O’Connor is one of the members of the graduating class to be featured on Today at Elon as a "profile of resilience" for their ability to adapt and succeed in the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s putting it mildly to say things were moving quickly in spring 2020 with what would become the global COVID-19 pandemic. At Elon, the initial impact was felt as students studying abroad were brought home, their programs ended as new health and safety measures were put in place internationally to try to constrain the spread of the virus.
By March, the university decided to temporarily shift classes online following spring break. Changing conditions would mean that Elon and other colleges and universities would soon shift completely to remote learning to finish out the semester.
It was a lot to take in as a student. What started as a “normal” semester would end with students leaving campus nearly two months earlier than expected, with a shift to remote learning creating challenges for students and faculty members as they adapted to new technology and teaching tactics.
For Kyra O’Connor ‘23, journalism would provide a framework for seeking to better understand and respond to the pandemic. While absorbing how the pandemic was drastically changing her own life, she also threw herself into helping others understand what it all could mean.
“I always feel like my way to contribute is through writing and journalism,” said O’Connor, who served as executive director of Elon News Network during both her junior and senior years. “While I wasn’t sure how to handle it, journalism made sure I knew how to handle it.”
O’Connor would play a leading role in covering the university’s response to the pandemic and how the pandemic was deeply changing the lives of students, faculty and staff. Her experience during her remaining time at Elon would be one of growth as a student and as a journalist. As she graduates, she looks forward to making an even bigger impact in the field she loves.
“This industry is not stagnant,” O’Connor said. “We can go in and change it. We can go in and make it better.”
O’Connor is a member of the Class of 2023, which arrived on campus in August 2019 preparing to have a “normal” first year of college, only to have the pandemic cause an early departure from campus and a college experience that was disrupted by health and safety protocols, travel restrictions, anxiety about the future, an evolution of the learning environment and constantly changing plans. She is among this year’s graduating seniors to be featured on Today at Elon as “profiles of resilience” for the way they faced the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and adapted to find meaning and success.
‘You are going to be cared about here’
When O’Connor arrived at Elon as a Communications Fellow in August 2019, she had already been building her portfolio of work as a journalist for years. She covered the 2016 election cycle as a Scholastic Kid Reporter, with articles on the first Republican candidate debates, the Republican convention, watch parties and rallies. She had penned articles as a freelancer for Ms. Magazine and was editor-in-chief of her high school’s news magazine.
Her clip file goes back even further. She put together a classroom newspaper when she was in the third grade and remembers writing an article for her application to the Scholastic Kids Press Corps about how a playground that was built by community members had deteriorated to the point that it was a safety hazard. She interviewed a father who had helped with the construction of the playground and had seen his children grow up playing on the equipment he helped build with his own hands.
“I remember thinking, ‘I could sit here and have people tell me what’s important to them for the rest of my life’,” O’Connor said.
She learned about Elon at a Journalism Education Association convention while in high school when she stopped at a booth staffed by Tommy Kopetskie, Colin Donohue and Naeemah Clark from the School of Communications. She was “blown away” when she heard about the time and attention students received at Elon and the idea that students had the freedom to explore and innovate within the curriculum and through student media organizations. She recalls her mom saying, “You are going to be cared about here. You are going to be genuinely taken care of and held to a high standard.”
‘COVID is here’
O’Connor began her work with Elon News Network, the student-run new organization, even before enrolling at Elon in August 2019. A campus visit as a high school senior coincided with the 2018 midterm elections and when she stopped by the ENN newsroom, the politics editor put her to work collecting the results for the race for sheriff in Alamance County. Within weeks of arriving on campus as a first-year student, she would have her first byline in The Pendulum. “I got my first story because of Anton Delgado (then managing editor of the Pendulum), who mentored me throughout my time on campus freshman year,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor would take on articles she was assigned, and she began pitching articles as well. She explored the significance of new inclusive excellence positions and initiatives at Elon and looked into vaccine requirements for students, even before the issue became such a prominent issue during the COVID-19 pandemic. She reported on the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. She would work her way to becoming enterprise story coordinator.
She recalls first realizing that COVID-19 could impact Elon after Winter Term when study abroad programs began being impacted by outbreaks in Italy, Spain and other European countries. Her spring break plans in March included a service trip to Jamaica, which was canceled as governments around the world including in the United States clamped down on international traffic. Not long before Elon’s spring break, the university announced that it would shift to online learning at least temporarily after the break, with students urged to remain home.
It was a moment when O’Connor felt torn. She was scrambling to make plans to unexpectedly return to her home eight hours away in Ohio for an undetermined amount of time. At the same time, she knew Elon News Network needed to report on the unprecedented shift to remote learning.
“Once I got in the newsroom, it was very much an environment that realized there are a lot of things that need to be sorted out, but let’s do our jobs and be of service to the community,” O’Connor said. “I think Anton and the other leaders in the newsroom chose to handle it by saying, ‘Let’s do our jobs first and let’s support each other when we’re done.’”
For O’Connor, throwing herself into reporting the story was a way to step back and attempt to understand the bigger picture. She was assigned to head to the archives to find out how the university had responded to other public health emergencies, such as the flu pandemic in 1918. “We all had parts to play,” she said. “And that was how we started reporting on COVID — it was very much a distant headline that moved closer to home with study abroad, and then it was, ‘COVID is here.’”
‘That was my way to help’
Even after returning home to Ohio, O’Connor continued reporting for ENN on what had been declared a global pandemic. Then came the news that students would not be returning to finish the semester. “It got really difficult when we realized that we weren’t going back,” O’Connor said. “I had finally started to make friendships and relationships that I liked a lot and I appreciated a lot.”
