“Journalism Students Need a Certain Tenacity”: Q&A with Professor Jeremy Shermak

Last year, Jeremy Shermak joined the Orange Coast College faculty as a journalism professor and advisor for the school’s student-run newspaper, The Coast Report. Shermak earned a bachelor’s degree in Information Technology and Journalism at Indiana University, as well as a master’s degree in writing at DePaul University and a doctorate in journalism from the University of Texas. In addition to his teaching career, he has worked as a journalist, first for a small newspaper near his hometown in Michigan, then for a larger publication in South Bend, Indiana. Shermak spoke with the Beacon‘s Jacob Frank about his experiences and his advice for aspiring journalists.

JF: When you started high school, did you already want to become a journalist?

JS: Absolutely. I have been a news nerd for practically my entire life. I started reading the newspaper with my dad at a very young age, so by the time I had gotten into high school I was into it. Going so far back to even the fifth grade, I would make mini sports articles with my friends, which is really where my interest began.

JF: Between fifth grade and freshman year, was there anything you learned that you continue to use today?

JS: Definitely. One of the things that I tell my students is that journalism is about people and is about storytelling. That’s something to remember when writing a story. Along with that, I had a very influential high school teacher named Dan Holt; still today I tell my students information he told me.

JF: When you started college, did you begin majoring in journalism?

JS: I went to a lot of colleges. Too many — don’t go for as long as I did. I did my undergraduate degree at Indiana University, and then grad school at DePaul University in Chicago. There I actually studied writing more, as I began to figure out what I wanted to do. So I worked as a journalist while I was teaching on the side, but I kept wanting more out of it. I was teaching English literature, but not as much journalism as I wanted, so I went back to school again and went to the University of Missouri to study journalism. Following that I actually went to the University of Texas. My mom would get mad at me because I kept moving west, but Texas was where I ended up getting my PhD in journalism.

JF: After receiving your bachelor’s degree, what made you want to pursue higher education?

JS: I think for me it was realizing I wanted to teach journalism full time for the rest of my life. So I wanted to be as qualified as possible, and in addition to that it was I wanted to study something I loved. I tell my students that your life will be so much more enriching if you choose a goal and go for it; nerd out on something. I don’t care what it is, but choose something.

JF: After college, did you start working as a journalist?

JS – I began as a newspaper reporter for two different companies, which I started in school. I covered sports, government, and that was back where I was from in Northern Indiana. I then worked in media relations and an editor for a company that does marketing research, so I was always part of that writing for the public realm, but my heart is in journalism. I was then teaching for six years until I got my full-time teaching position at a community college called Moraine Valley. I worked there for eight years, until I turned around and went back to school for my PhD. Ultimately, while it was very difficult, it was worth it, no doubt.  

JF: You know teach journalism at Orange Coast College. What makes you enjoy community colleges over big universities?

JS: I knew from working at community colleges in the past what kind of community is created, so I wanted to come back. Many kids at community colleges don’t exactly know what they want to do, which gives me the opportunity to work more closely with students. On top of that, I actually attended a community college my first year before transferring to the University of Indiana, so I was a community college student myself. I was better able to connect with the students, which I don’t get in a large university.  

JF: Do you plan to connect with Newport Harbor’s journalism program?

JS: Absolutely, I would love to. We are trying to do more high school outreach anyway, but if I have a connection I am all about it. Trying to get students to go to OCC is a perfect tradeoff.

JF: What makes a good journalism student?

SF: I feel a lot of times students believe that they have to be a really good writer to be a good journalist. While this helps, journalism students need a certain tenacity to go after a story. You can’t be afraid to talk to strangers. I tell my students that writing is a great way to start, but the guts to go cold call someone and ask them about a story is what matters. A student who comes to me with that drive to talk to people — they have the easy portion completed. I say it because students who are a little more introverted shouldn’t feel incapable; anyone with the drive is taking a step in the right direction.

JF: What advice would you give to a journalism student like me?

JS: I would tell you to not only get involved but read journalism. We aren’t the readers we used to be; we look at Twitter and Instagram and we say, ‘Oh, that’s where we got our news.’ But I say read an article once a day. There is a certain way journalism is structured, and cracking that formula early is a boost. I tell my students all the time that good journalists read journalism, and I think that the reading part is extremely important.