Student Journalist Spotlight: Alexandra Churchill, University of New Hampshire

Alexandra Churchill loves ballet, summertime camping trips, espresso shots, James Dean, and the smell of old books.  The junior j-student at the University of New Hampshire has been in the book publishing business for almost her entire two-decade existence.

“I heard once that Stephen King used to sell his fiction stories to classmates in grade school and even started turning a profit,” she said. “And I used to do something akin to that. When I was three years old, I was dictating to my mother stories about bears. At five, I was writing and illustrating my own stories on spare printer paper, stapling them into ‘books’ and distributing multiple copies to family members and friends.  So storytelling is second nature to me, in whatever form that is: journalism, fiction, creative nonfiction.”

Alexandra Churchill splashes around in Trafalgar Square Fountain while in London.

Among the gigs the UNH junior has held that have helped nurture this second nature: staff writer for The New Hampshire student newspaper; editor of Main Street Magazine, a general interest student mag; editor of Aegis literary journal; and founding editor of the non-fiction journal Sandpaper.  She sleeps during semester breaks.

Her journalism work in particular has taken her to a plethora of memorable spots– from J.D. Salinger’s house in Cornish, N.H., to the top of a fire truck ladder.

For her storytelling ability and reporting acumen, Churchill earns a rightful spot in the CMM Student Journalist Spotlight.  Below, she discusses her journalism love affair, her trip to Salinger’s house, and her reporting on a high-profile student suicide.

Write a six-word memoir of your student journalism experience so far.

There’s always a story to tell.

How did you fall in love with journalism?

The funny thing is I never intended to be a journalist.  Growing up, I was shy and soft-spoken, but that changed in college when I decided to take a chance and declared English/Journalism.  I realize now, it was the greatest decision I could have made in my life.

In just two years I’ve done ride-alongs with police officers and firemen, driven to the house of an iconic American writer, climbed 50 feet up the ladder of a fire truck, and attended an aerial dance show!  I’ve done and seen things I never would have otherwise had it not been for journalism.

I think that a love for journalism, for me, came out of an insatiable curiosity for life as well as a genuine empathy for people.  I think that as a journalist, it’s important to connect to the people you are writing about.

So how did you end up at Salinger’s house?

Who wouldn’t want to stalk down their favorite author? I read The Catcher in the Rye religiously as a teenager and as a native-born New Hampshirite, I had heard rumors of the reclusive author, J.D. Salinger, living deep in the woods up north.

In the winter of 2010, after his widely publicized death, I determined once and for all to find his house.  In my research, I found that the literary world had always been fascinated by the private, unpublished life of Mr. Salinger, which prompted the title, “Stalking Salinger: An American Pastime.”

So I loaded into my ’97 Jeep Cherokee and headed roughly 100 miles north to Cornish, N.H., along the border of Vermont into the woods to find a writer I’d admired for so many years of my life.  It was basically four hours of driving around in the snow looking for no trespasser signs, a strong indicator of the Salinger house.

I didn’t ask the locals for directions, because it was a well-known fact that they would point journalists and nosy fans in the wrong direction to protect their neighbor. They’ve done it for decades.  When I did eventually come across the house I was sure to be the Salinger residence (given the signs and descriptions set forth by a former writer who alleged to find his house ten years prior), I sat motionless at the wheel of my car, unable to get out and approach the door.

I realized in that moment, I didn’t want to be yet another journalist intruding upon this man’s life, so I left.  Mr. Salinger’s privacy was his most prized possession and to this day, I don’t regret the decision.

Describe your reporting on the student suicide.

A big headline for The New Hampshire last fall was our controversial coverage of a student suicide.  When junior Christy Nichols committed suicide on campus, it shocked the university community.  When we got a hold of the story as a newspaper, our staff questioned whether to even run it.  I think my editors handled the story as they thought best at the time, but there was a huge backlash of complaints from our readership and a lot of people thought the coverage was too strong.

At the time, I was focused on other assignments.  I wrote a feature on local resources offered to students in distress, to help students like Christy, who felt alone and helpless. The feature was received well and my editors approached me about writing a follow-up to the initial news coverage.

So a week or so later, I attended the candlelight vigil arranged to memorialize and honor Christy.  Outside her old dorm hall, several people clustered: her friends, roommates, dormmates, and university officials, all heads bent in reverent silence and cupping hands over votive candles circled around a framed portrait of Christy.  I was so moved by the vigil, I started to cry myself. I never had the opportunity to know Christy, yet in interviewing her roommates and friends, I came to know her intimately and inevitably, feel the grief of her loss.

I am not unfamiliar with the tragedy of suicide.  Four years ago in June of 2007, my close cousin, a former Marine, committed suicide. It was a traumatic event and I carry his death with me, as I’m sure Christy’s friends and family will always carry hers.  I think it was my own experience having lost a loved one to suicide that allowed me to empathize with Christy’s roommates, my interviewees. In journalism, and hard news particularly, there is an emphasis on the objective, but I believe reporters inescapably become a part of the story they write.  I carry the impact of every news assignment with me, and Christy’s smiling face is something I’ve carried with me every day.

What are the challenges of reporting upon student deaths?  Any advice for j-students on how to handle these types of stories?

It can be an immense challenge to cover a student death.  In my short time as a reporter, I’ve covered three alumni deaths: a frat brother who died of leukemia, a girl who committed suicide, and a ROTC alum Army Lieutenant killed in combat one month into his deployment to Afghanistan.  I don’t know how typical that figure is, but to me, even one alum death is too much.

There isn’t any story more delicate than covering a student death and I don’t think there is a more humbling assignment a student journalist can receive. In talking to friends and family of the deceased, you learn about that person. Listen with an empathetic heart. They are giving you their best friend, their daughter, their brother, their loved one.  And as a journalist assigned to uncover the impact they had on everyone’s lives, you determine their lasting impression on the world.

My advice to student journalists given this type of assignment: Be open, honest, empathetic, respectful, and cooperative. Your people skills are tested more in this type of assignment than any other.

You wake up in ten years.  Where are you and what are you doing?

I would like to think that in ten years I will have fulfilled my lifelong dream of publishing a novel.  Beyond that: anything is possible. I want to do some globe-trekking, maybe work abroad as a foreign correspondent or in New York or Boston as an editor with a publishing house, or as a journalist for a magazine.  We’ll see where this literary life takes me.

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