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Celebrating a Resilient Class of 2020


Aaliyah Wilkerson
For newly-minted Reed College of Media alums Aaliyah Wilkerson (M.S. IMC, 2020) and Douglas Soule (BSJ, 2020), graduating during a pandemic didn’t mean waiting to see what would happen next; instead, they helped their communities through it.

When WVU closed campus on March 10, Soule was finishing his last semester as editor-in-chief of The Daily Athenaeum. Coverage continued from home, with the staff meeting virtually and covering topics as best they could from afar. Morgantown quieted as out-of-state students packed up their dorm rooms and headed back to their hometowns.

Just two days later and 820 miles away, Florida A&M University (FAMU) announced it was closing, too. But within two weeks, Wilkerson, a public affairs and university relations coordinator for FAMU’s Office of University Housing, returned to campus with her team to take care of the students dependent on their residence halls.

AS AN ESSENTIAL WORKER, Wilkerson managed information distribution, social media channels and events to keep those on FAMU’s campus safe and informed as Florida remained a major hotspot in the battle against the rapidly spreading virus.

“When we originally closed down, we did what most universities did – we told the students ‘look, we want to keep you safe, everybody has to go,’” Wilkerson said. “But taking into account that we are a historically Black university, some of our students have financial challenges. They don't have the ability to get up and go and they may not have a family to get up and go to, so we kept things open just for them.” 

When Wilkerson started in this position a year ago, she helped implement residence hall starter packs with supplies to help students feel at home. Advocacy and compassion are at the heart of her job – traits that she shares with her team members who continue to support students through the global health crisis.

“It's definitely taught us how to be much  more sensitive and a lot more genuine with how we communicate with our students,” she said.

Wilkerson

That team has grown closer over the course of the last six months. “We’re always texting, always calling; I would say it’s been a combination of a little bit of paranoia and concern, but I think the collaborative effort of us all wanting to just provide our students with a safe environment tops everything else.”

Wilkerson, a Miami native, earned her bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism from FAMU in 2018. As an undergraduate, she worked as a FAMU TV-20 anchor, copy desk chief of the campus newspaper and lead marketing and communication intern in FAMU's Office of Communication. However, her love for storytelling and connecting with an audience dates back to childhood when she would compete in oratorical contests and perform in theater productions. 

“I recently found this dream journal that I made in fourth grade, and I had cut out images from a magazine and taped them in there,” Wilkerson explained. “I said that I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to be a talk show host. I wanted to be a producer. So, I'm making my way there through this journey.”

Wilkerson’s experience working in news and social media not only satisfied the talk show host in her, but also gave her skills in audience interaction that have been invaluable during the pandemic. However, her marketing and communications work shifted her career goals.

“I feel like marketing and communications has allowed me to change the way that people think about certain things, and I think making people feel good about themselves is my way of making the world a better place.”
AALIYAH WILKERSON (M.S. IMC, 2020), public affairs and university relations coordinator for FAMU’s Office of University Housing


Aaliyah

“I feel like marketing and communications has allowed me to change the way that people think about certain things,” said Wilkerson. “And I think making people feel good about themselves is my way of making the world a better place. So that’s how I was able to kind of shift that feeling of – okay, you’re not in front of the camera anymore, not on stage, everybody’s not watching you, but how do you keep that same energy and push it into someone else?”

Wilkerson found that community-based communications work allowed for more connections and more creativity. She could write, photograph, design, edit and film, but she needed a master’s degree that filled the public relations, public affairs and digital media gaps in her resume. That’s when she found WVU’s Integrated Marketing Communications master’s program and knew from the first 30-minute meeting that she would become a Mountaineer. 

“That's why WVU is so dear to me. Because in a time when I thought that something wasn't for me or I wasn't ready, the school came and said, ‘Yeah, you're ready, you can do this, and we're going to help you get there.’”

After taking the IMC Public Affairs course, which has been taught by Mike Fulton (BSJ, 1979) for nearly a decade, Wilkerson was set on gaining hands-on experience in this area of marketing and communications. For four months before COVID-19 halted many operations in the United States, Wilkerson worked as a public affairs intern for Florida’s State House of Representatives under Rep. Elizabeth Fetterhoff.

“After the course, Aaliyah would periodically check in with me and I would, in turn, send her some opportunities or thought pieces on public affairs,” Fulton said. “I also introduced her to some former students in Atlanta and contacts in Florida. The timing worked out for Aaliyah to intern for a Florida state representative I know, and the feedback I heard from the legislator was very positive. Aaliyah’s high energy, willingness to go above and beyond and take chances bodes well for a very promising career.”

As unprecedented times of crisis continue, Wilkerson believes that disruption is necessary. 

“I feel like sometimes, as people, we learn to kind of walk with our head down and just do the work," Wilkerson said. "And, finally, people are finding their voice. They're finding power and they're finding out what they can do with it. And I think the pandemic and the social issues that have been going on have really helped people find creative ways to do that – especially communicators.

