UC student now sees her own story being told

E-media student wins national “student journalist of the year” award for work with PBS

Her mentors call her passionate. She calls herself eager to learn. We call her a Bearcat.

And on Jan. 28, University of Cincinnati sophomore Mary Williams’ name will be called as “Student Journalist of the Year,” at a National Educational Telecommunications Association ceremony in Washington, D.C.

The award is for Williams’ video reporting and mentoring contributions over the last year to the PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs (SRL), a nationwide, high school based, broadcast journalism program designed to help students produce news stories for the network’s evening news broadcast, PBS NewsHour, that relate to their own lives and the experiences of their peers; SRL students are mentored by volunteer teachers, graduates and PBS professionals at 150 schools across the nation.

Mary Williams works behind a camera.

Mary Williams behind the camera in the PBS Student Reporting Lab at Hughes STEM High School. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services)

“I didn’t know what to expect going into journalism, but as soon as I heard you’re going to get to ask questions, work with cameras and lighting it all just spoke to me,” says Williams, now an electronic media major at UC's College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). She started her journey to the awards podium at Hughes STEM High School, part of the Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS), in 2015 while in 10th grade.  

While at Hughes, Williams says there were two programs that piqued her interest. The first was the ShareIT program, a collaboration between UC and CPS schools where students get to learn about and experience different aspects of information technology, talk in-depth about what it takes to be successful in each field and create pathways to achieve goals. Significantly increasing the number of Cincinnati Public School students who enroll and graduate from UC requires systemwide support that UC calls CPS Strong. These deliberate investments in preparation and access, support and engagement, scholarships, mentoring and professional development are outlined in UC’s strategic direction, Next Lives Here.

Student Williams earned a spot at Hughes as a ShareIT intern, honing in on web design and the intersect of photos and full-motion video over the internet. 

“She has an immeasurable amount of talent and passion and I can’t wait to see what she does with it,” says one of Williams’ ShareIT mentors Josette Riep, director of the university’s information technology department. She adds that Williams was the first of a handful of high school students to enroll in the program, and her achievements are applauded by everyone in the IT department. “We are all behind her,” says Riep. “It’s part of our mission here. We all believe that we are here to serve the students and do anything that we can to create a more inclusive environment.”

Mary has a personality that makes you want to help her, because you know that she’s going to do something with that help.

Melissa Sherman, Mary Williams' mentor at Hughes STEM High School

This sentiment is so strong that Williams continues to intern at UC IT while attending college and refers to Riep as one of her second “moms.”

The other opportunity at Williams’ high school was the SRL elective course, which connected her with another mentor she also calls a “mom,” Melissa Sherman, the high school’s technology facilitator.

“Mary has a personality that makes you want to help her, because you know that she’s going to do something with that help,” says Sherman.

Although Williams had a natural presence in front of the camera, Sherman says the teen was somewhat shy and introverted behind the scenes. “From that first year on she really blossomed. I don’t think she believed us at first that she was a natural on both sides of the camera, but we built her up and she finally started to hear what we were saying.”

Williams says she soaked up every aspect of the program and volunteered at every opportunity to learn the ins and outs of multimedia and implement the skills it takes to produce and direct a meaningful news or feature video story. For instance, in the event another SRL student was absent, Williams raised her hand to fill the gap. “I was open to learning things and being able to be a part of every story that we were working on. I loved the PBS class. It’s what made my high school experience.”  

In fact, this will not be the first time Williams has been recognized by PBS. In 2018, she was named a PBS Gwen Ifill Fellow, a prestigious fellowship established to honor pioneer journalist Ifill, an African American PBS NewsHour co-anchor, managing editor and mentor to young journalists.

Mary Williams with student at Hughes

UC sophomore Mary Williams returns often to Hughes STEM High School to mentor students. Here, in the PBS NewsHour student reporting lab at Hughes, she and Max McGill, a senior, look at editing software . Photo credit: Hughes STEM High School.

“Gwen Ifill paved the way for African American journalists like me, and we are making the road a little longer,” Williams says of the regard she has for Ifill and wanting to represent people of color herself, “so I can see myself everywhere I go.”

The fellowship, she says, provided her the first occasion to travel to Washington, D.C., where she not only got to see young journalists who looked like her, but “others who didn’t look like me,” such as a native Hawaiian fellowship recipient.

Additionally, the fellowship elevated Williams’ skill set and earned her a summer internship at CET, the Cincinnati PBS affiliate. “We promote a student voice more global and less neighborhood centric and an understanding of why the news is so important,” says CET’s Jason Dennison, manager of learning services and an SRL mentor at Hughes. “It is very competitive and not everybody gets their piece on air, but two of Mary’s three stories aired [on PBS NewsHour]. That’s very difficult to achieve.”

During the internship, he says, Williams brought a fresh perspective to veteran producers there. Her work on PBS NewsHour includes stories on the Hopewell EarthworksGeorge Washington's house and 3D-printed prosthetics at UC, the latter of which is a story of a young girl and the 3D-printed hand she received from EnableUC, a program in the university’s engineering department that provides children with prosthetic devices. Throughout this video, Williams’ voice, although youthful sounding, narrates with the measure of a seasoned professional. It’s also the first video story Williams directed, filmed and produced solo, and it was showcased at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences council meeting in 2019.

Video link: https://player.vimeo.com/video/222539335

On another CET project, called “American Graduates: Getting to Work,” Dennison says, “Mary was able to help us tell stories to a young audience at a fast pace and with animation and music, which really helped us rethink how we wanted to tell the stories that we’d been telling over and over again in the same documentary style.”

The life of this young African American, from a low-income family, hasn’t been all lights, camera, action, however. The journey came with struggles on occasion. There were times, she says, that money for necessities was sparse, but the “moms” always came through with much-needed financial and emotional support. “Without those two I wouldn’t be here. When I did face a financial situation they always helped. If I needed a coat or food, they helped. I feel like I made a family with them.”  

UC’s Riep, for example, who is active in UC’s Diversity and Inclusion efforts, assisted Williams with the process to apply to UC’s College-Conservatory of Music’s electronic media bachelor’s degree program and to UC’s Gen-1 program, a living and learning community that supports Pell-eligible, first generation college students with a structured environment in which to live, learn and work; Gen-1 assists with scholarships, housing and meal plans. 

High school mentor Sherman says that she’s seen so many students quit or give up when faced with challenges during the transition to college, but not Williams. “There’s a tenacity about her. She says, ‘I’ve come this far and I’m not quitting’.” And she hasn’t forgotten where she got her start, Sherman adds, as the UC student still mentors students at her old high school on a regular basis in the SRL program she dearly loves. “It’s interesting for us to have her come back and talk about her classes” with the students who are starting their own foray into broadcast journalism, says Sherman.

Along the way, Williams says she’s tried to employ a simple philosophy: “I go with my gut. If it makes me smile or I feel good just hearing about it, I take it. PBS NewsHour was a gut feeling.”         

“We all love Mary and we want to make sure that she is successful,” says Riep.

Apparently, it’s working.

Next Lives Here

The University of Cincinnati’s strategic direction defines our moment and our momentum. More nimble and more robust than a plan, Next Lives Here announces our visionto the world — to lead urban public universities into a new era of innovation, impact and inclusion.