Freelance journalist Sarah Catherall has come ‘home’ to Te Herenga Waka–Victoria University of Wellington to study creative writing.
Where are you living and what are you doing?
I live in Wellington. I'm a freelance journalist, a mother of three daughters aged 14, 17 and 20, partner of Steve O’Connor, founder and CEO of Flick Electric, and I am currently studying an MA in creative writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters. I am in the non-fiction stream, writing a series of memoir pieces about growing up and life as a Gen X woman in New Zealand. I am also touching on my mother's life, as she was struck with early onset Alzheimers at the age of 61.
What did you study as an undergraduate and why did you choose your degree?
From 1988-1991 I spent four years at the University studying a BA majoring in history. In my fourth year, I did honours in history. Afterwards, I went to Wellington Polytechnic (now Massey University) to do a journalism diploma. I chose the University partly because I wanted to get out of Napier at the age of 18 and live in Wellington. I also heard it was the best place to do an arts degree in New Zealand at the time.
What appealed to you about Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington?
I was interested in culture and politics, and also wanted to live in a big city which offered both. I was accepted into Victoria House which was another bonus and I made a lot of friends there. I was quite naive about the University at the time though, and only found out once there that I was so blessed to have some fantastic tutors and lecturers. Jamie Belich teaching cutting-edge thinking around Māori culture and history, Bill Manhire who was my English 105 tutor, and Charlotte Macdonald who was my supervisor for my history honours project were a few notables.
What’s your strongest memory of studying?
Along with the fascinating subjects and learning, I loved hanging out in the cold, windy quad between lectures, and going on marches to oppose the introduction of fees. I drank $2 jugs at the Southern Cross pub on Thursdays, and late-night hot chocolates at Midnight Espresso after the library closed at 11 pm. I also wrote stories for Salient and worked there part-time as a typesetter, when the typesetting machine was really antiquated. I taught aerobics at 5.30 on a Tuesday and Thursday in the Recreation Centre, to keep fit and make some money, which was a lot of fun.
What does being an alumna mean to you?
I'm really proud I went to the University and feel my degree is valuable. I love being back now—walking up Kelburn hill towards the Hunter Building makes me feel like I'm home.
What have been your career highlights since graduating?
I spent several years working as a journalist at the Dominion, the Sunday Star-Times in its press gallery, and then as a feature writer on the Dominion Post. I spent two years in London, where I wrote for a medical newspaper, and did stints on The Sun which was a highlight. I spent five years editing the Dominion Post’s Wednesday Life magazine which I loved. I've enjoyed being self-employed for the past two years, writing for the (now defunct) magazines at Bauer Media such as North and South, the Listener, and Next, along with continuing to write for Stuff and its magazines and for Wellington’s Capital Magazine.
What do you enjoy most about working in your profession?
I'm nosy and I like hearing people's stories and sharing them with readers. I also believe in the role a strong media has in society—to inform, probe and challenge—so I like being part of that world.
The biggest challenges for your industry?
Money, advertising, fake news, and competing with social media.
What advice would you give someone planning to become a journalist?
A BA majoring in history was a strong base for a journalism career. I learned and acquired thorough research skills. Journalism has changed so much though, and the New Zealand media environment is tough right now, particularly with the rise of fake news. I was lucky to enter the industry in 1993, when newsrooms were packed with journalists, for example two people covering the arts at the Dominion, and a whole floor of feature writers. You have to think more broadly now, and degrees like communications and arts which allow one to acquire broader skills and teach one to think will be increasingly valuable.
What would be one thing you would say to current students?
Enrol in a paper which intrigues you even if you don't think it's relevant to your future. Have fun, go to the pub, meet new people. Also make sure you take up any opportunities you can—I went to the Australian National University in my honour’s year for three months on a scholarship and it was such a fantastic opportunity and great for my CV.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
If you've outgrown your role or you're bored by it, start planning the next one. My mother's early onset Alzheimers has taught me that life is short, which is one of the reasons I'm at the IIML this year.
Find out more about our network of alumni who are working to grow connections for Victoria University of Wellington graduates around the globe.
Photo credit: Victoria Birkinshaw