2021 Presidential Leadership and Scholarship Award Winner discusses her career, life after La Roche University

By Madeline Riccardi, Editor-in-Chief

On a sunny May afternoon, the La Roche University class of 2021 attended their graduation ceremony.

Julia Felton sat through the ceremony awaiting the moment she would receive her bachelor’s degree in journalism and professional writing. She wore a white dress under her graduation gown, and she covered her neck in special ribbons and sashes.

As she sat in her chair, the University announced the winner of the 2021 Presidential Leadership and Scholarship Award.

Felton spent her time at La Roche as a member of the La Roche Chapter of the National English Honors Society, Sigma Tau Delta and the National Society of Leadership and Success.

During her four years pursing her undergraduate degree, the Tribune Review writer founded the University’s karate club, was a peer counselor with the Providence Institute, and tutored in English for the Sisters of Divine Providence.

The history, political science, and cultural affairs minor wrote for the alumni magazine Connected, and served as the La Roche Courier Editor-in-Chief from May of her freshman year through spring of her senior year.

Felton graduated with a 3.9 GPA and received the Presidential Leadership and Scholarship Award as well as the Sister Victorine Verosky Award for Scholarship in English.

Each year, La Roche University nominates exceptional students for the Presidential Leadership and Scholarship Award. According to the La Roche University website, these students must “exemplify the values and characteristics of the La Roche mission statement, have exemplary academic records, and are effective leaders on campus, in the workplace, or in the community.”

Felton answered a series of questions about her younger self, her time at La Roche and her career.

Julia Felton with her Tribune Review badge and newspaper.

Pictured: Julia Felton with her Tribune Review badge and newspaper.

Photo Courtesy of Julia Felton

Youth …

Q. When you were younger, what did you see yourself as when you were a grown up?

A. I’m pretty sure I always wanted to be a journalist, or at least a writer.  I think there was a point where I just knew I wanted to be some kind of a writer, but hadn’t decided on journalism per se.  But I’ve definitely known from a very young age that I would end up in a field where I could do a lot of writing – and very little math.

Q. Have you lived up to what your younger self dreamed up?

A. I probably have.  I think I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and since middle school, I definitely wanted to be a journalist, so my younger self would probably be very happy to know that I’m working in the field I’ve always loved.  When you say you want to be a writer, sometimes people seem to think you’re crazy or need a fallback plan, but I’m glad that I stuck with it and did what I wanted to do.

Q. Was there a defining moment in your life when you knew that you wanted to pursue a career in journalism?

A. There was never really one defining moment that I can remember. I know that by the time I was in middle school, I had some great English teachers and knew pretty confidently that I wanted to be a writer. By the time I was in high school and started to have some stories published in the Observer-Reporter, I was 100 percent positive that I wanted to be a reporter. Seeing my name in a byline for the first time was definitely one of those moments when I got a little extra boost of motivation and felt really dedicated to making sure that I’d keep seeing my name there in bylines and keep doing what I loved.

College and University Life …

Q. What did it feel like when you heard the news that you won the 2021 Presidential Leadership and Scholarship Award?

A. I put in a lot of work during my time at La Roche, and much of it was done in service to the La Roche community – like dedicating hours and hours of my time to maintain the college newspaper, which I feel could be considered a public service, and volunteering on campus.  Often, I felt that my work there wasn’t really recognized.  I didn’t have metrics to gauge exactly how many people read the Courier, but I was under the impression it wasn’t that many – and I often felt certain people there took the hard work I did there for granted.  I did all of that work for the Courier with no budget for supplies, no print product, not even a real office. So, it was nice to finally be recognized for all the work I had done during my four years at La Roche and to finally have someone acknowledge that I made a genuinely strong effort to share my time and talents with the community. 

Q. How has La Roche University shaped you into the person you are today?

A. I again have to go back to the Courier.  Working with the Courier and Ed was the highlight of my time at La Roche – and it was where I grew the most as a writer and a person.  Writing for the Courier not only helped me to improve all the skills that are important to my field, [but] it also gave me the opportunity to see what it was like to be a reporter before actually entering the field.  I got a taste of what it was like to cover government bodies by covering SGA.  I got a little bit of exposure to press conferences, handling sources who weren’t thrilled with what we were writing, and building relationships. In that way, the Courier shaped me as a journalist.  It also shaped me as a person, because through my work with the Courier, I got to hear some really amazing stories – stories of a Sister who selflessly served as a nurse during World War II, stories of a member of the La Roche community who was so brave and inspiring after a tree fell on her car, stories of a poet who tried to make a difference in the lives of his students.  There were so many neat experiences I was able to have because of the Courier that really defined my time at La Roche.

Q. What do you think was your biggest impact on La Roche University?

A. I hope that the work I did with the Courier impacted La Roche as much as I had hoped it would.  I like to think I was able to inform and educate people through the Courier and keep them aware of what was happening on campus.  I like to think [it] helped to give people a voice and hold the university, its administrators and student government leaders accountable.  Even though there were times when it wasn’t easy, I got the Courier through to its 25th – and 26th – anniversary, making it the longest-run campus newspaper La Roche ever had.  And I’m still really proud of what we produced in the Courier.  So, I like to think that my work with the Courier made as much of an impact on La Roche as it made on me.

