2016 SEJ Conference: Sacramento and a Search for Self

Dear Society of Environmental Journalists and fellow readers,

This is going to get a bit personal.

It hasn’t yet been a week since returning from Sacramento on Sunday, and you all feel so far away. In terms of mileage, you are. We scattered back across the country after five full days together, and yet you left me feeling anything but. So before I lose it – this feeling of acceptance and initiation, this feeling of admiration and integration, one of inspiration and determination – I have to write it down.

Getting to Sacramento didn’t start last Tuesday night on a plane for me. It started in the spring of 2015, when I made a plan to go to graduate school for journalism. Working full-time in nonprofit, I became restless without a camera constantly around my neck and because freelancing on the side never got its deserved attention. I defined my time by what I loved doing most, but I wasn’t doing enough of it. Instead I was sitting at a desk all day, working in fundraising.

So I made a choice to get out of the Midwest. I carefully chose my schools, reconnected with undergraduate professors, spent long hours in conversation with my local mentors and editors, wrote for bigger and better publications, made time for online applications and personal statements, and mentally battled my way through the obstacles and moments that said I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t good enough, it was too much of a risk.

I submitted my applications the first week of January, days after I broke up with my boyfriend and my new boss started at work. And while waiting until March was agony in more ways than one, the night I clicked “submit” I cried out of sheer happiness. For once I knew what I wanted in life, and I was going after it wholeheartedly. Broken heart be damned.

So finding out my acceptance in mid-March to the University of Colorado Boulder was a mixture of joy, relief, and promise. Receiving an assistantship meant I could attend, meant that I was leaving my beloved Minneapolis, meant that there was finally more ahead than behind me.

The hard work of finding a place to live and all the rest kept me perpetually busy. Did you know there is more paperwork to submit after you are accepted into graduate school than in the process of applying? March through August was a blur in every aspect, from my day job to doctors appointments to family vacation to packing for the move. So when I finally arrived in Boulder, I was already burned out.

Orientation, then classes, then assignments and school was off to a busy start. I made great friends and got to know the area, but I was fighting it. I didn’t miss Minneapolis, but I wasn’t sure I had come to the right place. I had spent a lot of money getting here. Everything was a doubt, a “what am I doing,” a “should I have just kept freelancing?”

On the bus to the Denver airport, my thoughts were “I hope this is the bus that goes to the airport” and “this trip better be worth it.” Wandering the airport alone I was at wit’s end, tired and hungry and generally grumpy, when I walked into a book shop and plucked Susan Casey’s latest of the shelf. If I was going to have to wait for a maintenance repair on this flight, at least I was going to read about dolphins while doing so.

Then even the front desk at the hotel in Sacramento didn’t seem to want me there. “What’s a payment order?” she kept asking fellow staff, the clock approaching midnight. Finally, they let me have my room, and the conference could begin.

My pessimistic self had expected the long bus ride, the flight delay, the fatigue, a few slow sessions. But what I couldn’t have prepared myself for was the community that is SEJ. Coming as part of the CEJ (Center for Environmental Journalism, CU Boulder), I found connections left and right. I couldn’t not run into someone who knew of the fellowship there, had done the fellowship, or had another connection to my professors or colleagues. And even the people that I had no mutual relationships with were eager and friendly in a way that caught me off guard.

The field trip to Bodega Bay taught me about the ocean – and that age and experience don’t matter so much when it comes to sharing fresh oysters, grinning over cute white abalone, and bracing oneself on a windy Coast Guard boat. Wonder won the day, as we watched seals play in the surf and looked at sea urchins under microscopes. I felt a child-like glee find its way into my veins, like an old friend.

I met new friends and fellow Coloradans that night, forged future collaborations and found out that someone else loves the correlation between art and the environment just as much as I do. The last time I talked about my undergraduate research interests at length like this was in Northampton, Massachusetts, at an art history program four years ago.

Friday started with advice on science writing and ended with a series of enthusiastic and heartfelt conversations in dim lighting in downtown Sacramento. I felt closer to my CU group and everyone in the room. I was deemed “ebullient” and I couldn’t argue. I laughed about everything and dug a fork into raw honey guiltlessly. I didn’t mind so much I still had homework to do in the hotel room afterward.

Saturday I held back tears during the moving presentations at the Indigenous Rights panel. In that hour I understood the power and influence of the media, the choices of journalists, better than from any political commentary. The words that we choose to define others. The work that is yet to be done.

Then I felt so lucky to spend extra time at the Mondavi Institute, joking about beer and wine from the best. And by the reception that night, I shouldn’t have been surprised when a fellow attendee saw me hesitating in line and proclaimed: “Get your wine, Kelsey!”

I could blame it on the white wine vibes, but I almost had more fun at that dinner table – no fellow Coloradans present – than in the whole week combined. (Almost.) I discussed a difficult and ethically tricky situation I’d been through over the summer, and was supported in my choices, validated in my experience by fellow professional journalists.

The flight home included: a memorable meal at the airport with a favorite fellow graduate student from the conference, a happenstance seating assignment near a new colleague and friend, and strong sense of place even though I was leaving one.

I can’t say that anything’s been remarkably better since returning to Boulder. I’m still living in the same cheap apartment, hate Mondays and mornings, and am behind on hours of audio transcription. The work never stops.

But I am unable to forget the five days in California that showed me a part of myself I had forgotten. I can’t forget the feelings of wonder, of freedom, of chance and curiosity that helped me capitalize on the experience. We all need more of those feelings every day. And I won’t forget that I am a part of something greater than myself, both as a member of SEJ and as a journalist in a world full of partial truths, as desperate for answers as it is optimism.

So as a journalist in the making – and an environmental journalist – thank you SEJ, thank you fellow conference attendees, thank you CU Boulder for taking a chance on me, and letting me take this chance on myself. The present and the future – hopefully including November – have never seemed better.

See you next year in Pittsburgh?



Photo by Michael Kodas


  1. Kelsey, that was so inspiring. I started a blog about a year ago, and I never dreamed that I would be writing about the environment as much as I have. It’s become the focus of my blog, really. I live only about an hour from Sacramento. I kept seeing tweets from those who were attending and wished that could be there, too. I’m much older than you with a lot of family responsibilities. But I remain committed to do what I can from home on my laptop. Keep that beautiful spirit.


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