Alumni mentorship helps UNC Hussman student land prestigious Kroc Fellowship

By Beth Hatcher

Emma Peaslee ’20 (M.A.) worked a couple of different jobs after she completed her undergraduate degree.

She worked as a legal assistant at an immigration law firm, assisted on the sets of film productions and interned at a public television station in her native Minnesota.

However, when the idea of radio journalism crystalized as a career path, it led Peaslee to the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, where she knew she’d not only learn the craft of audio reporting, but also get a practical roadmap into launching a career.

Recently, Peaslee jumpstarted her career journey by winning NPR’s coveted Kroc Fellowship, a yearlong program of hands-on training at NPR and its member stations.

The Kroc Fellowship will let Peaslee, a Roy H. Park Fellow, learn more about radio reporting while rotating through different teams at NPR. The fellowship originated in 2003 through a bequest from the estate of philanthropist Joan Kroc. The program was designed to identify and develop the next generation of exceptional public radio talent.

Peaslee’s fellowship win was greatly influenced by her participation in the Hussman School Alumni Association Mentorship Program, she said.

The program, which pairs UNC Hussman students with a working professional alumnus for one year, has grown from 10 mentee-mentor pairs in 2017 to 102 pairs in the 2020–21 academic year.

Students can request specifics when applying for a mentor, from shared career interests to similar lived experiences.

When Peaslee applied for the mentorship program, she  already knew she wanted to try for the Kroc Fellowship, a big reason she was paired with another of the fellowship’s winners, Reema Khrais ’12, for the 2019–20 year.

Los Angeles-based Khrais now works for NPR’s Marketplace, a business news radio program where she hosts a podcast called “This is Uncomfortable” about money’s effects on relationships.

Peaslee, who earned an undergraduate degree from Kenyon College in American Studies, said she couldn’t have asked for a better mentor.

“Aside from the fact that Reema hosts a podcast that offers great insight into things like workplace culture, negotiating salaries and all the other ways money impacts our lives, she also has a wealth of personal experience in the field,” Peaslee said. “It's been so helpful to talk to her about things like finding your voice in radio, pitching story ideas and job searching.”

Peaslee even got to shadow Khrais in Los Angeles for a day in October 2019.

Khrais was delighted to take part in the mentorship program and give back to a school that gave so much to her.

“I got as much out of the program as Emma did,” Khrais said. “Emma’s just an incredibly bright journalist. She has a raw talent and drive to succeed in the industry. She inspired me.”

Adam Hochberg, a lecturer at UNC Hussman, noticed Peaslee’s drive as well. Hochberg worked with Peaslee on Carolina Connection, the radio newsmagazine produced by UNC Hussman students that he advises.

From the start, Peaslee impressed Hochberg with a curiosity and insight that led to intelligent and weighty stories like a piece Peaslee did on farmers and mental health or her master’s thesis, a podcast she created on genetic privacy.

“Emma just walked in understanding that life is complicated, journalism is complicated,” Hochberg said.

Hochberg, himself a former NPR correspondent, proudly notes he has former students working at NPR stations throughout the country. He praises the UNC Hussman mentorship program for aiding students with the soft skills and connections so important in succeeding.

Jenn Sipe, UNC Hussman’s assistant director of career services, notes those benefits in the mentorship program as well. Mentors teach students about the important lessons that happen outside of a classroom, she said.

“Students are getting the day in, day out of what a prospective job looks like from their mentor,” Sipe said. “It’s a great way to get an insider perspective.”

Khrais said she hopes she has imparted skills like the importance of recognizing a good work culture and the need to self-advocate. For example, the podcast Khrais currently hosts — she pitched and created.

Khrais also got to talk shop about a medium she loves. She calls radio timeless, community-building and intimate.

For Peaslee, radio is a platform that can take the listener anywhere and one in which the humanity — of both interviewer and subject — are heard.

“I think radio’s the best medium for really showcasing character. People's personality — their sense of humor, their emotions — they all come through so clear when you can hear their voice,” Peaslee said.

“I'm starting on the National Desk but will also have rotations on Weekend Edition, a digital desk, and hopefully, at a member station,” said Peaslee, who is currently working virtually from her home in Chapel Hill, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “The fellowship is a really unique opportunity that focuses on training and exploring different types of audio reporting.”