I had my first panic attack during my junior year of high school.
At the time, it was scary. I was nervous. I couldn’t breathe. I ran to the bathroom and tried to calm myself down, but my heart was beating fast and my mind was racing and I knew I was about to be sick.
That year was a bad one. I met with a psychologist who diagnosed me with an anxiety disorder. I had many more panic attacks over the next two years, usually in public speaking situations. I became depressed.
And then I received a piece of simple advice that both terrified me and reassured me at the same time: Until I conquered my fears, they would always be my fears. I had to address my problem head-on in order to get past it.
So, in my first year of college, I joined the Alligator.
Here, I was forced to speak. I had to interview athletes, usually in front of many other reporters. I had to walk up to people I had never met before and introduce myself and ask questions. I had to make phone calls and think quickly and improvise and react.
It sounds silly now, but it was difficult at the time. Looking back, four years later, I realize that my panic attacks helped shape who I am. I haven’t had one since my senior year of high school, and while I might get slightly nervous before an important interview, it’s always a good type of nervous. An excited nervous. A healthy nervous.
And I owe it to the Alligator. For me, the Alligator was my home away from home. And it can be one for you, too.
Don’t believe me? Apply. You’ll see. You’ll see that you grow here. You learn here. You change as a person here. You find a group of people who share your same interests, who are smart as hell, and you do journalism with them every day of the week.
You travel for 13 hours in a car with them. Both ways. You spend Saturdays in a press box with them. You discover new cities with them. You spend long nights through the 12th inning of a doubleheader at McKethan Stadium with them. You learn that Jack’s Bar-B-Que in Nashville is a must-visit and that Kentucky has a tree stump that’s 230 million years old and that Tennessee’s Pat Summitt statue looks pretty cool up close and that the best way to spend 30 minutes in New Orleans is by waiting in line for a beignet.
You learn. You teach. You learn, because you teach. You realize that good writing is hard and good reporting is hard and that it feels so damn good when you get it right. You strive for that. You strive for that with a group of students who are striving for the same thing. You make each other better. You learn.
Sometimes I feel like I didn’t go to college at Florida, but that I went to college at the Alligator. And I truly feel that way. Not just because I spent much more of my time here (which I did), and not just because working late nights with some of my best friends was way too much fun (it was), but because the Alligator gave me something no classroom — however interesting, immersive and relevantly educational (and trust me, at UF, there were plenty of those) — ever could.
It gave me the real thing. Experience.
So here’s to the Alligator. Here’s to the lives it has changed and the careers it has sprung.
Here’s to the difference it has made in my life. Here’s to student journalism. Here’s to its future.
Here’s to all the people who have worked to make it special and all the ones who are still here, working, stressing, laughing, crying and succeeding.
Here’s to that nervous freshman four years ago, unsure what the future would look like.
I’m excited to see what comes next.
Ian Cohen was a writer and sports editor for the Alligator. Follow him on Twitter @icohenb.