CJC 40 Gators Under 40

Gordon Van Owen

The University of Florida Alumni Association named UF College of Journalism and Communications (CJC) alumnus Gordon Van Owen as one of its “40 Gators Under 40” for 2024.

Gordon Van Owen

At UF, Gordon Van Owen’s life changed. Still in the closet, he met people who were gay and bonded with them as Gators. Now, the accomplished New York teacher who has six degrees is helping others through his work as head of the UF Alumni Association’s LGBTQ+ affiliate.

Van Owen, 39, graduated with bachelor’s degrees in Journalism and English in 2006 and a master’s in Mass Communications in 2008. He earned a Master of Science in Teaching from Fordham University in 2012 and a Master of Education from Columbia University in 2015 before graduating with a Ph.D. from Fordham in 2023.

The consummate learner has been an educator for the New York City Department of Education for 16 years. He’s taught English Language Arts, written AP English curricula, mentored hundreds of teachers and supported thousands of students as they transitioned to college.

Patricia Minaya, founding principal of the Urban Assembly School of Business for Young Women in New York City, said Van Owen “is a visionary educator, an outstanding leader and a dedicated mentor who has left an indelible mark on our school and the wider education community. His innovative approaches to teaching, leadership and curriculum development have consistently raised the bar for educational excellence.”

He extends his passion for nurturing others to UF, where he spearheaded the scholarship program for the Gotham Gators – the NYC UF alumni club.

Three years ago, he helped re-launch the Association of LGBTQ+ Alumni. “I jumped at this opportunity because I knew firsthand the importance of having a community of Gators to rely on at such an important moment in life. That’s also why the first goal of the affiliate was to

launch a scholarship program, and why the affiliate’s newest initiative has been a queer mentorship program, connecting Gators with Gator alumni from shared professional interests.”

What are the main factors that have led to your success?

One lesson that I learned early on was to not be afraid of hard work and working hard. There’s a distinction between those two. “Hard work” refers to challenging tasks and assignments. How we respond to hard work is representative of our approach to life. People who view hard work as insurmountable tend to underperform, whereas those who view challenges as learning opportunities tend to outperform their peers. I may not have performed the best at all of the hard assignments I’ve tackled throughout my education and my career, but I have always faced them head on.

“Working hard” refers to the effort we put forward in every aspect of our lives. My mom taught me at a young age to always work hard. During my time as UF, I worked for the Office of Admissions, the Welcome Center, and the Knight Division, while serving as a student senator, re-founding a fraternity, and giving back to the CJC as a member of JCA and as president of the Journalism and Communications College Council. Since I graduated from UF in 2008, I’ve worked full time, earned two more master’s degrees and a PhD. Yes, there were moments where I was tired, and there were certainly moments where it all seemed overwhelming. To be successful, you can’t be afraid of hard work and you must work hard.

Was there a defining moment that led you down the path you chose?

The tangible moment that changed the path of my life was when I interviewed with Ronald DuPont, the then editor at the High Springs Herald, at the CJC Job and Internship Fair in the Reitz Union. At the time, I was overconfident and expected an internship at one of the big-named newspapers. After the editor of the Sun Sentinel quite literally told me to take my tiny portfolio and come back to her when I had some real experience, Ron took a chance on me and took me under his wing at the Herald.  Ron taught me the importance of mentorship, teaching, and strong storytelling. Those lessons have guided me ever since, even as a high school English teacher and academic researcher.

How did your time at CJC help prepare you for success?

My time at CJC was truly transformational and actually led directly to my career in education. When I started my master’s program at CJC, I was awarded a teaching assistantship with retired Journalism Professor Julie Dodd teaching lab sections of what was then known as MMC 2100. As part of the assistantship, Dr. Dodd required all of her lab instructors to take her course Teaching for Mass Communications. Through the skills I learned in her course and my on-the-ground training teaching MMC2100, I found a passion for teaching and supporting students.

In a more academic way, my coursework taught me how to communicate more effectively and clearly. The reporting course with Journalism Professor Mike Foley forced me to proofread my writing and ensure that I am getting my point across with the least number of words as possible. That skill came in handy when I was working on my PhD. Another course that shaped the way I approach my work as a teacher was Finding Your Voice with Journalism Professor Ted Spiker. That class taught me that it was okay to play with language and words and how to break the rules of English grammar (but only after you’ve become proficient with them of course).

What career advice would you give to current CJC students?

I think as CommuniGators, we recognize that everyone has a story to tell. Always listen to people’s stories and don’t be afraid to tell your own. Stories can shape your life in powerful ways. If it weren’t for my friend Meredith Coachie, CJC M.AM.C. 2008, telling a story about me to Dr. Dodd back in 2006, I never would have gotten the teaching assistantship, I never would have applied for Teach for America, and I never would have considered a career in education. Storytelling has been such a powerful force in my life that it became the primary method for my doctoral dissertation. Keep listening to and telling stories.

Why is it important for alumni to give back to the College?

I am a big believer in paying it forward to future generations. When I was a student at CJC, I received a scholarship through the Knight Division. That assistance was only possible because an alum gave back to the college to support students in need like me. That money helped pay for books a audio recording device that I ended up using during all of my internships in college. After working with students for more than two decades, I know that every donation that goes to supporting students has a direct impact on the lives of real people who are learning and honing their craft. I was one of those people. This is also why I jumped at the opportunity to re-establish UF’s Association of LGBTQ+ Alumni. One of our primary missions is to support LGBTQ+ students and their allies through scholarship and mentorship.




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