Student Journalist Spotlight: Kelly Stroda, Incoming Editor-in-Chief, The Daily Kansan

As I wrote recently, one of my favorite college newspaper stories of the past year was a powerful four-part Daily Kansan report that tells the tales of three Kansas University students who lost a parent during their time in school.  It is, as the series headline states, a “tragedy in transition.”

As Kelly Stroda reported for the Kansan, one in 10 individuals deals with the death of mom or dad before turning 25.  And yet, as a prominent sociology professor is paraphrased telling Stroda, “[T]here is little research conducted on college students and the death of a parent.”

Stroda’s series begins filling this information gap.  She captures the students’ heartrending memories of the moment death entered their undergraduate experience, the emotional hole it has etched, and their baby steps toward healing.

As she writes in the introduction, “College students who lose a parent are affected emotionally, psychologically, physically, academically and financially.  At the very time they are about to launch independent lives, they lose the people they rely on most for direction.”

Kelly Stroda, who put together the four-part report, is The Daily Kansan's incoming editor-in-chief.

In a brief interview, Stroda, the Kansan‘s incoming editor-in-chief, outlines her reasons for writing the series and what she learned about life, death, and journalism along the way.

What drew you to this project?  What questions were you most interested in answering? 

The topic was one I’d been thinking about awhile.  One of my best friends is a few years older than me, and she tried to write the story when she was in school.  The story was more personal to her, however, because she lost her dad as a teenager.  She graduated before she could finish the story, so I’d been tossing around the idea of picking up the topic and writing it myself.  Then in January, Thomas Robinson, one of KU’s star basketball players, unexpectedly lost his mom.  After that, I realized how badly I wanted to do the story.  The story of his loss and the impact it had on his family was all over the media.  I realized, though, that there were plenty of other college students who have suffered the same loss.  So, in the end, I would say my piece was less about questions I wanted answered, but stories I thought deserved to be told.

How did you find students who had lost their parents while at KU?  And how open were they to having their stories told?

It wasn’t easy.  I mostly relied on Facebook and people who knew other people.  I joke that it’s a miracle I still have Facebook friends after the number of depressing statuses I had this semester looking for college students who lost a parent.  The students I spoke with were quite open to telling me their stories.  In fact, most said it was relieving to talk about their experiences.  Usually, they said they try to not talk about their loss because it might make others uncomfortable.  I was the opposite of that.

What surprised you most while reporting?

When I started, I had no idea how much research was out there.  Like I said, I mostly just wanted to tell the stories.  However, upon trying to find statistics and research for my piece, I was shocked at how little research has been done.  The loss of a parent is jolting no matter how old the child is.  There is plenty of research about both children younger than 18 and adults who lose their parents at traditional ages, but very little information about college students who lose a parent.

What did you learn from the students?

I learned that, sometimes, journalism can act as therapy for sources who have been in traumatic situations.  Sometimes, they haven’t had the chance to talk about their experiences because they don’t trust anyone to listen or don’t want to make others uncomfortable.  From the research I was able to find, many people who suffer the loss of a parent feel “silenced”– as if they can’t talk about their pain with anyone.  Seeing a source cry during an interview was a new experience for me as a journalist.  Heck, I even started tearing up during [one especially powerful] interview.  How could I not?

From your experience with this project and others, what are the keys to mounting longer-term investigative reports or feature pieces?

There are three keys to launching long-term or feature stories.  First, it’s imperative that you give yourself plenty of time to report and write the story.  Investigative and feature pieces take many interviews and lots of research.  It’s not a short-term gig.

Second, if you have the luxury to choose the subject you are writing about, make sure it’s something you want to write or learn about.  If that’s not the case, you may not enjoy it or learn as much from the experience.

Third, remember that your sources are more than sources– they are people.  They are people who deserve to be respected and listened to.  Sometimes, you may have to interview a source three, four or five times to get the story you want to tell.  That’s part of good journalism.

What’s the trick to organizing and writing the final reports after combing through all the background work and interview data?

This is definitely the tricky part.  Usually, I write down some sort of outline.  Nothing extravagant, but just a general direction of where I think the story can go.  In this case, I sort of had it easy because I divided the story into four parts.  However, earlier in the year, I wrote a profile piece about KU’s retiring university architect. That story was much more difficult to organize.  So, I think not letting yourself get overwhelmed is key.  First, just get what you want to say out.  Then, the pieces will come together and make sense.  Also, remember that editing is imperative.  Bad editing could ruin a potentially great story, so don’t be afraid to ask others for help. Separately, a note on combing through background work and interview data: Somehow note important things that strike you during interviews– dates, stories, quotes, etc.  You can always look back at those and then try to go in the direction you want to go.

On a personal level, did your work on the stories impact your relationship with your own parents?  An extra hug or phone call perhaps?

The story definitely makes me appreciate my parents more.  I’m already close with my parents, but I thought about them even more in reporting this story.  I do remember when I was writing the story itself, I would call my parents just to tell them how much I appreciated them.

Version of this Q&A also appears as my latest USA Today College “Campus Beat” post.

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