It was January of 2017 in my freshman year at UF when I got the call.
The measly first-year student I was had some free time on her hands and decided to spend the weekend at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure with some friends.
I was getting my dose of Harry Potter’s Forbidden Journey when my phone started vibrating. I didn’t recognize the number, so I let it go to voicemail and got back to my ride thrills. I would call them back if it was important.
Turns out, it was one of the most important calls of my collegiate journalism career at Florida.
I got off the ride and found a quiet place nearby to listen to the voicemail left from an unknown number. It was then-Sports Editor Ethan Bauer reaching out with an offer for a copy editing position at The Alligator.
My heart started pounding out of my chest.
The pay wasn’t great — I think it was around $17 every two weeks for 24 hours worth of work at the time — but the people were, and he promised the experience would be worth it.
In 2017, the paper was printed five times a week. Issues were 20 pages deep. Sprots (yes, sprots) copy editors were expected to be there two nights/week. And the office had just relocated from an old frat house on University Avenue to a room inside of The Gainesville Sun.
I’m one of the few people currently on staff from that era. And y i k e s, I’m old.
I accepted Ethan’s offer, having little to no knowledge about what I was getting myself into, and I was expected to start that Wednesday night.
And as I look back 1,051 days (or 2 years, 10 months and 17 days) later, I realize it has been nothing but a whirlwind since.
I went from a copy editor, to the men’s and women’s tennis beat writer, to a Gainesville Sun news intern, to a volleyball beat writer, to the Tampa Bay Times sports intern, to assistant sports editor and volleyball beat writer (again) with a Times freelancing gig.
Wow, that’s a mouthful.
But here’s the thing, it all started with a bunch of crazy kids who happened to have a love for reporting. A love for journalism and storytelling.
You don’t know until you know. And the highs certainly come with the lows.
My first story for The Alligator was printed on the front page as a contributing writer in August 2016. I wrote about Library West dedicating an alligator statue for students to tap as they walked in to study — similar to Bull Gator featured outside of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
It was printed next to a photo of a girl wearing bungee cords as a bra. And boy, was that a fun one to explain to the grandparents back home.
When I graduated to a tennis beat writer (after my semester of copy editing), I couldn’t spell anyone’s names write (get it?). Their names were right in front of my face and someway, somehow there’d be a typo in my rough draft. I’d get a text from my editor, apologize to him profusely and then stress about getting it right on my next story.
My spelling woes and lack of writing experience got me down on the occasion. And that wasn’t the only hiccup either.
Here my friends were off trying to become engineers and doctors while I was just trying to find the right words to put down on paper (well, a Microsoft Word document).
Was I doing the right thing? Investing so much time into a “dying” industry with crappy pay, few benefits and zero job security? Was it worth foregoing nights out with my friends and instead spending late nights inside the Sun’s office?
The short answer is yes. Every moment spent inside that office was absolutely worth it.
I remember my freshman year reading everyone’s goodbye columns on the last print night of the semester and wondering if I’d be one of those people. One of those people who’d say they didn’t go to school at UF, they went to school at The Alligator. And it turns out, they were right.
Now, every time I have a moment of doubt, I get a spark of inspiration from someone I interview or a story I read scrolling through my Twitter feed. Somehow I muddle through the “what ifs” to get to the “buts,” and I try not to look back.
My “thank you” list is endless, but it starts with Ethan and the people on that Spring 2017 staff that became my first friends at this wonderful paper, some of whom I still talk to today.
It continues through the journalists and mentors I’ve worked with (past and present) and onto the people I work with today. The ones who turn a dull day into a much more entertaining one, and the ones that remind me in the end it’s all worth it.
The cringe-worthy first drafts, the angry reader emails, the cyclical disrespect from a society-perspective.
What we’re doing matters. And it all starts with us. So keep fighting the good fight, because if we don’t, who else will?
Mari Faiello was a writer and assistant sports editor for the Alligator.
Follow her on Twitter @faiello_mari.