ever do have to hide a source, people will know it's for a good reason, and believe that what I say is truth.

As I've mentioned before, I'm incredibly passionate about the role of journalism in society. I honestly think it's one of those things that has to exist, because people need to be able to trust someone to tell them the truth no matter what. And I don't want to do anything to jeopardize having that future.

It's a bit of an ego-killer to not get a story published, especially after my first story turned out well. It feels like I'm slipping backwards instead of surging forward. But it made me realize I have to decide what I value more: getting published, or being trustworthy.

I think I'll choose the latter.

Exploring 9/11 as a journalist

I honestly didn't think I would make it. No joke.

I got to school on Thursday morning, as a 22-year-old graduate student, and hid in the bathroom crying because I was so petrified that I would fail my first assignment.

You see, the 13 other Reporting the Nation/New York students and I had to make our way down to ground zero on Friday and find a story relating to the 14th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that affected not only America but also the rest of the world in an irreparable way.

And as of Thursday morning, I had no idea what I was going to do.

So I didn't think I would make it. Every possible negative thought and emotion filled me and convinced me that I was going to fail out of grad school in less than a week. Grad school! That thing I've been dreaming of for the past year, that was supposed to send me on my way into a great journalistic career.

Yet by some miracle, I managed to drag myself out of bed yesterday  morning, throw on some clothes, and make my way downtown. I met up with some of my classmates at a Burger King near ground zero and we anxiously stared at the crowds of tourists and NYPD officers filling the sidewalk in front of us. Of all the days to work on our first assignment, I thought...

Sept. 11, 2001 literally changed the face of the earth. It was one of the biggest events in modern history. And 9/11 is not an anniversary I've ever felt compelled to take lightly. I was worried that the people I approached would think I was some sort of callous, opportunistic journalist trying to capitalize on a tragedy in order to publish a story. I had this fear that I would get yelled at in public and accused of being heartless.

What I really wanted to accomplish yesterday was paint a truthful picture of 9/11 today. I wanted to explore how the events from 14 years ago are still affecting modern-day Americans. I wondered, do we still treat the anniversary with the same sense of respect and horror that we did in 2002, or have 14 years been enough to help us forget?

IMG_0017Despite all my misgivings, I eventually left that Burger King and started approaching people. Century 21 had set up a mural on Church Street, just a few blocks from the memorial, where passersby were encouraged to leave messages in honor of lost ones (seen to the right). It provided an excellent way to meet people and talk to them about what 9/11 means to them.

Although I didn't have a story in mind when I started asking people to talk to me, I quickly found some similarities within the interviews. People expressed a sense of pride and patriotism toward their country as well as frustration with how the atmosphere on 9/11 has changed — a feeling that many have forgotten just what those numbers mean and have moved on with their lives to the point that the anniversary of the Twin Towers falling is just another day.

After a quick lunch with classmates, I went back to school and wrote my story. It shares the opinions of three annual visitors of the memorial on what 9/11 means and how the tragedy has made America stronger.

I don't think I'll ever say that yesterday was "fun." As far as stories I've told, it's not one that I enjoyed researching and writing. But, just as my sources believe 9/11 has made America stronger, I believe this experience made me a better writer and a more fearless reporter.

The bottom line is that it doesn't matter what other people think of me or what motives they ascribe to my work. All that matters is that I approach every article as an opportunity to tell someone's story and not an opportunity to advance my own career. I think if I ever reach the day that I care more about selling a story and attracting readers than I do helping someone find their voice, I'll know that I've failed.

I'm officially a graduate student

Well, I had my first class as a grad student this week! On Thursday I woke up bright and early and caught an 8 a.m. train downtown. And because I'm me, I checked my watch approximately 5,000 times on the way, terrified that I was going to be late. When the time came to transfer trains, I elbowed my way through the crowd, oblivious to who I was throwing out of my way, and jumped onto the "6" train just in time.

Taisha Henry took this creeper shot of the class.

To my great pleasure, the class, "First Amendment Law," is comprised entirely of fellow "Reporting the Nation/New York" students. It looks like it's shaping up to be a lively discussion-based class, which of course is super exciting. And don't let the name fool you; apparently, we'll be discussing journalism ethics as much as anything else. And don't let the picture fool you — we won't be having our computers open very often.

