Emma Decker ‘17 knew she wanted to be a journalist from a young age. In high school, she cemented her path by co-founding Grant Magazine, a community magazine produced at her high school.
While pursuing a journalism degree at the UO School of Journalism and Communication, she worked on a passion project about her two great aunts—Irish nuns who emigrated from Ireland to the United States in the 1950s to work with the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate Convent in San Antonio, Texas.
While the audio documentary started as a side project, it evolved into both her senior thesis in the Clarks Honors College and departmental thesis in the School of Journalism and Communication. It also aired on Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTE radio, and CBC/ Radio-Canada. Decker is now a producer at Blue Chalk Media in Portland, where she tells stories about the world around her.
How did you get interested in journalism?
My dad majored in journalism in college, though he didn’t end up pursuing a journalism career. When people asked me what I wanted to be, I would say, “Oh a reporter like my dad!” because I idolized him. I dressed up as a reporter for Halloween in the second grade, and 14 years later, I graduated with a degree in journalism.
I don’t know if it was a self-fulling prophecy or because I grew up in a household that appreciates good storytelling. I was always into writing and asking questions as I grew up.
My first real journalism experience was in high school. I was a founding member of the Grant magazine at Grant High School in Portland, an initiative led by The Oregonian’s Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and my mentor, Dave Austin. Working on this project was the turning point from me being just a kid who wants to be a journalist because of their dad, to realizing I’m pretty good at this. I’m writing stories—they’re getting published, gaining reactions, and creating change. By my junior year in high school, I knew I wanted to study journalism in college.
Why did you decide to focus your senior thesis on your history?
I started the nun story in my sophomore year of school and did not intend to make it my senior thesis. It was just an extra project I wanted to produce on my own time. One day I was in SOJC professor of practice Torsten Kjellstrand’s office meeting about the story. He said, “You are in the honors college, do you know what you’re going to do for your senior thesis?”
I said, “I have absolutely no idea.” Professor Kjellstrand said, “Emma this is your thesis."
He told me I already have this amazing story involving all this research. He recommended hitting two birds with one stone. I was actually able to hit three birds with one stone because I could use it for my departmental honors thesis as well.
What was your experience working with Professor Kjellstrand on your performance thesis?
One of the best things I got out of the SOJC program was the connection with professors. Torsten became a complete ally, mentor, and person to bounce ideas off of throughout the process. I don’t know if I would have believed in the story as much without the guidance from him.
What elements do you focus on when reporting a story?
One way I evolved as a journalist is figuring out what kinds of stories I’m attracted to and what kinds of stories I’m good at. I enjoy stories with themes of home, immigration, history, or any investigation.
What was your journey to Blue Chalk Media in Portland?
After I graduated from the UO, I worked in Spain for a little while and eventually moved back to Portland for an internship with Oregon Public Broadcasting. Towards the end of my internship, I got a phone call from the Creative Director at Blue Chalk because they received a big project and wanted to fill positions. They wanted someone with good writing and research skills and heard about me through the grapevine and reached out.
I was familiar with Blue Chalk before that; I think people in the SOJC programs are familiar with Blue Chalk because they have a lot of connections with the UO and often speak to SOJC classes. I immediately said yes, and it worked out. I started out doing mostly writing and ended up learning on the job and transitioned into a full-time staff member as a producer.
How do your journalism skills influence your current position at Blue Chalk Media?
My journalism skills are essential in my role at Blue Chalk Media. I use them every day in the work I do, from interviewing people, editing stories, to working well with my team.
Do you have any advice for current SOJC students?
Meet with your advisor every single quarter. I met with my advisor every term, which was so instrumental in strategizing the kind of classes to take and how those skills would prepare me for what I wanted to do.
Do passion projects. Some of the best experiences I had in college were things I did on the side, like my thesis. I was once assigned to do a story for a class, and I had a different idea of where I wanted it to go. I met with my professor and said, I was assigned this type of story, but can I do it a little bit more this way? He said absolutely, and it ended up being one of my favorite pieces I wrote in college.
Make this experience your own and come out of college with as many good pieces as you can to put in your portfolio.
— By Alli Weseman '22
Alli Weseman (she/her/hers) is a first-year student in the SOJC’s multimedia journalism master’s program in Portland. She has freelanced for Portland Monthly Magazine and hopes to work in a newsroom one day. You can find more of Alli’s work at alliwesemanphotography.com.