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The Science of Listening: Women Leaders Alumni Panel

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Image of four female alums of the University of Massachusetts, and text reading: Women Leaders Alumni Panel, Hosted by the Massachusetts Daily Collegian

This fall the The Massachusetts Daily Collegian, our student-run campus newspaper, hosted a virtual career panel featuring a diverse group of women leaders. All of them were alumni, who shared invaluable gems about their experiences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and in their careers in communications. 

Lessons from UMass Amherst

Dr. Allana Da Garca ’99 graduated with a bachelor's degree with individual concentration (BDIC) in creative communication. She is now the president and founder of Turning On the Lights Global Institute, where she is helping clients expand their brands and tell their stories. Her time at The Collegian instilled discipline in her. During the panel, she said that she really values showing up and taking initiative with her projects. 

Lisa Creamer ’14 is the digital managing editor at the WBUR news station in Boston. She knew she wanted to be a journalist from the age of 10, after creating a “burn it all down zine” to release some preteen angst. Later in life, this affinity manifested itself as a desire to want to hold people in power accountable for their actions. The Collegian taught her that college journalists are “real journalists.” During her time there, Creamer took it upon herself to do a “real public good.” 

“My best friends to this day are the weird collection of strangers that happened to be interested in running a newspaper in a dirty basement. To this day, when I have ethical problems or want to just talk something through when I can’t quite figure out what the angle of the story should be, I still call them,” she said.

Afnan Nehela ’18 works as a communications director—and the first hijabi staffer—for the office of state senator Jamie Eldridge. Without being fully aware at the time, she realized in retrospect how much The Collegian taught her about the science of listening. In college, she would listen to her interviewees and relay their stories to the newspaper’s audience. Now, Nehela listens to constituents and advocates in order to relay their stories to lawmakers. Although the variables have changed, the equation of effective listening is a process she still applies to her everyday life. 

Jamie Loo ’03 has transitioned careers from newspapers to public relations, but her story began as a journalism major and student journalist at UMass Amherst. From 1999 to about 2002, Loo considers The Collegian to have been a “boys’ club.” She says that with very few women of color at the time, some editors had misogynistic tendencies. So when she pushed for more diverse initiatives, she claims she was immediately branded an enemy, not invited back into The Collegian family until later, when she became friends with editors in her journalism classes. 

During her senior year, Loo was hired as an Opinion & Editorial editor. She knew that she was walking into a hostile environment, but that’s where she learned her most important lesson: “You are responsible for the energy that you bring to a room. You are responsible for your own energy. You can’t control what other people are doing or what they think about you. You can only control the energy you bring to a room—just being true to yourself and controlling how you react to things.” 

The alums mentioned Razvan Sibii and Nicholas McBride as professors in the journalism department that really supported their initiatives, and encouraged them to explore the field. 

Journalism Advice 

Of advice for up and coming journalists, Creamer would want every young journalist to know that they are “smart but not so smart”, and then to create mechanisms throughout their lives that will enable them to make smart decisions. This means building and maintaining connections with experts, and taking the time now in college to understand essential systems in government, and in business. 

Loo’s best interview tip is to make interviewees feel comfortable. In a post-COVID world, that could mean sitting down with them to chat at their kitchen table or asking, “What’s your favorite thing in this office?” 

It’s good to pay attention to where the interviewee shows the most emotion, Nehela noted, and to ask questions that build off of that. 

Life Advice

Journalism jobs and communication careers can often feel all-consuming. Creamer recommends to recognize when burnout is coming, and to have a support system for when those dull days come. She herself finds relief in just “complaining on the phone with friends.” Sometimes however, it may be worthwhile to look into other resources and forms of therapy, because journalists often get second-hand exposure to traumatic stories. Creamer would advise everyone to just be wary of when life starts to become too overwhelming, and to set oneself up for success by taking meaningful breaks when needed. 

“It’s a responsibility thing,” she says. “You can’t let it get to the point where you no longer care about the thing that you do.”

Creamer also relayed an important perspective that often gets lost in the shuffle: “You have a job to be able to pay for things outside of your job.” 

My Takeaway

I loved being able to virtually attend an event like this, especially in the middle of an online semester. It’s easy to get caught up in submitting Moodle assignments before 11:59, but it’s so interesting to think about the larger implications of what I might want to do in life. As a communication and journalism student at UMass Amherst, I don’t just want to be working for a grade. I want to do a real public good, and I want to let passion be the driving force for the initiatives that I take. The insights from this panel inspired me to think beyond my laptop screen about the possibilities of my degree, and the alumni network at UMass that will be here when I graduate.


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