By Julia Duvall
Sara Stanley, a 2022 graduate of Western Carolina University, was recently awarded the Julie Galvan Outstanding Graduate Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. This well-deserved accolade was the culmination of her academic and personal journey at WCU, where she found her passion for being a voice for the voiceless.
When Stanley was a senior in high school, she was not sure what she wanted to study in college or even where she wanted to go. She knew she loved theater, writing and helping people, but was not sure how to combine those passions into a career.
Stanley was an avid news reader and stayed up-to-date on current events, so the thought of studying journalism came to mind and she began researching schools with the program.
WCU was one of the first schools she came across with the communication program’s concentration in journalism. Stanley applied, got accepted and decided to go to WCU without even seeing the campus.
“The very first time I set foot on campus was at orientation,” said Stanley. “I immediately knew that WCU was the right fit for me. The professors and students I spoke to, you could tell they genuinely loved this school and I wanted to be part of that.”
While in the communication program, Stanley took a news writing class with Katerina Spasovska, associate professor in the Department of Communication, and felt a profound sense of purpose to help people through her writing and reporting.
Stanley got involved in the WCU Homebase campus ministry with Spasovska, took on the role as editor-in-chief of the Western Carolinian student-run newspaper her senior year, and focused on stories about food insecurity that college students face.
“People don’t realize that college students experience food insecurity and homelessness,” said Stanley. “Just because they live on campus and are living the normal college life, does not mean they necessarily have access to the resources they need to thrive. Then, when school is out for the summer, they have nowhere to go. This is why the Homebase ministry is such a vital part of WCU.”
In addition to her passion for helping others, Stanley says a pivotal moment of her college career was during her time as editor-in-chief of the school newspaper.
“We had just decided to bring back the print newspapers and I was going around campus by myself distributing them, and on my way back, I saw a student sitting down reading one of the newspapers,” Stanley said. “I approached him and asked him if he liked that the newspaper was back in print. He said it should have never stopped and is a piece of WCU history that can be shared with future generations.”
That’s when she knew she picked the right career path, Stanley said. She enjoys sharing important information and resources to help other people, while tapping into her theater side for the creative storytelling aspect.
After graduation, Stanley began doing freelance work and did not think she would be in the running for any awards anytime soon, if ever. But in mid-summer, she was notified that she was chosen for the award.
“I was scrolling through email and saw one from the Society of Professional Journalists and almost didn’t even open it,” said Stanley. “Once I read the email and saw my name I was in disbelief. I re-read the email a dozen times and checked the website to be sure it was true.”
Stanley was nominated by Spasovska and other faculty members in the Department of Communication.
“Sara is a perfect example of the type of person deserving of such an award,” Spasovska said. “She was a good leader to the student chapter of SPJ, on top of being a great student and a resource for our department to help other students with their work.”
After reading the criteria for the award, Stanley felt very humbled by being chosen.
“Julie was a wonderful journalist whose life was cut tragically short by a car accident,” Stanley said. “I hope that I do her memory justice and that I make WCU proud.”