In My Job Story, we share job stories from people in various fields. What led them to their current job? What can we learn from them in our job search and career?
For today's post, I spoke with Tara Cuslidge-Staiano. Tara is Associate Professor of Mass Communication/Journalism and adviser for The Delta Collegian newspaper at San Joaquin Delta College. Tara is in her first semester as Associate Professor.
High Demand, Low Supply: How would you describe your job?
Tara Cuslide-Staiano: As an educator, I lecture on relevant topics in mass communication. I constantly have to keep up with trends. My lectures often dramatically change tenor when something happens in the world and I feel it is critical to address it. The beauty of my job is that mass communication is so dynamic. I have a lot more flexibility than some disciplines. The advising part of my job is less straightforward. I coordinate ad sales. I supervise paper planning. There are lots of moving pieces. I also manage a staff of very different personalities and propel them to work together every two weeks to put out a newspaper. Students tend of hate group projects, but a newspaper is the ultimate group project. We spend up to 30 hours putting the newspaper together during production weeks, so it’s very much not like some teaching positions.
HDLS: What is a typical day like for you?
Tara: A typical day has me getting in my office about 7:45 in the morning. If it’s a Monday, Wednesday or Friday, I’m finishing lecture prep and printing out my roll sheets. I have three one-hour lectures in a row those days. After lecture, I come back and open up my news lab. Right now I have newspaper and multimedia students coming in to work on the computers and finish stories or projects. I’m on campus until 3 p.m. During production weeks, I’m usually working with student editors for the first chunk of Tuesday, reviewing stories and asking questions. After class officially ends at 11 a.m., I supervise lab time. We order pizza during those Tuesday lab days because my editors and I usually can’t get away from the lab. I’m answering questions every few minutes. I have days where I never sit in my office chair at all. If it sounds like I’m complaining, I’m not. My students keep me on my toes constantly.
HDLS: What are the best parts of your job?
Tara: The students' success. It’s amazing to see my students grow as journalists in the course of two, three or four semesters. Many of them come to me and have never taken a journalism class before. They start out as timid. They question themselves. By the time they’ve been on the staff for a few semesters, they are confident and are often leaders among their peers. It’s awesome to see the progression. It’s even more awesome when they come back to visit after transferring out. Even if they don’t become journalists, it’s nice to see them as active, responsible members of their communities. The best part ever? When a student comes back and thanks me for supporting them. A few months back I got an email from a former student who just wanted to ask how I was and offer thanks for believing in her. She said she didn’t think she’d be where she was without my constant support, including serving as a reference for her on many occasions. There was a time when I didn’t think I’d be any good at teaching? Turns out I may be better at this than I was at daily journalism.
HDLS: How did you get this current job?
Tara: Kismet, really. I went to school to get my master’s degree in journalism not because I wanted to teach, but because I wanted to learn multimedia. At the time, that wasn’t being taught at my undergraduate university. I worked as a professional journalist for nearly a decade, starting as a freelancer for The Record when I was 18 and in high school. I came back to Stockton after graduate school and worked as a multimedia reporter, then Online Editor at The Record. In 2009, I was invited to attend a media event at San Joaquin Delta College. Will Story, the radio/television instructor, told me that the then newspaper adviser would likely be retiring in the next year. When the position became available, I applied thinking I would get to teach an introductory mass communication class. I was surprised when I was offered the newspaper advising position. I accepted it part-time and kept working at The Record for two and a half years, until January 2013. I kept my part-time position and added freelancing, then had a baby in April 2014. The position became full-time for this school year.
HDLS: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Tara: I always thought I’d be a nurse. I really, really wanted to be a nurse. But I have a horrible fear of needles and blood. I used to pass out whenever I had blood taken. So I figured that wouldn’t bode well for a medical career. I always loved asking questions and hearing other people’s opinions. And I love writing. I probably love writing more than I love any other aspect of my work. I took a journalism course at Webster Middle School in Stockton because my sister was in yearbook. I didn’t want to be in her class. When I was in middle school, I attended a high school journalism convention in Seattle. There I saw the Stagg Line from Stagg High School win Best of Show in its category. That basically solidified to me that I needed to take journalism courses at Stagg. I did, for four years. My senior year I was co-editor in chief of the newspaper. I was also Northern California High School Journalist of the Year and one of four runners-up for National High School Journalist of the Year. So I guess I’ve wanted to be a journalist since I was 12.
