Hop off the Hamster Wheel. Apply for a Knight-Wallace Fellowship

Delece Smith-Barrow, senior editor at The Hechinger Report, encourages journalists to apply. U.S. applications are due Feb. 1, 2019.

Find time to dig deeper, pilot a project or learn new skills. 2017 Knight-Wallace Fellows Laurent Richard (left) and Delece Smith-Barrow (right) at a multimedia workshop.

Over the course of three years in my previous job, I figured out how many stories I could publish before feeling like I was on a hamster wheel with no break in sight. It was 280, give or take a dozen.

As a busy education reporter for a magazine, I covered graduate school admissions, employment options after graduate school, and the challenges of being an underrepresented minority pursuing a JD, MD and other competitive degree programs. I filed each Tuesday and Thursday, and some Fridays. In between reporting and writing, I typically edited two or three stories per week.

About a third of the stories from that period in my career I’m proud of, a third I can’t remember, and a third make me slightly embarrassed that I wrote them.

I love writing about how people learn, what barriers prevent people from learning, and whether certain classes and degrees can really transform people from poor to prosperous. But around 2015 I realized that deadline pressure, the dreaded hamster wheel, was hindering me from pursuing and executing ambitious, thoughtful stories. I’d heard of the Knight-Wallace Fellowships for Journalists at the University of Michigan, and I started to think it might hold the key to what I was missing most in my career — time.

What I craved most was a few more hours in the day to research stories in the education world that were not being told. I wanted a little time to figure out the bigger stories I was missing. I needed to develop new sources, understand diversity and inclusion strategies, talk to students and faculty about how things were working — and not working — on campuses.

Becoming a Knight-Wallace Fellow in September 2016 allowed me to do all that and more. I was suddenly given my longest deadline yet — eight months. I was able to build a study plan around understanding diversity and inclusion efforts at the faculty level in higher education. I spoke with university administrators, professors and students about how top-tier research universities recruit and retain faculty of color. In a graduate education course, I read case studies about how universities start or strengthen pipelines that propel students into the professoriate. I went out to lunch with professors to learn about what pressures they were under to complete compelling research while also educating students at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. In addition to studying the programs and protocols at University of Michigan, I did comparative research into the tenure processes at schools in Ohio, California and Missouri.

On the eve of the 2016 presidential election, Knight-Wallace Fellows attend Barack Obama’s final campaign speech for candidate Hillary Clinton. From left to right: Amy Maestas, Jin Kim, Delece Smith-Barrow and Sonya Green

And as much time as I spent on my research, I still made plenty of time for acquiring new skills, living and enjoying my life. I took multi-media workshops, practiced yoga, played racket ball and took leisurely strolls through the farmer’s market across the street from my apartment. When Barack Obama came to Ann Arbor to campaign for Hillary Clinton on the eve of the 2016 election, I attended his speech with my fellow Fellows from Korea, Colorado and Washington. I attended stimulating university lectures, including a discussion with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Susanne Baer of the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany. I watched 2 Chainz and Lil Yachty in concert in Michigan’s football stadium, took classes in hip hop and Caribbean history and hung out with my landlord, a sharp, black professor of sociology who gave me insight into university life beyond what I could learn from any class or hour long interview.

As a black journalist from D.C. who grew up in a thriving region surrounded by black mayors, doctors, accountants, teachers and other professionals, I worried that Ann Arbor wouldn’t be diverse enough for me. I thought its small-town feel and subway-less transportation system would make me feel trapped and bored. I was pleasantly surprised that the smallness of Ann Arbor — a compact but very global and stimulating community — allowed me to immerse myself in a variety of rich cultures and activities. In Ann Arbor, I even had time to explore other aspects of my own immigrant and African American culture, things that I never had time or opportunity to explore in the hustle-bustle of my life in D.C.

When my fellowship year came to an end in May of 2017, I left Ann Arbor grudgingly. My eight months there had been one of the most expansive, enriching periods in my life. But I left brimming with story ideas and memories that continue to warm my spirit on D.C.’s coldest nights. I think about how fortunate I was to spend hours in a classroom absorbing, learning and thinking. I think about the friendships I built with fellow Fellows from the U.S. to the U.K. and beyond, and how their friendship and camaraderie keep me going on rough days. I wish I had a chance to do it all again. For now I am content to nudge other journalists out of their own ruts to apply.

Ready to hop off your hamster wheel and aim for something higher? Now is the time to apply for a Knight-Wallace Fellowship.

Delece Smith-Barrow is a senior editor at The Hechinger Report. As a 2017 Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan, she studied how top-tier universities recruit faculty of color.