From the moment I first stepped onto UF’s campus, I had my sights set on The Alligator. I visited Gainesville for preview and made the trip out to the Gainesville Sun building. I carried a tote bag full of mangos from a tree in my backyard and a cheesy, excited smile. I planned to bribe my way on to the paper with fruit, charm and brute-force initiative. As I sat awkwardly in the newsroom waiting for five minutes with the editor-in-chief, the scent of day-old tropical fruit wafted powerfully around the room. I took a look around at the walls of the newsroom, amazed by The Alligator alumni and the history baked into the old yellowing pages tacked up in every corner. All I wanted to do was work here. It took me longer than expected, but I finally made it.
As you may have gathered, my mango bribery fell flat. All of the columnist positions had been filled. Just a few weeks into my freshman year, I got, as the young folks say, further “lost in the sauce.” Classes moved faster than I thought they would, and working at The Alligator became a dream I saved for later. Whenever that was.
Throughout panic and heartbreak, changes of motivation and interests, fluctuations in vision and outlook, working at The Alligator remained a lofty but distant point on the horizon.
But college has a funny way of reminding you of who you are and what you want. I kept taking classes in the J-school despite not actually being in the J-school and eventually found myself in class with a man whose dry wit was exceeded only by his raw knowledge of sports journalism — editor of the Sports section of The Alligator, Morgan McMullen. We were lumped into the same group for a project by the grace of the news gods. A few short months after I mentioned casually that I aspired to be an opinions columnist, I was contributing biweekly from the sweltering Miami heat. I wrote about the meme economy, decaf drinkers and the elaborate charade of pretending we all do eight-hours-worth of work while we’re at work.
Two years after preview, I found myself sitting in that same newsroom again as the opinions editor, sans mangos. I was surrounded by people who loved writing and journalism as much as I did. I had summited Mount Olympus and conquered the almighty beast.
But the feeling of victory never lasts long. Even keeping my head above water was challenging with submissions, keeping an eye on local and national news and fielding questions from columnists, on top of holding down another job and schoolwork. Halfway through the semester I found myself in the library, frustrated, minutes before an exam, writing a sternly worded Alligator-related email, annoyed for having caught up with my dream. How foolish of me.
This semester I have known firsthand the level of responsibility that comes with writing, condensing and correcting editorials. I know what it’s like to endorse political candidates and shine a light on local Gainesville issues which escape the wandering attention of most UF students. The longer I work at this paper, the more my respect grows for the editors who came before me and the editors I work under. With every passing issue, I appreciate more deeply the razor-thin line between fact and fiction. With every heartfelt note or letter from readers, I am inspired by how many people are watching and reading our coverage.
The Alligator is the largest independently owned student newspaper in America by circulation. It has been my distinct honor to steward its opinion section and help write our editorial rebuking President Donald Trump’s so-called war of words with the news media. As I look back on my semester here, I am filled with pride for my columnists and everyone who works to make this paper happen. Most of all, I am grateful for the freshman in me who is hungry for new opportunities, who is now hopefully off to study for the LSAT, become a media lawyer and defend papers like ours from the likes of Trump.
As long as I bring my mangos, I know I’ll reach that dream eventually, too.
Stephan Chamberlin is the opinions editor of The Alligator