HDLS: What was your first job?
Tara: Freelancer for The Record. My senior year of high school I wrote stories for the now discontinued YouthInk page. I had an assignment, or two, every week. I earned $75 a story. It was amazing. I felt like I’d won the lottery every time I cashed a check.
HDLS: How did you go from journalism to teaching?
Tara: In 2012, I was at a newspaper conference in San Diego where I told a group of seasoned editors that my intention was to stay in the industry as long as I possibly could. I never thought I’d leave newspaper journalism. The hours are bad, yes. You get a lot of grief from readers, of course. But the thrill of the deadline is a constant reward. I took my part-time newspaper advising job originally to help my brother pay for his education at University of the Pacific. I never intended to teach. I honestly didn’t think I’d be any good at it. But I started working at Delta with a small group of young journalists and was suddenly so inspired by their passion and love for it. I had missed that in the day to day of the news industry. Moreover, I was becoming uninspired in my own work. As a middle manager, I was doing more logistical stuff daily. The creative work wasn’t flowing. It got to me and I broke. At about the same time, my husband and I were also having conversations about starting a family. We knew the 10-12 hour days, the six-day work weeks and the constant late-night phone calls weren’t going to work. In early 2013, I put my whole self into my role at Delta College.
My husband and I took the biggest gamble of our married life. I no longer had a full-time job. I asked myself what would happen if I devoted myself to my students more. What would they achieve? Within two semesters, my editing cohort became stronger when my students could access me more. Nearly three years later, I have students at four-year colleges studying journalism. This year, one of my original students started graduate school in convergence journalism at University of Missouri. I’m amazed every day by my students. It’s one of the most rewarding challenges I’ve ever encountered.
HDLS: Do you miss the hustle of daily journalism?
Tara: Sometimes. But I enjoy not getting home at 8 p.m. and being tired. And every two weeks I get to supervise an amazing group of collegiate journalists who are producing quality content. I consider myself very lucky that my career trajectory brought me to where I am.
HDLS: What is the best career advice you have ever received?
Tara: Two things, actually. “You take the talent with you, don’t forget that,” a former editor once told me. I was having a hard time with the separation from newspaper journalism. I built a lot of my own self worth in my position at the newspaper and the work I’d done. He was the first person to remind me that I didn’t lose the talent just because I moved on. “You will never work as hard in any other profession as you do in journalism,” another said. I think it can be disputed, but it many ways it is right. I never had the luxury of time in journalism. I’m used to immediacy. The hardest part of the transition from daily journalism to education was that I’m given more time for a lot of things. And I thrive on deadline where a lot of people may not. It’s very, very different to be allotted time, but also to have people understand if I don’t respond to an email in more than two hours.
HDLS: What is the worst career advice you have ever received?
Tara: Someone once told me I needed to tone my personality down. I’m kind of a “what you see is what you get” person. I have flaws, we all do, but I work incredibly hard to get my job done. I’ve never thought it was productive to tell someone to be different than who they are. I think that can serve to minimize creativity and maximize low morale.
HDLS: What career advice would you give your younger self?
Tara: Your backbone will eventually stiffen. It’s OK to be scared. I think most young journalists are dissuaded because the thought of approaching people is horrifying. It never really gets easier; you just work through it better. And journalism really wasn’t what stiffened my resolve. It wasn’t even newspaper advising. It sounds cheesy, but the backbone I was so desperately seeking when I was a young journalist is the one I suddenly had when I became a mother.
Thank you to Tara for sharing her job story. Her story demonstrates the power of taking chances and trying new things. Finding meaningful work may not be as easy as it may look to some people, and sometimes it comes only after making difficult decisions. It is clear that Tara loves her work and is rewarded by seeing the success of her students. Having a foundation in journalism has helped Tara and the students that put together the college newspaper.
Tara is a graduate of University of the Pacific and University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She and her husband Thomas and their daughter Cecilia live in Tracy, California. Tara is an active runner and has completed many marathons and half-marathons. Her personal blog is andsheruns.com and she tweets at @TaraCuslidge.