With a mortar board covered in newspaper clippings, University of New Mexico senior Michaela Helean is graduating this fall semester with a bachelor's degree in journalism and a full-time job at the Rio Rancho Observer.
Helean started her internship at the Observer through the New Mexico News Fund, a fund created to foster journalism in New Mexico that also places college students and recent graduates in state newsrooms. Four days after starting her internship, she was offered a full-time job, fulfilling a childhood dream.
“I've always been a writer. Ever since I was able to write, I would write short stories for my parents,” Helean said. “I would watch the news with them. I grew up watching Gwen Ifill on PBS.”
The shift from being a student reporter in the journalism department, where you can take a month or two to work on a singular story, to now being responsible for two stories every day was stressful at first, according to Helean.
“It was stressful, writing a bunch of stories every day … Every day there has to be at least one story every hour to keep the website going. And that is the demand,” Helean said. “People want their news now … and so, to keep up with that, journalists like me have to produce stories like this. And at first, I couldn't quite keep up because it's not what I'm used to.”
Quickly after starting, though, she got the hang of the workload by writing stories a week ahead of time while still being a full-time student at UNM and also building time into her schedule for herself and her mental health.
“For a while there, I wasn't taking any time for myself. I was putting everything into the paper. But it's important to remember the paper will still be there tomorrow,” Helean said. “So take a break once in a while. Still do the work. Get it done and follow the expectations your bosses have of you, but also demand your own expectations from them. And that's what I did.”
Her fiancé, Brandon Vasquez, says he has seen her whole mood shift since starting at the Observer and getting to work in a field she is passionate about.
“(I have been) seeing all the different things she has to go through and then seeing the ups and downs of the job, especially within the first few months, and she gets to do what she loves,” Vasquez said. “She's happy and her whole attitude had changed going from her last job, which was at Panera Bread, to this Rio Rancho Observer job. It completely flipped things upside down, and she was a lot happier, coming home a lot less tense, a lot less stressful, with a lot more faith in humanity.”
She credits much of her success to her time at UNM, specifically to one journalism professor: Gwyneth Doland. Doland’s tough but caring editing style in class is what Helean said allowed her to succeed in her position at the Observer so rapidly.
“Her being hard on me really made my skin tough for when I did actually go into the workforce,” Helean said. “(It’s) one of those things where it's like you don't really realize how good of a teacher you have until you finish the class.”
Her passion for journalism manifests at a local level, where she feels like she can have the most impact serving her community.
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“I know a lot of journalists are ambitious to get to The New York Times, The Washington Post or something like that, but not me," Helean said. "I'd rather write for a small town newspaper because you're more connected with me that way. And you actually have more of an impact.”
Her next career steps are lined up for her, with the next two years to be spent working for the Observer, and then the next three for the Albuquerque Journal, which is the parent paper of the Observer. After that, Helean said she will be able to apply to go wherever she would like, with references.
“It's kind of liberating too, because I'm getting all of the experience at once,” Helean said.
Maddie Pukite is the managing editor at the Daily Lobo. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @maddogpukite