Journalism Fellowship Can Be a Crossroads or a Launch Pad

By Joe Grimm
Aisha Sultan interviews an eighth grade student at Unis Middle School in Dearborn, Mich. Joe Grmm photo

Journalism fellowships are rare and special. To the rest of us, they might look like nine months off work, but to the fellows, they can be a time of intense work to recalibrate or recommit one’s career.

Aisha Sultan, home and family editor and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, recently completed the Knight-Wallace Fellows Program at the University of Michigan and is re-entering daily journalism prominently.

Aisha SultanShe applied to the program to study how the digital age is affecting children and families.

On May 25, CNN.com published an op-ed piece headlined ” ‘Facebook parenting’ is destroying our children’s privacy,” which Sultan co-authored with Jon Miller, director of the Longitudinal Study of American Youth at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.

The Knight-Wallace program gave Sultan an opportunity to bring her passion for journalism about families and children and plug into Miller’s study, which has been ongoing since 1987. She was able to write with Miller and suggest questions for the study.

The study’s 4,000 participants are now 37 to 40 years old, and some have children in middle or high school — the age the participants were when they joined the study.

In the CNN piece, Sultan and Miller wrote, “The message from parents, as witnessed from behavior, is clear. Children grow up learning that posting pictures of one’s self and sharing personal information is typical. We’ve created a sense of normality about a world where what’s private is public. The sense of being entitled to privacy has been devalued.

“And our children will never have known a world without this sort of exposure. What does a worldview lacking an expectation of privacy mean for the rest of society?”

Here’s a CNN interview with Sultan about the study.

Sultan will be pouring much of what she learned during this once-in-a-lifetime year into stories, columns and conferences. She has emerged with a renewed commitment to her beat.

She said a fellowship “is a treat because it gives you chance to rethink possibilities of what you’re capable of and reimagine your potential.”

She said the fellowship and her work with Miller’s study have confirmed that social media mean childhood has become “a new way to grow up.” That clarity and the evidence behind it is a fresh wind in her sails.

Sultan’s year as a Knight-Wallace fellow was marked by the death at age 93 of Mike Wallace, the newsman and University of Michigan graduate who donated more than $1 million to the program and the Arts and Crafts house where it resides.

Sultan said not many minority journalists apply for fellowships and encourages more to do so. Given the way news is changing, she said, journalists must reinvent themselves, and a fellowship can be a way to do that.

There are three major journalism fellowships:

Knight-Wallace Fellows at the University of Michigan

The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard

John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford

Joe Grimm, a consultant and adjunct faculty member of the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute, recruited for the Detroit Free Press, Knight Ridder and Gannett from 1990 until 2008. He now teaches at the Michigan State University School of Journalism. He has run the JobsPage journalism careers site at www.jobspage.com since 1996. Questions about careers? E-mail Joe for an answer.

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