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Former columnists reminisce about ‘voice’ - The Grand Island Independent: Local News

Friday, September 4, 2015

NEXT VOICE: 9 YEARS LATER Former columnists reminisce about ‘voice’

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Liz Stinson graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a degree in journalism before embarking on a series of post-graduate internships at the Lincoln Journal Star, Omaha World-Herald, Paste magazine, Variety and Wired before working with the editorial director at Condé Nast. She lives in Brooklyn and is a staff writer for Wired Design and freelance writer for other publications.

Laura (Kjar) McQuinn teaches senior English at Grand Island Senior High. She also takes graduate classes. She played softball at Peru State College, where she met her husband.

James Pfeifer graduated from Creighton University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, followed by three years of working in psychiatry research at the Medical University of South Carolina. He coordinates clinical trials at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Omaha. He is married and “enjoying a life blissfully devoid of children for the time being.” He is worried about the impending cold after living 15 minutes from the beach in Charleston. “While it is great to be home, I’m terrified of having to deal with winter again.”

Betsey (Stehlik) Heidrick earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in advertising. She’s a social media planner with HIP Advertising, “a funky little creative firm” in Springfield, Ill., where she lives with her husband, Matt — a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Springfield — and two shelter dogs.

Zac Brokenrope teaches eighth-grade English at a charter school in Boston, where he graduated from Boston University. He still writes but only “passive-aggressive notes to my roommates.”

Sarah Kuta is a reporter for a family of daily newspapers in Boulder, Colo. She graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University in June 2012. She lives in Arvada, a northwest suburb of Denver, where her newfound hobbies are refinishing furniture, thrifting and growing tomatoes … more if she had a bigger patio.

Betsy Lewis admits to “changing my major six times in my first semester of college.” She settled on communication disorders and earned her bachelor of science in education from the University of Nebraska at Kearney in December 2012. She plans to get her master of speech pathology in December 2014. Since high school, she became a sister-in-law twice and an aunt for the first time in March. She plans to vacation in Scotland next summer.

Garrett Coble is a junior at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., where he’s a linebacker on the Majors football team and opinion editor for the school paper, the Purple and White. He’s a member of the English Honorary and Sigma Tau Delta and reports that he has “come to enjoy the Southern culture and speed of life but not the accent.”

Nicole Greenwalt is working on a dual matriculation in English and speech pathology with minors in women’s and gender studies and teaching at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Although a senior, she has plenty of graduate work ahead of her … much to her liking. “I plan to never be done with my schooling.” She hopes someday to work with children or veterans at a hospital and write on the side. “Perhaps there is a book in my future.”

Sarah Mirza is a junior at the University of Georgia in Athens majoring in Spanish and human geography. She’s considering graduate school geography or law school to become an immigration lawyer. Her most memorable post-column experiences include “cheering on my Dawgs between the hedges with the Redcoat Band and finding a purpose in fighting for justice with UGA’s Undocumented Student Alliance and Austin, Texas’ Workers Defense Project.”

Kyra Sallans graduated early from Lincoln Southeast and enrolled a semester early at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She transferred to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln this semester, hoping to land a spot in the university’s filmmaking program. She plans to study abroad in the spring while she’s waiting to hear from the College of Performing Arts about film school.

Olivia Exstrum is a freshman at Northwestern University in Chicago this fall, where she will attend the Medill School of Journalism. She will focus on international and political journalism, hoping someday “to write for a large newspaper, such as the New York Times.”

John Noble is at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, studying politics, rhetoric, Spanish, “and/or whatever strikes my fancy next week.” He hopes to get involved with the activist community in Des Moines and work with “political advocacy groups long into the future.”

Posted: Saturday, September 21, 2013 10:30 pm

Nine years ago, The Independent wondered what was on the minds of teenagers.

So the paper asked.

It asked not what was on the minds of high school students but rather if a couple of them would just tell us ... and the world ... their stories.

A decade later, we, and they, are still at it: The Independent and two high school students to whom we give a voice every September.

Abbey Kutlas and Hannah Niemeier (more on them in my column) are the 10th iteration of The Independent’s Next Voice columnists. They will bring you their worlds every Monday morning for a year.

The 13 young writers who filed weekly Next Voice columns before Abbey and Hannah are now flung across the face of the country, from Boulder to Boston to Chicago to Jackson, Miss., and back home again.

