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Learning how to jump without looking down: Words from a graduating editor

Matthew Mueller
Photo by Matthew Mueller

There’s an image of myself from my freshman year of college that’s remained plastered to the folds of my brain since.

In it, I sit with my parents on the bed in my newly-decorated dorm room as we wipe sweat from our foreheads and admire our handiwork of perfectly hung band posters and T-shirts folded neatly in drawers.

I’m dead silent, because the only word left to say is goodbye. And yes, I was unashamedly one of those freshmen who didn’t want to leave their parents.

They waited with bated breath for me to give them the go-ahead to depart, but I felt like I was on the edge of a cliff, my eyes trained to the bottomless pit below while I should have been focusing on pulling off an Evil Knievel-style jump to the other side and sticking the landing. As fine of a student as I was, I wasn’t sure I had what it took to start this new journey.

Despite my overwhelming nerves, I would eventually hug my parents and say goodbye, but the next four years of my life would be chock-full of cliffside moments just like that.

I’ve never been a particularly confident person, and the reasons for which should probably be saved for a therapist, but let me tell you — college without confidence is hard as hell.

And if you’ve ever seen me trip up a flight of stairs in White Hall or heard my innumerable self-deprecating jokes, you know I may just be the most qualified person to make that claim.

Even so, I knew that I couldn’t spend all of my years here marred by the same distrust in my own capabilities I had in my life prior.

Looking to prove myself and learn a thing or two, I did what any journalism major should do and dipped my toes into our student-ran publications.

I proudly told everyone that I wanted to work for Rolling Stone one day (naive, but I miss this Gray’s optimism), and I put all the effort I could into my journalism courses, absorbing a wealth of knowledge from my brilliant professors so that I could excel in the newsroom.

However, just as hard without confidence as college is student journalism, it turns out.

I approached a familiar cliffside when I entered our offices. I constantly asked myself, “Am I a good writer and editor? Do I have anything important to say? Does everyone around me think I’m a bumbling idiot?”

Being surrounded by talented and intelligent people when you’re still trying to determine whether or not you are talented and intelligent yourself is a war I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

But let me give you a piece of advice that I so desperately needed as I began my career: stop giving a shit about what everyone else is doing and just, you guessed it, jump.

I did just that, starting to write wordy reviews of the music I loved and features about the people and places from the city I now called home. I took on my first of many editorial positions early, but I was riding a high that others were taking note of.

Anytime we printed a newspaper or magazine, I rushed it home to my family to show off, not unlike a cat flaunting a dead mouse to its owner. The foreign feeling of genuine pride in myself anytime relatives saw my bylines in print or complimented what our media outlet was doing meant the absolute world to me.

I forfeited my sanity to copy edit stories at parties, behind the wheel (not proud of that) and on the sides of roads (when I realized that editing while driving is a bad idea). I spent many late nights meticulously combing through newspapers and 100-page magazines.

And while the work might have seemed unfathomable (at times, it was), it was never dreadful. My brave jumps landed me among peers who made things much easier, not only viewing me as a valuable contributor but also a friend. I decorated a desk but more often found myself sitting among them at a shared table.

To be seen like this did wonders for that scanty confidence I started with. For the first time in my life, I could tell others without hesitation that I was good at what I did and, in turn, accept their praise.

Make no mistake — I still trip up every flight of stairs, but now I do so with a smile on my face. And I’m no stranger to jokes, but lately they haven’t been at the expense of myself. A lot of that is probably just growing up, but I believe I have this newsroom to thank for the rest.

I have a lot of people to thank, actually.

To my parents, who’ve given me the entire world and never once doubted what I’d do with it. I hope that I’ve made you proud, because I’m really, really tired.

To Hannah, you leave behind a legacy not quite like any other. They’ll have to pry print out of my cold, dead hands, but the path you laid out for the future of our media outlet is paramount. Thank you for being both a fearless leader and a wonderful friend. You are the fiercest Chicagoan I know.

To Abbey, my sun and my stars. This paper will thrive in your more than capable, uber-passionate hands.

To Gracie, the best co-host of our three-episode podcast, to Akhila, my favorite pop-timist and designer, to Kristen, the finest features desk heiress I could ask for, and to Alexis, Jack, Reaghan, Kaci, Casey, Giana, “Little Bryce,” Nate, Natalia, Lilly, Adah, Matthew, Zaida, Liberty, Ava, Delaney, Courtney, Quézia, Peyton and so, so many more talented people — thank you all.

To Cole, Sam and Ali, I may not be a big sports fan, but I am a Cole, Sam and Ali fan. So many of my favorite moments in the office include the three of you. I couldn’t be more grateful for your humor, your passion and your heart.

To Rayleigh, if I had a dollar for every time I asked myself “What would Rayleigh do?” I’d have enough to buy a plane ticket to London and visit you. The kindness you showed me in an otherwise bleak semester continues to stick with me.

To my magazine girls from across the publication pond — Rana, Olivia, Emma, Laurel, Carlee, Sydney, Lily, Mal and the rest of you fashionable people — thank you for your patience and some of the most fun I’ve ever had in a work setting.

To my inimitable friend Ryan, whose booming voice and boisterous presence once sent chills down my spine (and, admittedly, still does on occasion), thank you for your airtight advice, which I will always take, and for taking care of me when my kin couldn’t. If being my hardest goodbye was an olympic sport, you’d be going for gold.

To David, your insight has never gone unappreciated. For you, I will always put aside my deep-seated, nail-biting fear of pigeons.

To “Big Bryce,” who never let me breathe for loving The Smiths. Frankly, Mr. Shankly, I’m so glad you found your way to Kernel Media. We’re incredibly lucky to have you.

To my friends outside of our roach-infested basement, thank you for listening to my rants, even when it was so obvious you were tired of hearing about the pitfalls of student journalism.

To William T. Young Library, I’m sorry you were mad about my study spots story. I’m not, however, sorry that I said you weren’t “all that.”

To the University of Kentucky, if the Kernel’s showed me anything, it’s that you are a hot mess wrapped in so much royal blue. But thank you for four bewildering, radical years. You’ve taught me things about myself that I never thought I’d learn.

To Kernel Media, thank you for literally everything. I will haunt you forever — in all the best ways possible, of course.
Wherever I go next, I’ll think of every production night, every story I edited, every AP Stylebook entry and every friendly face that crossed my path during my invaluable years here.

I’ll think of people like Emma Reilly, who may just be the strongest and smartest person I’ve ever met.

I’ll think of our news editor, Casey Sebastiano, who I sat in my lap on a computer every Monday this semester so she could meet with her reporters on Zoom as she studied and worked from Philadelphia with absolutely no complaints.

I’ll think of this dirty, smelly office and how I somehow found my way in here every day.

I’ll miss its flickering can lights, fridge of expired food, thick air, tchotchkes, boxes of newspapers and magazines, and — most importantly — all of its inhabitants who, like me, found it to be a pretty okay place to land after that initial Evil Knievel jump.

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Matthew Mueller, Photo Editor

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