Celebrating a Century of Scholastic Journalism Education

JEA Centennial

Celebrating a Century of Scholastic Journalism Education

JEA Centennial

Celebrating a Century of Scholastic Journalism Education

JEA Centennial

Nancy Smith has built a career unlocking voices and empowering students

Nancy Y. Smith won the Carl Towley Award in 2018.

It’s a story oft repeated. After a meaningful high school journalism experience, a degree in journalism seems logical. Somewhere along the way, that aspiring newspaper professional decides that what they really want to do is become an adviser who inspires the next generation.

That’s how it worked for Nancy Yamin Smith. As a “determined freshman” at Adlai E. Stevenson HS in Lincolnshire, Illinois, she wanted to “try all the things” and, in addition to enrolling in journalism, she tried out for volleyball and school plays and ran for student government.

Encouraged by her Intro to Journalism teacher, Caryl Jo Dagro, she quickly joined the newspaper staff. By senior year, she was the returning editor in chief of the Statesman newspaper and a two-year Ambassador yearbook staffer.

She enrolled at Eastern Illinois University because her trusted adviser was an alumna and that’s where her staffs went to summer workshop. A journalism major, she imagined a career in writing or developing systems to organize newsroom processes.

But when, as publication coordinator of the Daily Eastern News, one of her responsibilities was opening the university’s pressroom so local high school staffers could create their papers there, her goals shifted. She changed her plans — and her major. In order to meet secondary education requirements, she became an English major with a minor in journalism. “I just loved the energy and the enthusiasm from the kids,” Smith said. “And I wanted to do more than unlock the door so they had access to our space. I wanted to help them.”

Fast forward decades, and that’s still what she loves. On campus at Lafayette HS in Wildwood, Missouri, where she’s taught Intro to Digital Media, Visual Journalism, Journalism Writing and Reporting, Digital Media Production, News Production, Yearbook Production since 1993, she empowers students by reminding them of the importance of their work. “There are lots of incredible opportunities on campus, but no others like student media,” she said. “What else could compare to curating the permanent history of the school? The staffers are truly the holders of the stories that stand the test of time only because they research, write and share them.”

The walls of 137A feature plaques honoring the students and their publications from JEA, NSPA and other groups. Legend was recently inducted into NSPA’s Hall of Fame for publications earning 10 All-American ratings in 11 years. Smith, the 2016 H.L. Hall National Yearbook Adviser of the Year, was also honored with school, district and state honors, JEA’s Medal of Merit, Distinguished Adviser, Special Recognition Adviser awards, NSPA’s Pioneer and both Distinguished Adviser and Special Recognition Adviser in the DJNF National HS Journalism Teacher of the Year competition prior to winning the Carl Towley Award in 2018.

As a student, she’d benefitted from off-campus learning opportunities that allowed her to interact with her peers, learn from others and celebrate journalistic successes. As an adviser, she knew she wanted that for her staffers as well and, when she and her husband relocated to the St. Louis area, she immediately set out to find her people.

She started attending and volunteering at local and state scholastic journalism events. In 1989, she attended her first fall national convention when St. Louis hosted the event — and she’s taken students to every fall national since. Soon, she was volunteering as a Write-off judge — and she found herself surrounded by hundreds of “her people” at each convention.

In 2012, Smith took over as Write-off chair. It’s a huge job, involving thousands of competitors and hundreds of judges in nearly 50 categories at the national conventions, plus myriad details that begin with making needed adjustments and writing new contests and end with the distribution of certificates and medals as conventions close.

Smith’s work as contest chair was the basis of her Towley nomination. “What Nancy uniquely brings to the equation is a vision,” Bradley Wilson, MJE, wrote. “She doesn’t just want the Write-off contests to be good where they are today. She has insight and ideas to make them great tomorrow.”

Her work continues; collecting feedback after each competition allows her to make changes that address member needs and technological advances. Her goal is to reflect what is really happening in schools and to be as equitable as possible. In 2019, the program was rebranded under the name National Student Media Contests.

Smith has also made a major impact, according to JEA vice president Justin Daigle, MJE, by encouraging advisers everywhere to get more involved.

“She’s one of the first people advisers meet or see at a convention,” said Daigle, who met Smith at his first convention in Portland in 2010. “In our first conversation, she convinced me that the best way to meet people and to learn more was to volunteer to judge Write-offs. And she was right.

“It IS a great networking opportunity — and she loves to help advisers find their people and widen their circles of friends.”

When it comes to Nancy Smith, there’s a comment oft repeated: “She has so many people.”

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