It takes no small amount of courage to live in a college dorm nearly sixty years after you’ve graduated. But acclaimed author and journalist Gail Sheehy ’58 did just that last month, when she returned to campus for a two-week residency to work with faculty and students, and yes, live alongside them in GreenHouse, a residential learning community in University Heights South.
“The theme of my life is daring. Never be afraid to cross barriers,” says Sheehy. The English/home economics grad has overcome many in her career. As a pioneer of “new journalism,” she was one of the first women journalists in national media, and has written for the likes of New York Magazine and Vanity Fair, covering everyone from Robert Kennedy to Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton.
Thirteen lucky students were selected for a five-workshop series with Sheehy on long-form literary and investigative journalism. “They have been thrilling,” says Sheehy. The students ranged from freshmen to seniors and have all previously published work (about half write for campus publications like The Vermont Cynic or The Water Tower).
In the first session, students broke into small groups to talk through their story ideas. “You could hear these hoots and hollers and laughter and it was so exciting, the explosion of creativity going on,” says the alumna. “They had just been given the freedom to think about something outside their normal schoolwork that is a passion or question that they’ve had.”
These self-selected topics include Vermont’s opioid crisis and the experiences of AmeriCorps volunteers. “None of them are going to finish their 1,500-word stories because they’ve only had two weeks,” says Sheehy, “but they’re sticking with it, and I’m committed to them. I want to read future drafts and keep working with them until they get it to the highest level they can.”
Luis Vivanco, anthropology professor and co-director of UVM’s Humanities Center, collaborated with Sheehy to design the residency. “We want to change the discourse around humanities, from ‘why would you major in that’ to ‘you should major in that,’” says Vivanco, “and Gail is Exhibit A of the success you can have as a humanities major.”
Sheehy has spent nearly fifty years, as she describes, “exploring the passages of people.” Her 17 books include Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, named one of the 10 most influential books of our time by the Library of Congress. Today, Sheehy’s working on a new book on Millennial daughters and their Boomer mothers, and she jumped at the chance to be immersed with her subjects on campus. It’s exactly the advice she gives aspiring journalists on how to work a story. “Be an anthropologist,” says Sheehy. “You have to saturate yourself in the experience.”
The alumna also led a workshop for faculty members, which she describes as “performing what you know.” The premise: “Take an aspect of your research or your area of expertise that you would like to be able to explain to the broad public, without using jargon,” says Sheehy. This, says Vivanco, was modeled off of last year’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science workshop, and purposely challenged professors to step out of their academic comfort zones.
Reflecting on the experience, Sheehy is energized. “I am very encouraged about the future. I know that this is a chance for journalism to enter another golden age.”