Alumna Follows Her Passion to a Career in Media

By Christine Schmidt, AB'17. Photo by Bill Healy.

Summer Fields is not afraid of change.

As a second-year, Fields was a linguistics major working for the physical sciences’ graphic arts department. By her fourth year, she was a sociology major leading her own podcasting group, landing a job at a media startup, and living out her passion in an ethnography study during the College’s O-Week.

Thanks to her internships and treks with the Office of Career Advancement, self-made opportunities on campus like the Quad podcast, and networking through interviews for her B.A. thesis, Fields built her own path. “I followed my passion in a way that came from sincere curiosity about knowing other radio people and producers and actually doing the craft instead of fantasizing about it,” she said.

Her original interest in people-watching and human and social behavior convinced her to switch majors the spring of her second year. She felt even more sure about her choice after taking sociology associate professor Kristen Schilt’s “Sociology of Deviant Behavior” course.

“[Taking the course] was validating for a passion that I never felt when I was pursuing other stuff,” Fields explained. She’s maintained a close relationship with Schilt since then and even assisted with the Orientation Week ethnography project this past summer and fall.

Driven by her radio speaking and speech extracurricular experiences in high school, Fields set out to build a podcast community here at UChicago. She soon founded her own podcast collective, called the Quad, which she used as a training ground to help students learn how to make audio stories. From storyboarding to final edits, Fields helped created 30 different pieces ranging from oral essays on racial discrimination to an interview with an insect specialist on campus about the mating habits of bugs for Valentine’s Day.

“We’re trying to collaborate with the other audio groups on campus to make it a sort of productive ecosystem for people interested in going into that,” she said.

The Quad was just one stepping stone in Fields’ path to a career in radio and media: “That was my springboard to going to conferences and introducing myself as a podcaster and audio editor. I got involved in various projects and basically launched my career through that,” she said.

But the path to public radio was not a direct one. The summer after her second year, Fields ended up with a Metcalf internship at the Center for the Study of Presidency and Congress in Washington, D.C.

Fields called it a “weird choice” in that she accepted it on a whim and it wasn’t really related to her podcasting interests. But also, “it was a very good choice that led down a path insofar as I got kind of a sense of political things and I worked on a policy report that I’m published on and I got to meet some politicians,” she noted.

This internship helped launch her onto another springboard, however. After continuing her sociology studies and work with the Quad during her third year, she secured an internship at the ABC News Political Unit in D.C. again for the next summer.

She combined her newfound experience in politics with her passion for the media and spent the internship reporting on the 17 candidates in the primary race for president. This new field only further confirmed her aspirations.

“I knew I wanted to focus in on my passion for public radio, specifically my passion for storytelling and more creative work,” she said.

Back on campus for her final year, Fields devoted her time to the Quad, her sociology B.A. thesis, and building a professional and social network of public radio experts.

Her thesis focused on a question that frequently popped up in her work and podcasting experiences: “I wrote about the whiteness and homogeneity of public radio and the opinions of producers of color on the discourse around that,” Fields said. “[Public radio] is something that’s for the public and should be representative of the public.”

Using her contacts in the audio storytelling world, Fields interviewed 20 people of color in the industry about their career experiences and perspectives on the racial and sociocultural homogeneity. During the interviewing process, Fields met several new leaders in radio and media, and even visited with some of Buzzfeed New York’s all-female pod squad last summer.

“This converged into being super connected in this world…. That was a great move and I was passionate about writing about it,” she added.

Her connections brought her to Ellen Mayer, community manager at Hearken, a media startup. Founded by former WBEZ public radio reporter, Jennifer Brandel, who pioneered an audience-first model to incorporate more listener participation and personal investment, Hearken provides online tools and strategies to newsrooms for how to engage their audiences. Mayer encouraged her to apply for an internship at Hearken that spring quarter and Fields finished the application within the day.

That internship soon blossomed into a summer job as well, complementing the work that Fields did with Professor Schilt for the O-Week ethnography study. Now, Fields works full time at Hearken as an assistant community manager and engagement coach.

As an assistant community manager, she provides individualized consulting and daily support to newsrooms and journalists utilizing the Hearken toolset to help them develop audience-first engagement.

From linguistics to think tanks to media engagement, Fields made the most of what UChicago had to offer—and even created her own opportunities in the process. She’s happy at Hearken and excited about delving further into the world of engagement journalism.

“Pursue things from a place of where your curiosity actually takes you and it will end up lining up,” she said. “Experiences that you don’t enjoy or that aren’t your passion are really valuable also…. That will tell you when you really do hit upon something that’s great for you. You know what that will feel like as opposed to the opposite. That’s what happened to me.”

Listen to Summer's work.