It was another example of how she turned to journalism to help better understand bigger issues that were unfolding around her. In high school when fellow students staged walkouts following the shooting deaths at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, she got involved by reporting on it for her school news magazine. “Part of it was very natural to me,” she said. “That was my way to help.”
Her reporting that spring and summer would expand to other weighty topics, including the effort to establish a union at Elon for adjunct faculty members, the growing number of protests over police violence and racism, and the widespread challenges people, including students, were facing as the pandemic truly took hold.
O’Connor said that a lot of her reporting became more personal in response to the turmoil that she was reporting on. It was not enough to report on issues in a distant way, and what was required was to hear and tell the personal stories of those who were impacted, she said.
“A lot of our stories became focused more so on people,” she said. “It was so hard to ignore anyone’s humanity and just talk about an issue.”
She recalls interviewing professors and how they were adapting to changes in how they approached their classes with new masking requirements, restrictions in the size of indoor gatherings, the incorporation of online learning tools and the mental health toll the pandemic was taking on everyone.
“In one way, it reinforced the ability that journalism has to remind everyone that we’re all human and we’re all in the same situations and that people are not as alone as they think they are,” O’Connor said. “I don’t think people understood how important journalism and storytelling were until they didn’t have anything else — they were isolated and the only way to connect to other people was through storytelling. There was a lot more reverence and respect and understanding that journalism is something that ultimately connects us.”
Changes in gathering the news
Students returned to Elon in fall 2020 to begin a new semester under new health and safety requirements that would create a different campus and classroom experience, and also pose some logistical challenges for ENN when it came to newsgathering, publishing and broadcasting. Pockets of COVID cases on campus sent students into isolation or quarantine, which along with causing other disruptions could upend ENN’s ability to publish a story and produce a newscast.
“I was quasi-managing editor of The Pendulum for almost a month straight because our poor managing editor that year kept either getting COVID or her roommate got COVID,” O’Connor said. “It was very stressful because you had to be ready at a moment’s notice to be someone’s contingency plan.”
ENN’s newsroom is also a place where students learn from one another and pass down best practices, industry standards, ethical guidelines and the nuts and bolts of reporting, editing and broadcasting. That grew more challenging, with indoor masking and personal distance directives. Those students already familiar with conducting and filming interviews had to adapt themselves to new conditions.
O’Connor said that she found some students new to ENN who may have lacked some of the skills new journalists learn about conducting interviews, but who were more well-versed in some of the technical skills of digital communications, including the use of social media. “I have had to adapt how I teach people different things because we’re not all starting at the same point anymore,” O’Connor said. “And I would say it’s the other way around as well — some of those younger journalists are technologically beyond the pre-COVID generation.”
O’Connor would go on to serve as executive director — the top leadership position — of Elon News Network during both her junior and senior years and oversee the organization’s coverage of the continued evolution of Elon’s response to the pandemic. Within ENN there were organizational changes, too, as responsibilities shifted between positions and ENN leadership re-envisioned where duties should fall. She also felt that ENN was taking on more of a responsibility to be a primary news source for Elon, Burlington and Alamance County amid staffing cuts at local news organizations.
“We had the staff and the resources to really do in-depth reporting that could greatly serve our community,” O’Connor said. “But to be honest, it could become more of a weight than a buoy. It was difficult to face the stories we hadn’t done and lose sight of the stories we did do. I’m thankful I had the support systems and people in my life I needed to help snap me out of it.”
Among those people was Amber Moser, who now serves as director of internships in the School of Communications. Moser met O’Connor during O’Connor’s first year on campus as part of the annual program for Communications Fellows in Florida during Winter Term. Moser was serving as a career advisor at the time.
“Kyra has always been so very personable and very easy to talk to,” Moser said. “That’s something I have appreciated about her — her ability to seek out and build relationships with the people around her.”
Moser said she has admired O’Connor’s persistence as both a journalist and a student. “When she has faced hardships or hard days, she powered through it and she came out the other side stronger,” she said. “She’s one of the students who knew what she wanted to do when she got here, and she went for it head-on.”
Moser teaches an internship class for students who are participating in internships to help them reflect on their experiences and make the most out of the experiences they are having. It was an opportunity for them to build their connection, with O’Connor turning to her after the class was over for advice. When Moser was out on maternity leave, O’Connor was one of the students who reached out to Moser to see how she was doing. “Kyra is one of those students who pops in and says hello all the time,” Moser said. “She’s creative and she’s intelligent, and I know those are qualities that are going to serve her well wherever she lands.”
O’Connor was selected to participate during the summer of 2022 in the prestigious Carnegie-Knight News 21 national reporting initiative based at the Arizona State University Cronkite School of Journalism. She would spend time that summer in Chicago reporting on transparency in policing with a focus on public records laws that are unique and may obscure police actions and misconduct from public scrutiny.
O’Connor said all of these experiences have helped her progress as a journalist, and also to continue thinking of how she approaches journalism. She has a greater understanding of the importance of the work she is undertaking, as well as an appreciation for how to better separate herself from the work she does at times. She now thinks of herself as Kyra, who is a journalist, instead of Kyra the journalist.
“During the pandemic, we as journalists were confronted with the fact that we weren’t always telling the whole story,” O’Connor said. “There were a lot of narratives that were being lost and were quite frankly being ignored.
“I think the pandemic made journalists think critically about how they were telling stories and why we were telling the stories we were,” she said. “For me personally, I’ve developed a greater understanding of why what I’m doing is important. … It’s been very easy to see the direct and incredible impact that storytelling can have for people who are wondering if anyone can hear them.”