Griffin Swartzell graduated from New Mexico Tech in 2013 with a degree in Technical Communications and is a former intern at El Defensor Chieftain.
You’re originally from Colorado, so what brought you to Socorro?
I was accepted to New Mexico Tech for a program in chemical engineering that I wanted to attend. So I started as a freshman in 2008.
Tech is appealing obviously because of its status as an institution, but was there anything about Socorro that spoke to you?
It was a really different place from I grew up, because my hometown is comparable in size to Albuquerque. So moving to a town like Socorro I didn’t really know what to expect. I will say that pretty quickly, especially as I made some friends who lived in town I really did fall in love with living in the middle of the desert.
How long did you stay in that chemical engineering program?
I was in the chemical engineering program a little shy of three years before I switched to technical communication.
That’s a strange time to switch majors especially when chemical engineering isn’t exactly synonymous with being simple. What made you change your mind?
I had gotten through most of my general education stuff, and I was having a lot of trouble with some of the harder engineering classes, especially fluid dynamics. Even before that I had been writing for the college paper after I had written for my high school paper for a year-and-a-half. I liked writing better.
Was your decision to go into chemical engineering a financial one at the time?
The money was definitely part of it. Outside of English, which a filed I’ve been told my entire life that you get into if you don’t want to make money, chemistry was my best grade. I liked chemistry. I was good at it. It’s the higher level integral math that threw me. It’s not the end of the world hard. I was 20 years old living away from home for the first time. I had some stuff I was dealing with and that on top of advanced calculus; not a great combination.
You switch over to technical writing. Was there a weight lifted off your shoulders? Did you feel a little bit better about the rest of your education after that?
Oh yeah. Absolutely. Way, way better. I had most of my general education and technical requirements out of the way so it was just knocking out some relatively straight forward writing and projects. After sailing the high-C’s grade-wise, my first semester as a tech communications major I got a 4.0.
What made you decide to apply for the internship here at The Chieftain?
I had been doing newspaper since my high school English teacher decided I needed something to keep me out of trouble. I knew somebody who had recently left a position there, Suzanne Barteau. I was friends with one of Suzanne’s kids, Elizabeth. She told me my mom just left and they’re looking for interns for the summer and said go on down and apply. I showed up … and talked my way into the internship. I had the portfolio to back myself up.
Technical communication and technical writing are so much different than Associated Press style writing. Did you find that challenging at all, or was it a good supplement?
I didn’t know anything about AP when I switched over to technical communication, so if you don’t know anything already it’s just easy. Having been in the technical field and having been frustrated to ‘Can’t you just quote this in plain English?’ It was almost a relief to be committing to that translated rule.
You graduate with a great degree from a great school. What was your first step?
My first step was realizing that everything I was finding in terms of entry-level technical writing was that you were expected to be a subject matter expert more than a writer. So they were looking for a programmer who could write, or a bio-med person that could write. The jobs that were more open to people who weren’t already technical experts were six or seven months contracted. I didn’t want to be hopping around the country with nothing in savings doing six month contracts. That just didn’t appeal to me. So I moved back home with my folks for a little while. I dealt blackjack. I played in a musical for a college I never attended and got paid in pizza. I joined a folk band and had some fun with that. Then I took an internship with the Colorado Springs Independent and stuck around long that the felt bad for not paying me. So they gave me a full-time job and I’ve been with that company ever since.
What do you like about it?
My company has an Island of Misfit Toys kind of vibe. We’re an alt-weekly. We’re not a daily newspaper. We’re not going out and photographing traffic accidents.
It gave me perspective on my hometown. It let me explore some of my interests in a way that hard news never did. I got to meet some truly incredible and I still do. It’s an honor to go the extra mile to listen to the people who don’t have a voice, and lift their voices up.
Not a lot of people go to school to be writers, and end up having an opportunity to write as quickly as we did coming out of college. What advice would you give for the current college generation because journalism has changed so much?
For a long time it’s been an industry where you can afford for free in an internship of if you’re lucky enough to get one that pays. Or the other route is you’re going to have to freelance which is very difficult. I tried it for a while. I hated it and it’s not for me, but the fundamentals remain the same. Ask questions. Get details. Follow the money when in doubt. You’re going to find the story. The art of putting it together, whether it be in text or video or whatever multimedia format gets dreamt up later … in the long term facts will prevail.