The Weekly Wednesday: An Unexpected Passion

Originally published Sept. 16, 2015 on

I was unsure if I should be eager or anxious, but I definitely knew I was overwhelmed by his words and intimidated by the passion coming from the journalism adviser at Decatur High School.

It was in the lobby of the Atlanta Marriott Marquis during the NSPA/JEA 2004 Fall Convention where Jon Reese introduced himself to me. “We could be doing so much more with GSPA,” he told me, then listed off numerous things that would make GSPA more beneficial to students and advisers. “GSPA can be a premier organization for the high school press.”

I had been in my position for barely a month, already having been thrust into “hosting” NSPA, a national convention with roughly 5,000 high school journalists and teachers in attendance. I knew GSPA had already been through numerous directors in its recent history — I was the fourth in six years. Admittedly, I anticipated my tenure to be short as well — get my master’s degree within three years, then get back in the professional world writing for a publication somewhere in the Midwest. At 28 and with a newly born baby, GSPA was the de facto “reset” button for my professional career.

But then I kept talking to Jon Reese. And then to Debbie Smelley of Starr’s Mill High School. And Coni Grebel of Lee County High School. And Kristy Cates of Lowndes High School. And Brian Holt of Effingham High School. And Sonya Boyd of Shaw High School. And David Ragsdale of Clarke Central High School. And Cal Powell of First Presbyterian School. And Elisha Boggs of Chestatee High School. And these people — who at one point were on or are still on the GSPA Advisory Board — changed my career.

The passion each of them had for high school journalism and more importantly, journalism students is contagious. I caught the disease. They came to me with idea after idea on things GSPA could be doing better, and for the most part we implemented them. Because after multiple conversations with members of the board, I recognized that not only were they full of good ideas, but they were willing to step up and help institute the ideas they espoused. From hosting student workshops, creating and developing an adviser training seminar, teaching multiple sessions at conferences, and mentoring new teachers, these individuals served as the core of GSPA over the past decade … without getting any of the credit (or pay).

Almost immediately, I embodied their passion for high school journalism. My 3-year plan became a 5-year plan, then 10-year plan, and then a life plan. While knowing I had a tremendous backbone of support at the state level, I merged my academic goals with my new professional passion and began to conduct statewide and national research on scholastic journalism, presenting my results at national academic conferences. I began to critique papers for publications in various states around the country. I became involved in SIPA to reach young journalists in the Southeast. And back home, we continuously reshaped GSPA’s offerings, continuously taking feedback from not just the board, but all advisers who offered input.

After 11 years, I figured this was my lot in life. And I was OK with that. Family-wise we are settled in Athens. And professionally, as my passion for fostering journalism among high school students continued, I developed another passion — teaching college students. As my position evolved at Grady to a faculty role, I had the best of both worlds. But then an opportunity came to me that I just couldn’t turn down — the chance to teach at the collegiate level full time. Starting Jan. 1, 2016, I will be an assistant professor of mass communications at Piedmont College, splitting my time on both their Demorest and Athens campuses while advising the college newspaper.

It’s a new chapter in my life, as well as for GSPA. It’s a chance for the organization to get a new perspective, and continue to grow the organization into one of the most respected scholastic press associations in the country. And I’m confident that whoever takes over GSPA — despite his or her initial motives — will develop the same passion and care for high school journalism that I did. Jon Reese — and every other teacher who is part of GSPA — will make sure of it.

Author: Joe Dennis

Journalist. Teacher. Announcer. Coach.

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