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Committed to community: WCU grad wins national journalism award

Sara Stanley graduated from Western Carolina University in May. Donated photo Sara Stanley graduated from Western Carolina University in May. Donated photo

Focused on cleaning up her inbox, Sara Stanley, a May graduate from Western Carolina University’s journalism program, was about to delete the email from the Society of Professional Journalists when she noticed her name in the preview.

She opened it and found out she’d won SPJ’s Julie Galvan Outstanding Graduate in Journalism Award.

“It sort of hit me like a ton of bricks,” she said. 

The national award is given to only one journalism program graduate each year based on character, community service, scholarship, proficiency in practical journalism and contribution to their SPJ chapter. Katerina Spasovska, an associate professor at WCU in journalism and the advisor for the school’s SPJ chapter, said that she’d never submitted a Julie Galvan nomination before. But Stanley fit the description so perfectly that Spasovska decided to send in her name. 

“If we consider journalists being the historians of the community and keeping community together, she embodies that,” Spasovska said. “She loves journalism, but that goes beyond just journalism. She loves being part of something.”

Stanley, 22, said that she’s always valued the news and the importance of selecting accurate and ethical outlets to get it from. As a teenager, she was inspired by the reporters who worked through breaking news and storm reports on television. She thought she might do something like that someday. 

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“At the start of college, I was really thinking in sort of quote-unquote cookie cutter terms,” Stanley said. “I’m going to be a journalist, I’m going to report on breaking news, I’m going to be on TV. Boom.”

But early in her college career, Stanley got involved in print journalism with WCU’s student newspaper The Western Carolinian. She started as a staff writer, moved up to junior editor and served as editor-in-chief her senior year. 

Amid those increasing responsibilities, a global pandemic happened. Stanley was in her sophomore year when campus closed down and students were sent away to finish the semester from home. Instead of assigning her students to cover on-campus issues, Spasovska asked them to look for stories in their home communities — or wherever they happened to be during COVID — that could somehow relate to students. Stanley decided to write about mental health in elementary children, as well as food insecurity and free lunches during the pandemic. 

These issues fascinated her, and she could sense their importance. When she came back to campus, she and a classmate, Patrick Clemons, approached Spasovska about doing an independent study class focused on data journalism — specifically on food insecurity. 

Carolina Public Press had already done a lot of reporting on the topic, so the students used data from that outlet. But Stanley also wanted information from Feeding America, the country’s largest charity dedicated to ending hunger. 

“She requested the data. She requested the parsing of the data. I was impressed with how she negotiated with Feeding America on getting that information and using that information for her storytelling,” Spasovska said. 

Next, the students had to find sources, people with stories who could put a human face to the issue. That was hard to do — because people facing hunger are often hesitant to speak publicly about their experiences, because a raging pandemic complicated contact-making, and because student journalists frequently have a hard time getting off-campus sources to take them seriously. 

But for Stanley, the human element was indispensable. 

“I think during COVID we missed the personal connections with people, so I’ve tried to always add a human connection to a story,” she said. “They’re not just numbers. It’s not just an issue. There are real people that are affected. I always like to try to find as many people as possible that are willing to speak with me to add a human connection to the story.”

Ultimately, she found a homeless woman surviving on food stamps who was willing to talk with her — albeit anonymously — through a phone borrowed from Circles of Jackson County. 

Stanley and Clemons each turned out an in-depth story as a result of the project, with Stanley also producing a feature on Home Base, a collaboration between WCU and Baptist Children’s Homes that aims to help students with limited family support succeed in college. In addition to the story, she turned in a successful fundraising effort, organizing a bake sale that raised $600 for the program. 

“I was really proud of her in her commitment and her drive,” said Spasovska. “I don’t see that every day in students.”

When Stanley started looking toward her senior year as the Western Carolinian’s editor-in-chief, she saw another monumental task before her. 

“The two years prior was during COVID, so we were working remotely. We didn’t have a printed newspaper,” she said. “There was lack of cohesion within the writers and the team, so when I came in, in 2021 as editor-in-chief, my main goal was to create a team and to bring back the printed version of the newspaper.”

She spent all summer building the team and redesigning the print paper, dedicating her senior year to getting the paper stable, back on its feet and into the community. 

“Her work and commitment, and with that the frustration, of getting The Carolinian back on track and getting it published, wanting to preserve that history of the university, I admired her,” Spasovska said. “She didn’t really have much support from the administration, but she made it through, and she put a lot of effort and energy in it.”

Stanley’s proud of what she accomplished during her time at Western, and grateful for the award recognizing its importance. She said the award served as a “push” toward realizing her post-graduation dreams. Right now, she’s working at a winery in her hometown of Hamptonville while also taking on freelancing work: content creation, web design and articles for the local paper, specifically relating to food insecurity, schools and the elderly population. Her goals have shifted from her freshman year dream of becoming a breaking news TV reporter — now, Stanley wants to use her reporting skills to tell stories that focus on her love of food, cooking and togetherness. 

“I realized, maybe I want to seek out stories that will never be on mainstream news television,” she said. “Maybe I want to work with local newspapers to highlight amazing individuals that may never see the limelight, tell stories that may not be big enough to the entire state or the entire world, but may mean so, so much to a smaller community.” 

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