For Cecilia Levine, it’s all about the story. Though the path to her job as a reporter for The Item has been fraught with challenges, the 22-year-old journalist has a clear vision for her work. “I perceive journalism as a platform to better the community at large,” says Levine. “I think that’s my favorite part, finding ways to help people.”
While that has been the guiding principle in her reporting, it wasn’t the idea that initially sparked her interest in journalism. As a junior at Pace University, Cecilia had a roommate who worked as the sex columnist for the school paper. Even though Cecilia was registered as a psychology major and was already working multiple jobs and internships, she applied to work for the paper as well, at her roommate’s suggestion. “I applied for news,” she says, “I don’t know why I did. Maybe for fun?”
Instead of news, though, Cecilia was assigned as Features Editor, and promoted to Managing Editor her senior year. “I would go to my psych internship and I would find myself writing articles there instead of doing the work I should have been doing,” she says. “And that was sort of a sign to me that journalism was my calling.”
This realization came as a surprise to her family—and Cecilia herself. “I always had the guts to ask very forward questions, in life in general,” she says, “but I’ve never been a great student, and never really liked to read.”
Though Cecilia’s interest in journalism was a surprising and speedy development, her dedication was strong, and has remained strong, despite challenges early on. Many journalists have faced dilemmas of ethics and negative fallout from articles, but few probably have had to deal with these problems with only a year of reporting experience.
During her senior year, Cecilia was acting managing editor and was fulfilling many of the responsibilities of running the paper. Midway through the year, she published a story about drug use on the university’s lacrosse team, after two players failed a random drug test. She realized that student athletes were participating in far more serious and dangerous activities than recreational drug use, including taking harder drugs, like cocaine, which clear the body’s systems faster, and resorting to drastic medical measures to pass drug tests.
The story received backlash from the student body, and Cecilia was singled out for blame. “Once that story broke,” she says, “people wouldn’t look me in the eye, people didn’t want to talk to me. My closest friends, acquaintances, even professors would talk about me behind my back, and that was really hard.” Eventually, even the local news station picked up and aired the story.
Despite the strength of the negative reaction she received, the lost friendships, the gossip and even acts of vandalism against her, Cecilia says she doesn’t regret writing the story. “In no way was my intention ever to screw over a peer or a classmate, but it was clear that there was a story to be told and that this incident needed to be brought to the attention of the administration. To me, that was enough of a reason to write it. I’m proud of myself and my newspaper staff.”
The experience taught her about her own strength, she says, but it also informed her view of journalism, which is reflected in the advice she has for other budding journalists: “Just break the story,” she says. “Find a new angle, find something that’s relevant and then find a way to publish it. Whether it’s on a blog of your own, or a college newspaper like I did. Just find a way to get it out there.”
Cecilia has taken these lessons with her as she’s started her career as a reporter, first at The Montclair Times and now with The Item of Millburn and Short Hills. In her first position, she created a role for herself covering the local animal shelter after her attention was brought to instances of mismanagement and safety hazards at the shelter. Her passion for “the story” and drive to use writing to better her community also led Cecilia to create her own column for the paper, “Alive and, Well…” In the column, she tells the stories of local residents making the most of a medical problem.
The first story in the column covered local writer Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train. Christina was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of breast cancer in 2012, as she was putting the finishing touches on her book. After more than five months in chemo and radiation therapy, Christina was declared cancer-free—just in time to see her book hit number one on the New York Times’ Bestseller list.
After writing the article, Cecilia says, “It was such an eye-opening experience. Writing it just showed me how the the problems in my life at that time seemed so insignificant to what other people are struggling with.” And so she started looking around for similar stories. The column has also featured a local business owner with MS, and the first-ever child liver transplant patient who, for 30 years, took immunosuppressants that would eventually cause wide-spread skin cancer. “I’ve been really lucky that people have been willing to be so open about their journeys with me,” she says.
Outside of her job trying to better the community, Cecilia makes sure she’s bettering herself. As a Zumba instructor, she has a release for her own stress, but also loves helping other people relieve theirs. “It feels good to provide people with what may well be the best hour of their day,” she says.
After a few years of just attending classes, she “got really ambitious” and became certified to teach. “It was almost like I was starting my own business,” she says. “I was going into my junior year of college and I had to start looking for people that wanted to hire me, I needed to start teaching classes, and I did. It felt really good and fulfilling and gives me an outlet for dance.”
That “outlet for dance” is an alternative to the dance training she had as a child—in Irish dancing. “When I was four years old, on public television they would riverdance, and I would put on whatever shiny shoes I could find and stomp around,” she says. “ My mom was like, ‘This kid is gonna love Irish dance.’” After enrolling in classes, Cecilia participated in dance competitions through middle and high school.
Though she stopped competing, her Irish dance training contributed to her love of Zumba. Now, years later, Cecilia teaches classes four nights a week, and enjoys surprising her students with her abilities. “Because I’m young, by looking at me, they sometimes don’t believe I can teach a rockin’ Zumba class. It’s up to me to prove them wrong.”
This is a challenge she faces as a young reporter in the professional world as well. “People don’t take me seriously because I’m 22 years old, or they’ll hear my voice on the phone and they won’t want to talk to me,” she says. “But after they see that I’m competent and can write a good, solid article, people perceive me differently. And I like that, I like to show people I’m not young and dumb just because I’m 22.”
The need to work harder to prove oneself as a young professional is common to many industries, but in all, it helps to have colleagues who support you. “Thankfully, I have a really supportive boss,” Cecilia says, “and he wants to give young people a chance. I think it’s important to have people like that around you.
“But,” she adds, “you have to show them you can do it. You still have to prove yourself 100% of the way.”