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‘How do you live your best life?’

Reporting stories that matter

By Jennifer Ackerman-Haywood – Collegiate Adviser

Life is short. We know. But most of us still need reminders to live life with intention.

I began my journalism career as a police reporter focused almost exclusively on unfortunate events and consequently gained an appreciation for every birthday, sunrise, sunset and random act of kindness I experience. After many interviews with people who have suffered great loss and writing countless obituaries about others I never met, I learned to follow my heart and invest my time in people. I wanted to pass these life lessons on to my journalism students, but I wasn’t sure how because I didn’t learn this stuff in a classroom.

Then I met a kindred spirit named Jane while reporting a story for my weekly newspaper column at the beginning of the fall semester. Our meeting was arranged by the folks at Hospice of Michigan, so I understood the circumstances going in. It would have been easier if we didn’t hit it off, but I liked Jane immediately and she liked me enough to send me off with a grandmotherly hug. I went back to visit Jane a couple days later and brought some supplies to show her my favorite hand quilting technique. She wanted to try it right away and appeared to enjoy the mini craft session as much as I did. We had fun. But I left that second meeting with a story for my column and a heavy heart because I knew I’d probably never get to see Jane again.

Somehow the news of Jane’s passing was surprising even though it should not have been. When we met, I reframed her terminal illness and I wrote about a woman who was living with a health challenge, smiling and laughing and quilting as long as she could. I waited a while to look up her obituary and confront the undeniable fact that Jane died about a month after we met. She was 78. We spent less than three hours total together, but in that short time she inspired me to partner with Hospice of Michigan to create a project for my students.

The collection of stories you’re now holding is the culmination of a series of real-life journalism experiences that you can’t get reading a textbook or sitting in class.

To complete this project, I went out in the field with my most experienced students and stood shoulder to shoulder with them as they documented the lives of people who were living life to the fullest while in hospice care. We prepped in the car on the way to interviews with people we quickly grew fond of despite our best efforts to remain objective and detached.

Small groups worked on this project and brought audio, video and written stories back to the classroom to share and discuss with the entire class. As a group we brainstormed the best way to tie this project back to our campus community. How could we inspire students and staff to ponder the meaning of their lives?

We decided to build large chalkboards and easels to display outside the Main Building where we asked students to pen responses to questions including: “What are you grateful for?” and “What was your happiest day?” And the GRCC community did not disappoint, with hundreds posting handwritten reflections on our boards.

While it was challenging to add this project into our already hectic publishing schedule, the semester would not have been as meaningful without it. This project took on a life of its own and provided a shared purpose that sustained several of us while we were dealing with some of our own personal losses in the background.

Together, we learned valuable lessons about love and living with intention from some of the most extraordinary teachers.

It was an awesome experience for me to watch my students stretch beyond what is expected of community college journalists. One of the most humbling moments was when I watched the Collegiate photo editor show a woman a portrait – taken days earlier of her parents smiling together – as her father lay dying in a bed just inside the door behind her. She smiled and tears she’d been holding back for days streamed down her face as she took in the precious moment, captured in black and white, that she held in her hands.

As I watched this young man discover the impact of his documentary work, I knew I would never teach quite the same way again.

We are all different now. This project changed us. It broke our hearts and filled us up with inspiration to document more, make our days count and pack our lives with as many meaningful experiences as we can string together.

We hope this collection of stories and photos will inspire you, too.

Send project feedback to jhaywood@grcc.edu.

Watch the behind the scenes video detailing the making of this project here.

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