Today Southern Virginia University is announcing that I will create and direct a new Institute for Writing and Mass Media. I’m thrilled by what this will mean for our students. And I’m grateful to my colleagues in publishing, television, print journalism, filmmaking and photography that have agreed to participate in the Institute as teachers and mentors. A link to the press release appears at the bottom of this post.

Before I say more about this new initiative, here is some important background. I am a journalist without a journalism degree, and I’ve never taken a writing class. My pathway to a career in media began with an opportunity. After graduating with a degree in History, I interned for civil rights leader Richard Lapchick, who assigned me to work on his speeches and edit his articles. It was my first exposure to writing.

Rich LapchickRich Lapchick

Three months later my unpaid internship turned into a full-time job. I even had a title – Director of Research. While in that position I spent two years researching college athletes and violence against women. At the same time, I attended graduate school, where I did my Master’s thesis on athletes, rape, and the criminal justice system. By the time I applied to law school I had published my first essays in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, and I had published my first book.

Obviously there is a lot more to the story. But the relevant fact here is that prior to interning for Richard Lapchick, I never imagined writing as a career. But during my time in Lapchick’s office I often rubbed shoulders with highly accomplished journalists such as then-ABC World News Tonight correspondent Armen Keteyian and New York Times columnist Robert Lipsyte. They saw my work habits and took a personal interest in me. I did things for them. And they taught me a lot about the profession just by letting me observe them. A couple years later when I decided to start writing my own stories, Keteyian helped me find a literary agent and Lipsyte critiqued my writing.

Armen Keteyian and Robert LipsyteArmen Keteyian and Robert Lipsyte

Needless to say, I’m a big believer in the importance of internships and connections. Without both, I would not be where I am today.

Throughout my 20-plus year career in the media I have hired student interns. In addition to assisting with my books and articles, they have worked on projects at CBS News, ABC News, Sports Illustrated, cable television and films. Some have gone on to land positions at Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Associated Press, and law firms such as the Institute for Justice and the Beckett Fund, both of which have communications teams that produce videos and pen op-eds.

The biggest challenge for college grads these days is finding a job in their field of study. For years I’ve wanted to create a non-profit organization that teaches students how to write for a commercial audience and creates professional opportunities for those who want to work in media.

When I decided to leave the faculty at Southern Virginia earlier this year, I turned my focus toward launching the Institute for Writing and Mass Media. It’s a concept I began discussing with the school’s previous provost Paul Edwards seven years ago. He and then-president Rod Smith were big advocates. But funding was an obstacle back then. Fortunately, the university’s current president Reed Wilcox got behind the idea and was instrumental in turning a dream into a reality.

To solve the funding dilemma, I have approached business leaders, athletes, and entertainers that I’ve written about over the years. They have been generous. Others who are passionate about helping our students land opportunities in the media have also been generous. I’ve even had former students make $100 donations. Those smaller dollars mean more to me than anything because they come from students of mine who are now in law school and grad school.

The Institute is located on my 20-acre farm in Virginia, just a couple of miles from SVU’s campus. Workshops are held in a multi-purpose post and beam building that also offers lodging to guest lecturers.

The workshops are in an intimate setting away from campus and students get one-on-one time with publishers, editors, producers, writers, filmmakers and photojournalists, many of whom are in position to facilitate internships and research assistantships.

Our inaugural workshops will kick off on September 22-23 when NFL Films filmmaker Chris Barlow visits the Institute and teaches a workshop on documentary filmmaking. Chris has spent 27 years making Emmy-award winning films. I had the privilege of spending the past two years working with Chris on “Steve Young: A Football Life,” which will air on the NFL Network on October 7th.

The highlight of Chris’s visit will be an exclusive premiere of the Steve Young film, which will be shown to the entire Southern Virginia University campus (students, faculty and staff) in place of the weekly devotional on Friday, Sept. 23rd at 11 AM in the Stoddard Center. We’ve even arranged for a popcorn machine to be on site!

In October the Institute will offer workshops featuring Sports Illustrated executive editor B.J. Schecter and Houghton Mifflin executive editor Rick Wolff.

B.J. Schecter and Rick WolffB.J. Schecter and Rick Wolff

On top of all of his other duties, Schecter has overseen Sports Illustrated’s internship program and last year he started “Campus Rush,” a new feature on SI.com that uses students on college campuses across the country to file short stories during the college football season.

Over the past three decades Wolff has published some of the biggest books in commercial publishing, including former GE CEO Jack Welch’s autobiography Jack: Straight from the Gut, Ted Turner’s autobiography, and Rich Dad Poor Dad. (He’s also published my books Little Pink House and The Mormon Way of Doing Business; and he’s publishing Steve Young’s autobiography.)

Future visitors to the Institute include:

Hollywood filmmaker Courtney Balaker, who directed and wrote the screenplay for the forthcoming motion picture “Little Pink House.” She also owns her own production company.

Courtney Balaker Courtney Balaker

Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Deanne Fitzmaurice, who chronicled the inspiring recovery of an Iraqi boy who lost his eye, his right hand, the fingers on his left hand, and his intestines when he picked up a bomb that looked like a soccer ball.

Deanne Fitzmaurice at workDeanne Fitzmaurice at work

As the director, my least favorite responsibility is fundraising. But it is vital to a start-up, especially a non-profit. So I’ll be direct. Despite being off to a great start, we have a long way to go. We’re looking for 100 donors who will donate $100 or more. And anyone who contributes $500 or more will receive an autographed first-edition copy of Steve Young’s forthcoming autobiography.

But the easiest way is to donate on-line is by clicking the following link and choosing the “other” option and typing the words “Writing Institute.”

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Checks made out to “Southern Virginia University” with the words “Writing Institute” on the memo line can be mailed to Bob Huch at Southern Virginia University, One University Hill Drive, Buena Vista, VA 24416.

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Time to go to work.

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