Saying ¡Gracias! for an unforgettable year as a JSK affiliate

“¡Buenos días! Bienvenidos a la clase de español.”

A young, blonde woman named Alexis was greeting a classroom of groggy Stanford students — and me. How old is she? I wondered, suddenly self-conscious about my wrinkles and stray gray hairs. And yet once I got down to the business of trying to introduce myself to my fellow classmate en español, the weirdness of the age gap dissipated.

“Me llamo Ashley. Soy de Seattle. ¿Y tú?”

After class I explained to Alexis that I was hoping to audit the class. She smiled and said, “No problem.”

How did I manage to saunter into a class on the unbelievably beautiful Stanford campus, with its towering palm trees and carved sandstone edifices, and get to take part, even though my undergrad days are well in the rearview mirror? It’s all thanks to the John S. Knight journalism fellowship. My husband, Gabriel Spitzer, is a journalist for the public radio station KNKX in Seattle, as am I. He applied for the fellowship in late 2015 and then, one April morning last year, just a little after sunrise, he got the call.

I was walking to work downtown when my phone rang.

“I got it,” he said. His voice was a mix of excitement, amazement and a little trepidation. He was speaking quietly so our sons wouldn’t overhear — we hadn’t told them yet that this was a possibility.

“Wow,” I replied. “We’re going to California!”

Thankfully, our bosses at KNKX were encouraging even though finding temporary replacements for us meant a lot of upheaval for a small newsroom. And it’s not like they didn’t already have a lot to worry about. At the time, our station was fighting for its very survival.

In late 2015, the university that owned our station had struck a secret deal to sell it to our larger public radio rival. Unless we were able to successfully fundraise $7 million to match the bid and convert our station into a non-profit, community-licensed entity, we’d all lose our jobs and it would cease to exist. We were a little over halfway toward our fundraising goal when Gabe got news that he’d been chosen for the Knight fellowship.

Thankfully, by the time we put our stuff in storage, loaded up our minivan and hit the road southward in early August, the station had successfully raised the money to become independent. We knew we’d have jobs to return to after our Stanford adventure.

And what an adventure it’s been.

We worried about yanking our kids out of their Seattle comfort zone, forcing them to switch schools and make new friends. But after their first day of school at Escondido Elementary, a public school next to Stanford, they bubbled with excitement.

“We get THREE recesses!”

“They don’t have halls here!” (In true California style, all the classrooms face a grassy courtyard.)

Ezra (8) and Oliver (6) getting to school the California way

You could pick ripe figs off the tree outside my older son’s classroom. The student-teacher ratios were better than in Seattle and the school drew students from around the world because so many Stanford grad students and professors send their kids there. Our kids made friends from Israel, Japan, Chile and Germany.

And it was “back to school” time for us, too. How fun to stroll the aisles of the Stanford bookstore, figuring out which classes to take. How delightful to sit next to one of Stanford’s many fountains and watch the students whiz by on motor-powered skateboards. (Kids! Wear a helmet!)

The JSK fellowship brings together 18 people from the world of journalism to work on new approaches to help the news business in what are, without a doubt, challenging times. This year people have tackled everything from exploring new business models for newspapers to creating startups focused on regional reporting to helping newsrooms collaborate.

JSK fellows get to immerse themselves in Stanford. So do their spouses and partners, which still seems like an amazing gift even now as the year wraps up.

So not only did I spend an hour every morning in an intensive Spanish course, I also got the chance to think about issues I’ve long wanted to understand. For example, why, more than half a century after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision are our schools so segregated? I took an entire law school class addressing that topic. And I got to learn from a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist how to analyze data to produce more in-depth stories and create graphics to illustrate those findings.

Entonces, estoy muy agradecida por esta oportunidad y quería decir muchas gracias.

Thank you to the JSK program staff and board for this chance to step out of the daily grind to learn, reflect, and soak up the California sun (even if this was the year that non-stop rain flooded San Jose neighborhoods and threatened to break a dam).

Visiting elephant seals at Año Nuevo

Thank you to our bosses and colleagues at KNKX for giving us this chance to step away and the security of being able to come back, hopefully with even more fire in our bellies to uncover stories that aren’t being told.

Thank you to John S. Knight, the newspaper baron from Ohio who cared deeply about the journalism on which he based his empire. He had the guts to say early on that the Vietnam War was wrong, and he won a Pulitzer for his editorials challenging the Johnson administration’s Vietnam policy. He wasn’t cowed by authority. “Get the truth and print it,” he’d say. Simple words, but an important reminder at a time when journalists who draw the ire of the president get blasted by him on Twitter.

And finally, thank you to Gabe for being such a thoughtful person and talented journalist that you were selected for the fellowship. You made this happen.

Es un año que nunca olvidaré.