Her quest to find purpose in the face of a debilitating nerve disorder drove Alysha Conner to pursue a master of arts in specialized journalism. A GRoW @ Annenberg Scholarship made that dream a reality.
Raised in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Baldwin Hills, Conner discovered her love of writing an early age, creating her own short stories, fables and poetry. A first job at 16 working at the Los Angeles Sentinel newspaper gave her a taste of journalism. “I fell in love with the idea of being able to tell the stories of our communities,” she said.
After a steady diet of honors English classes in high school, Conner enrolled in Clark Atlanta University as an education major before switching to journalism as a sophomore. After graduation in 2017, she found work in retail, but when an alumnus, who knew her well, ran into her at her place of work, they suggested she reconnect with her professors at school to find opportunities for reporting work. This led to an internship at a local newspaper and the beginnings of a career as a freelance journalist.
Just as her career was gaining momentum, Conner tore a muscle in her knee which, after an extended length of time, didn’t heal. She was eventually diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome. As she made plans to return home to for support, the pandemic hit. Now that many were working from home, this expanded opportunities for Conner to build her freelance portfolio back in Los Angeles. Here, she was able to secure freelance writing gigs with LA Wave and Our Weekly and decided the time was right to return to school and get a master’s degree. She applied to USC Annenberg and was admitted in Summer 2021, with a scholarship designed to underwrite the cost of graduate studies for Black journalists. The gift, initiated by Gregory Annenberg Weingarten, an Annenberg Foundation vice president and director, is currently in its second year. The first recipient, Toni Hall, graduated in May 2021 and is now working as a production assistant at Fox Sports.
Conner shared why she chose the MA in journalism program, her journalistic aspirations and how important the scholarship has been to her.
What brought you to USC?
I recently wrote an article about a nonprofit based out of Inglewood. The woman who runs it is like a modern-day Harriet Tubman. She’s going into Kenya and South Africa and rescuing little girls as young as 6 from female genital mutilation, early child marriages by literally putting them in escape houses. I got to talk to some of the girls and ask them what they want more than anything, and they said, “Tell our story because there's more of us out there.” And that's when I realized, I love writing — print journalism is in my blood — but I have to tell stories from a larger perspective. I have to go back to school and figure out how to get into the documentary world, and that’s what brought me to USC.
Since the MA in journalism program is 18 months long, you ended up starting this Summer. What have been some of the highlights of your studies so far?
A lot of it is being at a school that teaches you how to broaden your horizons of seeing the world from different perspectives; of being around people from all over the world who are great journalists and getting their perspective. Allissa Richardson [assistant professor of journalism and communication] is my mentor. She asked me my goals, and I talked to her about everything that I wanted to do. She was like, “Okay, let’s get your schedule done now. Let's get you in the podcasting class, you have to be in the TV and production classes, let’s get you into a documentary class right now.” I had five classes this summer and so far, I’ve been able to create my own audio stories; I’m now in the second semester of Dan Birman’s [professor of professional practice] documentary class; I’m in a reporting on race and justice class; and another about narrative. It’s a little overwhelming, but it’s my time to be a student and learn and grasp it all.
What does having received the GRoW @ Annenberg scholarship mean to you, and how do hope to pay this gift forward?
I broke down crying. I wouldn’t have been able go to school if it wasn't for the scholarship. And now, since I’ve been telling people I got into USC, it’s been on another level of acceptance for me, not just of being at the school, but my whole situation. I’m beyond grateful.
I’m a diehard philanthropist and I want to find ways to give back. My goal is to go Africa, to Haiti, to all these different places that I’ve covered in stories — places that might not have journalists sharing their stories — and give them that accessibility. I honestly do feel like that by the time I graduate, I will be very well-versed and have the tools to make it happen.