“Now more than ever, we have had to embrace that we sometimes have to say the things that people don't want to hear, but we have to say those things or we're not doing our job," she continued. "I think this brings back the passion for many of us. It brings back the heart. It's not just robotic. It’s more about relationships, which is really what's pushing us now in this time.”

“I’m only 21, but throughout my limited life experiences, I’ve found that what I can do in journalism is the best way to induce change that has a positive impact on the future.” DOUGLAS SOULE (BSJ, 2020), who accepted a position as a Report for America corps member and watchdog reporter with Mountain State Spotlight in June 2020

Douglas Soule FOR A DECADE, high school students in West Virginia and neighboring regions put their journalism skills to the test, competing in the WVU College of Media’s and West Virginia Press Association’s Journalism Competition and Workshops.

The program was designed to provide students and teachers with an opportunity to build professional skills while enhancing the media programs and projects available in their high school settings. In 2017, the final year of the competition, Douglas Soule won first place in broadcast and feature writing and second place in public relations and editorial writing. 

The Charleston-born, Bridgeport-raised West Virginian was heading to WVU in a few months to major in political science or maybe political science and journalism. But after interning at The Daily Athenaeum the summer before his freshman year had even started, he knew he wanted to be a reporter. That internship also smoothed the transition from high school to college.

“It felt natural,” Soule recalled. “I felt like I was coming home, really.”

Soule has since spent countless hours at the DA headquarters on Prospect Street working his way up from intern to assistant news editor to editor-in-chief.

“I’ve learned that maintaining composure and a good attitude is critical in a newsroom,” he said. “The DA is a student-run newspaper where you learn and grow, but as you do this growing and developing, you're treated with the same expectations as other professional journalists. If you mess up, it’s the same consequences.”

A hallmark of his work was investigating the Morgantown and WVU communities. He covered student government impeachments, scrutinized Fall Fest finances and navigated years of tumultuous Greek life decisions. As a global pandemic took hold and racism reared its ugly head in 2020, Soule reported on these important topics through a local lens to ensure the public had the facts to make informed decisions and advocate for change.

“That's one of my goals as a journalist – to lead the state forward and ensure reform,” Soule said. “I think any exposure to problems and any amount of attention devoted to problems that we currently face is a good thing.”

Adell Crowe, WVU’s director of student media, worked with Soule to improve both his reporting and the DA’s role on campus. 

“Under Douglas’s leadership, the DA staff never stopped listening and working to make things better,” Crowe said. “They welcomed the input, advice, even criticism from the campus community and relished the weekly critique from Prof. Bob Britten at Wednesday staff meetings. Douglas's legacy is that he was eager to improve the culture at the DA.” 

Douglas

As editor-in-chief, Soule oversaw a staff of more than 50 students who reported on university and community news, sports, events and more. While the DA employs non-students in management and advisory roles, all of the writers, photographers, advertising representatives and copy editors are WVU students with full class loads on top of their DA duties. 

Soule understood this pressure, but still held himself and the rest of the news team accountable. He expected them to meet and raise the standard to which they are held as stewards of good journalism. Additionally, he held his team accountable to the readers. And since many of those readers are WVU students, he also felt an obligation to hold the University accountable. 

“I think the best way to show you care is by holding something accountable – by working to make it a better place not just for yourself but for everyone around,” Soule said. “And that requires checks and balances. No matter how well-intentioned a place may be, there should always be people outside of the institution who are making sure that everything is operating in the best interest of everyone involved.” 

Outside of his work for the WVU and Morgantown communities, Soule has interned with The Globe Post, a digital media publication in Washington, D.C., and the Charleston Gazette-Mail. In 2019, he attended Politico’s Journalism Institute. During his junior year, Soule was endorsed by WVU for a Marshall Scholarship – a prestigious award that supports young Americans of high ability to study for graduate degrees in the United Kingdom. 

Upon graduation in May, Soule accepted a position with Mountain State Spotlight, an independent, civic news organization that focuses on major issues affecting West Virginia, including public health threats, economic development challenges, environmental issues and government accountability. As a watchdog reporter, he’ll work to ferret out political corruption among West Virginia public officials at all levels of government, hold powerful institutions accountable, stand up for the powerless and lift up voices that might not otherwise be heard.

“Transparency is critical for democracy and for public health, especially during this pandemic,” Soule said. “And it’s a scary time for many, including journalists who are being shot with rubber bullets, arrested and tear-gassed. Harassment isn’t new to reporters and they're not always appreciated but, honestly, you don't do it for appreciation. At least for me, you do it with the hopes of adding value to your community. I'm only 21, but throughout my limited life experiences, I’ve found that what I can do in journalism is the best way to induce change that has a positive impact on the future.” 

As long as that remains the case for Soule, he’s set on a journalism career path. “It’s not journalism in and of itself that has me in journalism. It's what can be accomplished through it.”