ALUMNI: Curiosity in the World Led Caitlin Healy to a Journalism Career
By Lenore Devore, B.S. Journalism 1984
Many people say age doesn’t matter. But when you’ve accomplished a lifetime of work in your first 30 years, age matters. Think of how much time Caitlin Healy, B.S. Journalism 2010, has to continue contributing her talents to make the world better.
Her accomplishments so far, to name a few:
- Spent four years in Senegal in the Peace Corps
- Traveled to Uganda with Photographers Without Borders
- Produced freelance work for the United Nations Population Fund, AP Television News, Center for Strategic and International Studies and others
- Travelled to Nigeria to report on innovative ways Nigerians who have left the country are sending money home
- Has produced various documentary-style series on topics such as veterans helping veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a prison football team.
They’re a far cry from high school. After graduating from the International Baccalaureate high-school program in Jacksonville, Florida, she didn’t know what she wanted to do. She applied to only a few colleges and found out she was accepted at UF while on a tour of another university. She skipped the second day of that tour and said yes to UF.
“I took a ton of classes. I even took some for fun. I was just experimenting. I was just so excited to be on the campus. I would ride my bike around, go to events, talks,” she said.
Her photographer’s eye and her wanderlust started in the second semester of her freshman year, when she took Introduction to Journalism and realized she found her passion. Or passions.
“This is who I am,” she said she discovered. “This is exactly the thing I want to do — a curiosity for the world, for communities and other people, and wanting to tell their stories, becoming an expert on the project you’re working on. That really appealed to me.” She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism with a concentration in Photojournalism.
“Journalism is America,” she said. “There is a real purpose to the profession.”
Now 30 and living in Washington, D.C., where she works as a video producer for McClatchy Studios, she looks back fondly at her time at UF.
She credits John Freeman, Journalism Department associate professor, with sparking her interest — all because of his two-week study abroad program in Berlin.
“I went to his office before the program” in the summer of 2008, she said. “He explained that you are learning to hit the ground running as if you were on assignment as a photojournalist. That appealed to me — really working on a story.”
Freeman also took the students to the Time magazine bureau in Berlin: “It made me want to do that,” Healy said.
She also credits UF’s International Center and Amy Panikowski, a UF Peace Corps recruiter, for helping her pursue her dream. “She was just wonderful. Talking to Amy, having her mentorship and guidance, she showed me how to do that. I really owe my wanderlust to her.”
But what really set her on her current path was an internship with the Gainesville Sun during her senior year. “That really showed me the importance of journalism to the local community and how much the local community depends on local journalism. It opened my eyes to the things that were all around me that I wasn’t exposed to — I was in a bubble on the campus.”
She covered breaking news and shot portraits of every football player that season. “I had my lens trained on Berlin, running around trying to go abroad,” she said. “That grounded program [former Sun photo editor and CJC adjunct professor] Rob Witzel gave me — the internship pipeline they have to the Gainesville Sun — that was really important to me.”
That internship turned into freelance gig with the Sun in her senior year. “I was in charge of covering the human side of game day. Getting to go out with the camera, getting to shoot people tailgating and how to visually tell the story of a big game day in Gainesville was very fun. … I was walking the same campus but I suddenly felt like a professional and I had a purpose.”
But it wasn’t always serious at UF. Healy recalls watching, and re-watching, economic lectures in the library — a class that used a different part of her brain — “then breaking and running downstairs to a Hare Krishna lunch in Plaza of the Americas with my friends. Time to chill and hang out in the plaza. I just loved those lunches.”
After college, Healy joined the Peace Corps and lived with a couple and their four children in Senegal, West Africa, for four years, not knowing what to expect. Her gardening class at UF didn’t quite prepare her for her responsibilities as an agricultural volunteer, and she didn’t feel confident in her abilities.
“When I got there I realized it was going to be way more than a job,” she says. “There was language, cultural and technical training. Senegal is facing a lot of climate issues … We realized we were connected to all these resources for learning and (we could) empower people in the community with knowledge.”
She has stayed in touch with the family, and even started a GoFundMe account to pay for a trip to America for her host family’s father and a cousin. “He wanted to see where all his ‘kids’ came from. It let him taste the America we all talked about so much.”
After two years in the Peace Corps program, she transitioned into a new role as the first Multimedia and Communications Coordinator for Peace Corps Senegal. That’s when she started work on a 57-interview video, translated into 10 local languages, titled “The Yaay Project: Motherhood in Senegal.” Yaay means mother in Wolof, the language she learned in Guinguinéo, Senegal.
“I wanted to document the powerful stories I’d heard about motherhood and maternal health from the women I worked with,” Healy said. “I wanted to find a way to make these stories accessible as a teaching tool for midwives across the country.”
With a grant from USAID Maternal and Child Health, she developed a plan to shoot, edit and field produce the motherhood project.
“I took off traveling solo by plane, car, bicycle and sometimes donkey cart to meet these women and record their stories,” she said. “At one point, I was biking about five miles down a dusty laterite road with a tripod and 40 pounds of camera and audio gear strapped to my bike, trying to find the village where a young mother wanted to talk about family planning. Later that month, I was on a donkey cart headed for a village I’d never been to hoping to talk to a midwife who had never lost a child in her entire career at the rural health post where she worked. Filming her interview and a tour of her health post was worth every bumpy mile.”
Now she admits going it alone may not have been the best idea — but a decision from which she learned.
“Taking on such a behemoth project alone was never going to yield the same quality of content as a team effort. That’s why working with a team on ‘Ground Game: Texas’ years later was so gratifying — we were able to tackle a subject with so many moving parts, on a huge scale, and produce work we were proud of on an insane timeline. That project wouldn’t have been possible without a team.”
After spending two years freelancing for various international organizations, Healy returned to the United States and went to work for McClatchy Studios as a field producer in Texas, covering Republican Ted Cruz’s re-election race for the Senate in “Ground Game: Texas.”
“We were experimenting in making a real-time documentary series. That was a really amazing experience. We had access to Beto (O’Rourke, his Democratic opponent) for months leading up to the election. A red state turning blue was an intriguing story.”
McClatchy Studios is dedicated to non-fiction storytelling, she says, and the breaking news desk was “building the plane as we flew it.”
In February, she will be shooting a trailer in her home state of Florida to pitch a story. “It will be pushing me way far out of my comfort zone,” she says. “I might be embedded in Florida in 2019.”
“The most powerful part of the Peace Corpsor a project like my maternal health video is the human connection. The exchanging of stories, the time we spend with people who have had very different life experiences than us — those are the hours we grow the most and open our minds to new possibilities.”