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Eyes Up

My colleagues and I recently took one of our summer interns out for a farewell lunch. He’s a bright UVA student with a passion for journalism and (of all things) finance; one of those people who will be successful in whatever he pursues. The Loudoun Now (formerly Leesburg Today) team has always been fortunate to land talented interns, college students who are willing to forgo lazy summer mornings and afternoons by the pool to cover anything from Chamber luncheons to murder trials. We generally joke by the end of their three-month stint that they really should forgo a four-year degree all together and instead begin their career with us. “Come on, NBA players do it all the time,” I’ll nudge. But they’ve all been smart enough to leave us to finish their degrees, and most have gone on to work for much larger publications.

That’s what’s on my mind. Stick with me for a minute…

I love the idea of working with young people at such a key intersection in their lives, between fledgling teenagers and determined, focused adults. Just at that moment when the right guidance and encouragement can make such a difference in a short amount of time. This was true in my internship at the Rochester Post-Bulletin. It was a mid-sized daily near the Twin Cities, and a position I was lucky to land.

Half-way through the summer, when I wasn’t sure if my articles on county fairs and music festivals measured up to the big, important work churned out by the exhausted-looking veteran reporters that paced by my cubicle, the editor-in-chief took me to lunch. She told me that she’d been enjoying seeing what lead sentences I came up with for my articles. She even went so far as to say that my lead for a recent article on a new camp that had kids deconstructing and rebuilding appliances was the best she’d read in months. It went something like, “hold on to your toasters, Mom and Dad, camp’s in session…” All I could do was offer a speechless smile. Her brief lines of encouragement seemed to upstage all the wrongs I’d committed days before, including the obituary error that had me calling a mourning family to apologize and writing my first correction in a 130,000-circulation publication. All forgotten. I was hooked. Authentic praise from the right source somehow changes us. It’s like rocket fuel launching us to places we never thought reachable.

So I’m now a huge proponent of taking on interns, even when I’m short on time and patience. It means poring over sloppy copy and teaching 19 and 20 year olds—sometimes the hard way—the importance of details and fact-checking and how to identify and tell relevant stories. But it’s always worth it.

About four years ago, I started getting calls from past interns who I had mentored. Often times, they were home for a holiday and wanted to grab lunch to catch up. Over pizza or deli sandwiches, they’d thank me for the little nudges I had given them, and then go on about their job at the Washington Post, The Atlantic or USA Today, or their latest assignments that had them traveling to Brazil, Israel or Ireland.

I was happy for them. Promise. But in weak, insecure moments, the newly added lines on their resumes had me feeling like I was a Mother Goose teaching them to fly while I was grounded in a tiny, understaffed newsroom in a Virginia suburb, feeling like I had missed some exit ramp along the way.

The past year has brought some clarity to this issue. No doubt a dose of maturity has helped too. So often, we look to our left and to our right and wonder why another person’s path looks easier or greener than ours. Where’s our big break? But I’m learning just how short-sighted that is. God’s always got a better plan than anything I can come up with. What’s more, and this is hard for me, our worth isn’t found in our job title or paycheck. We’re here for a greater purpose.

In the past 18 months, I’ve had the chance to start a newspaper with some of the state’s best journalists. And I got to release a book on a mountaineer who always invited me—dared me, even—to take the path less traveled. That’s where the best adventures lie, he’d say. I feel like I’m exactly where I should be. I love that the issues, the people, the events that I cover impact my life just as much as our readers’. They make up the colorful tapestry of the community in which I live.

Contentment isn’t settling. It’s acknowledging what we have and choosing to be thankful for it. It’s fighting the temptation to look to the right or left to compare our life with others’. And, you know, we’ve got to keep our eyes straight ahead anyhow if we want to see our path’s next turn.

So, intern John, go fly. But only if you promise you’ll come back to tell me about the heights you’ve reached, and buy me lunch while you’re at it.

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