They are a successful bunch, too.

Aside from six undergrads and one graduate student, the group comprises two journalists, a social media planner, a couple teachers and a researcher.

They are armed, too, with the hopes and dreams of the young and, as regular readers of the Next Voice column know, the intellect to make them happen.

None of us knew when we hired Liz Stinson and Laura Kjar in 2004 that what we then called the IYKWIM page column would become the popular weekly piece that it is today. (That’s “If you know what I mean” in textspeak.)

While the page eventually became Next Voice, the paper has been more than a little skittish with the column’s name: From “Life With Liz and Laura” to “Life With Liz and Laura Starring James and Betsey” to “From B to Z” to “Sarah and Zac (and then Betsy and Garrett and Nicole and Garrett) in Real Life” to the current generic “Youth Voice.”

‘Real deadlines’

While readers — youth and adult — have enjoyed the columns, the process has proven valuable for the writers, too.

“I remember sitting in front of the computer at my parents’ house ... staring at a blank page in Microsoft Word,” Stinson said. “It was always so hard to get the first words down, and even now, as a ‘professional’ journalist, I still find the process pretty painful at times. The column was my first brush with real deadlines, which ended up being good training for my future career.”

As they do with professional columnists, reader reactions ran the gamut for the baker’s dozen.

For teenagers, the results of such feedback can be critical.

“As an already emotional, unstable, often self-doubting, hormone-raging teenager, this can be terrifying,” James Pfeifer said. “Hearing just one person’s reaction can be the reinforcement you need.”

None of which shied them from sticky wickets.

Olivia Extrum tackled the subject of abortion in two columns this year. The response was swift and passionate on both sides, as she knew was coming.

“Although it was definitely scary at first, it showed me the importance of standing my ground in the face of controversy,” she said. “That is one of the most important things that journalism has taught me, and it is something that holds true in other areas of life as well.”

When Nicole Greenwalt felt stymied at school over the rejection of a piece in the school paper on homosexual students, she broached the subject in her Next Voice column.

“The response was incredible. There were letters to the editor about my column, and teachers and students wrote to the administration. Our principal and I had a pretty heated talk in his office that next morning, but eventually the article was published,” she said.

For Kjar, the entire year was a journey of getting out of her comfort zone.

“Writing a column for the newspaper made me feel exposed but not in a scary way,” she said. “I have always been a quiet, reserved person, and this experience allowed me to share my thoughts and experiences with what felt like everyone at the time. It sometimes was a little nerve-wracking.”

Garrett Coble, the only columnist to write for three years, recounted getting a service patch in the mail from a Vietnam veteran after a Memorial Day column. “That meant more to me than words can really describe,” he said.

Storytellers all

Writing the Next Voice column smoothed a few miles of road along a bumpy stretch in a couple lives.

Zac Brokenrope recalled such comfort.

“At the time, I was an awkward gay teenager living in rural Nebraska. To say that I was lonely would have been an understatement. Yet, for some reason, writing for The Independent made it all seem better. I guess it’s a true testament to the power of storytelling. Even when you don’t know if anyone’s listening at all, sometimes it just feels good to put yourself out there, to let your words enter the world and hope that somewhere, maybe someone is listening to you, and you’re a little less alone in the universe.”

Having a voice cushioned some harsh realities for Betsy Lewis, too.

“The column was a great way for me to document my busy senior year, while also providing me with an outlet for dealing with difficult situations, such as my grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s and her death,” she said.

Their audience has staying power, too.

Betsey (Stehlik) Heidrick, who once filed her column on “the greasy keyboard of a Norwegian cruise ship’s Internet cafe,” said adults will still come up to her when she visits her parents to tell her they enjoyed her column.

Journalist Sarah Kuta sees her former columnist gig with a wide lens.

“Reading back through my old columns is like looking at a scrapbook, a home movie and reading an old diary all at once. I can hear me talking, but it’s not really me at all anymore. Who would’ve thought all those times Mom said I’d feel differently when I’m older, she was right?” Kuta said. “I still work in journalism, and I guess I have that column to thank for that. ... I still love to write, and I love my job as a storyteller.”

Which, in the end, is really how we know what’s up with kids today, how we gauge their paths and measure their passions, how we size up their hopes and fears and admire and mark their dreams.

We listen to the voices of their storytellers.

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