And again, because I'm me, when class ended I found myself disappointed that I don't class again until next Tuesday. This has been, by far, the strangest first week of classes I've ever had. It's been positively relaxing, and I'm not entirely sure how to handle that.

After class, a group (12 out of the 14) of us went out to lunch together. That's when I decided that this whole grad school thing is pretty grand. I mean, I get to spend all of my time focusing on the field I'm passionate about, and I get to do so alongside other people who share my interests. What's not to like?

Lunch was also when my happiness in having chosen NYU over CUNY and Columbia was solidified. There's something incredibly awesome about the — buzzword coming — community you get to form when you're a part of a small group of people working together a lot.

Of course I hope to make friends outside of my concentration and even my school. But that doesn't mean I'm mad about the fact that I have an essentially built-in group of people to hang out with and go through this crazy experience with.

And don't let this week fool you — the rest of my time at NYU will be far from relaxing, believe me. Once classes really get rolling, once I start working on my outside-of-class reporting assignments, once I have my first day of work, things will get a little more insane. And I'm anything but mad about that.

For now, though, I guess I can relax in this Labor Day weekend and wait for the madness to truly begin.

A tale of 24 hours in New York City

Holding the keys to my first apartment! We arrived at 10:30, driving through a tree-lined residential neighborhood to the building that is my new home. As I ran up the front steps to gather the keys, my mother prepared herself: it was photo-taking time. Obviously we took one with my new keys. I am so excited to be here.

Then we moved boxes from the car into my small bedroom. When I say small, I mean it's just about the perfect size for me. Just about.

After an hour of that, my parents and I boarded the "J" train from Jamaica Avenue and rode about 45 minutes into Manhattan — yeah, my neighborhood is pretty far from downtown. But the train ride is mostly elevated, and I've got a great view and some fun podcasts/books/news articles to entertain myself with, so I'm not worried.

We stopped by 20 Cooper Square, otherwise known as the home of NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, otherwise known as my home away from home. There, I interviewed with Prof. Mitchell Stephens to see if he would let me help him do research for a biography he's writing — I know, I thought it sounded perfect, too!

The interview lasted an hour, and the whole time I couldn't figure out how it was going. I can usually tell, can usually read people, but this job that I wanted so much was proving itself to be somewhat difficult. In the end, I was given a stack of papers and told to fact-check. I'm pretty excited, not gonna lie. Total nerd alert.

Nerd alert No, 2

And then I picked up my NYU ID card!

We had a delicious lunch at Katz's Delicatessen, which is an experience in itself. We walked into a large room filled with people where a brusque man handed us a pink ticket with the warning that if we lost it, we would be forced to pay a $50 fine. Yikes. Another man, who called my mother "baby," which totally threw me off, showed us to our table. I ordered a reuben sandwich and am planning on eating the second half for lunch today. Cause it was absolutely huge.

Afterwards, we rode home and spent the evening unpacking. We've made a ton or progress. All the boxes are empty and what remains to be done involves personalizing the place — curtains, shelves of knickknacks, and a bookshelf.

I was in bed by 9:15 p.m. I have definitely mastered the NYC party life ;)

I'm not going to lie; when I went to bed last night I was feeling incredibly unsure of myself. During the drive up, I sent this text to a friend:

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And while I knew that the second part was true, I was really feeling the first part. It didn't hit me until we drove into the city that I'm really doing this, this thing that I've dreamed about for three years. I'm moving to New York City. I'm going to grad school for journalism. I'm staking everything on the hope that this will work out and be my future.

The fear that I'm wrong is overwhelming. So going to bed last night, I was filled with unease and worry.

I woke up at peace and contented. I looked around my room and thought, "This is home." I went for a walk around the neighborhood, where I forgot for a second that I'm in New York and I smiled at a stranger.

He did not respond in kind. Lesson learned.

I also got lost, but refused to pull out my GPS and managed to make my way back home. In doing so, I've gained an understanding of the layout of this place, and I feel even more at home.

I honestly can't believe this is my life right now. And as scared as I am, I know that if I hadn't taken this step, I would regret it forever. I would spend every day wishing I were here, wishing I were stepping out into the blind and praying for God to catch me on the way down.

And yet I feel so okay. Because no matter what happens, God will catch me. I might live in this city for the rest of my life — I hope that's what happens. But I might not. Either way, it will be alright.

I've been in the city for 24 hours now. I can't wait for the thousands of hours to come.