Q. What impact do you believe that internships have had on your professional development?

A. Internships offer valuable experience that you simply can’t gain in a classroom.  My internships played a huge role in helping me to develop as a writer and a professional.  They also allowed me to explore my interests, because I was able to intern in several different roles.  Through my internships, I was able to network, grow my portfolio, learn new skills and see how my skills could be adapted to so many settings, ranging from a museum to a political campaign.  Internships are a great bridge from classroom experience into the professional world and I don’t think I would have been nearly as prepared for a real job without having gained experience at those internships. 

Q. During your time at La Roche, what do you feel helped to shape you into the professional that you are today?

A. I think the class that helped me the most was Journalism I with Ed Stankowski.  In that class, I not only learned the fundamentals of journalism, but also got valuable insights about ethics and responsibility.  The fact that the class involved actually going out and writing stories gave me the experience and confidence I needed to begin writing for the Courier and pursuing internships. Truthfully, I think the biggest influence on me wasn’t a class, but my work with the Courier. Working with the Courier not only gave me invaluable writing experience, but it also taught me how to act professionally with sources, how to responsibly handle sensitive and important stories, how to manage my time, meet deadlines and how to collaborate and lead effectively. It’s the experiences I gained from working with the college newspaper that I lean on in my current job.  It’s also where I built up my resume and honed my writing skills so that I could land a job in my field before graduating.

Professional Career …

Q. What is your official position at the Tribune and how long have you worked there?

A. I am a staff writer with the Tribune-Review. After winning the Jim Borden Memorial Scholarship at the end of my junior year, I began at the Trib as an intern [in] the summer.  During my senior year, I continued to work for the Trib part-time before accepting a full-time position there upon graduation in May.

Q. What do you attribute your professionalism to?

A. Journalism is a field for which I have always had tremendous respect.  When you’re in a job that serves the public, you have to take your work seriously.  Because I’m trying to keep people informed and tell people’s stories, I feel an obligation to do it right.  As a reporter, if I don’t do my job well, tell the story wrong, [or] let myself become biased, then I’m doing a disservice to the people who trust me to tell their stories, and I risk losing the trust of my readers.  I also think that having a good mentor in Ed and a good place to learn and grow in the Courier helped me figure out how to balance the responsibilities of my career and ensure I could act professionally and ethically.  Now, I have excellent colleagues and editors at the Trib who continue to help steer me in the right direction and motivate me to continue doing my job as well as I can.

Q. What do you attribute your success in your chosen field to?

A. I started working toward this when I was in high school.  For a few years in high school, I wrote for a program called Flipside, which was an initiative that allowed local high schoolers to write for the Observer-Reporter, my hometown newspaper.  Then, when I went to college, I immediately began writing for the Courier and was seeking out internships by the end of my freshman year.  I completed six internships while I was at La Roche, while also serving as editor of the Courier.  Simply put, all of that work paid off.  There were also some amazing people who helped me along the way – like Ed, Becky Pasqua and Sarah Reichle who were wonderful mentors for me at La Roche, and my coworkers and editors at the Trib, who have taught me so much during my time there already.

Q. How did you become a writer at the Tribune and what made you want to work there specifically?

A. I won the Jim Borden Memorial Scholarship, which comes with a scholarship, an internship and an offer of full-time employment following graduation.  After completing my internship and working there part-time during my senior year, I was offered the opportunity to work there full-time.  As soon as I began interning with them, I knew it would be a great place to work. Not only do I have extremely talented and supportive coworkers, but I also have a job doing what I love.  I’m really proud of the stories we put out every day and, as someone who has aspired to be a journalist for so long, working there is a dream come true.

Q. What is the average day like working for one of the big Pittsburgh newspapers?

A. There really isn’t an ‘average day.’  That’s actually one of the things that makes my job really fun.  I’m constantly talking to different people, covering different events and learning new things.  Sometimes, an average day involves calling a few health experts for updates on the covid-19 pandemic.  Other days, it’s driving to a new business to take some photos of the place and talk with the owners.  There are just so many different stories and pieces of news, so every day is honestly something different. 

Q. What is your favorite part of being a journalist professionally?

A. The best part of being a journalist is that I feel my work matters.  I think it’s important that there are journalists out there who are keeping the public informed and giving people a voice.  Even seemingly small stories can sometimes mean a lot to someone or help somebody.  It’s truly rewarding for me to know that my writing may have helped somebody to better prepare for the upcoming flu season, better understand what they should expect sending their kids to school in a pandemic, or to voice their concerns about a new development in their town.  To quote Thomas Jefferson, “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.”  I really believe that.  I believe that journalists have that power to keep people informed and accountable and to help give a voice to people who might not otherwise have that platform.  I think doing something with meaning is really important and rewarding.  It’s also fun to have a job where I get to meet new people, go to new events and do something I enjoy.

Q. Where do you see yourself in 10 to 15 years?

A. I would definitely love to stay at the Tribune-Review and continue to help people tell their stories.  I hope that in 10 to 15 years, I’m still fortunate enough to be writing and reporting for a newspaper that has already done so much for me and given me such an incredible opportunity.  I grew up close to Pittsburgh and I just bought a home in Pittsburgh, so it’s a great experience to be able to write about my hometown region.

Julia Felton with her Presidential Leadership and Scholarship Award.

Pictured: Julia Felton with her Presidential Leadership and Scholarship Award.

Photo Courtesy of Julia Felton

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