Sully Marshall '22/University of St. Thomas

Sophomore Wins SEJ Press Freedom Award

Inspiration can be found in interesting places. For Macy Berendsen ’24, inspiration came to her while studying abroad in Rome, where she became aware of the trash epidemic facing the city. As a journalism major with an interest in sustainability, this story was waiting for her to tell. After returning to Minnesota, her professor, Dr. Mark Neužil, encouraged Berendsen to submit her story for a Society of Environmental Journalists Press Freedom Award. She would go on to win the Student Press Freedom Day Op-Ed Contest.

As the first-prize winner, Berendsen had her piece published in SEJournal and took over the Society of Environmental Journalists Twitter account on May 3 (World Press Freedom Day). She also received a one-year SEJ student membership and a one-year full mentorship program in environmental journalism.

Berendsen’s talent has given her the ability to turn trash into treasure.

What inspired you to focus on Rome’s garbage issue for your piece?

Photo by Macy Berendsen

I originally wrote this piece as part of a class for when I was studying abroad last fall as a student in the Rome Empower Program on the Bernardi Campus. I was in the Environmental Journalism class. For our last essay, we could pick whatever topic we wanted to focus on, and I chose the trash issue. It's so prominent in Rome – it's literally everywhere. I wanted to read a little bit more about why it's like this and my professor, Dr. Mark Neužil, helped me out. He said, ‘I think the Mafia is involved,’ so props to him for kind of giving me the story idea. I took that and used it as my topic.

How did you first become aware of the Mafia’s connection to waste management in Italy?

My professor was the one who told me about it. His wife was along with us during the program and she's very interested in the Mafia, so he pointed me to go talk to her. She and I talked about what resources could be used and why the Mafia is involved in garbage collection. So, I would have never known if he didn't point that out and I didn't get the resources from his wife.

Is there a specific moment from researching and writing this piece that really stood out to you?

Photo by Macy Berendsen

Italy has the highest recycling rate in Europe, but it's obviously still very dirty – especially in Rome and Sicily. However, in Florence for example, the city was very clean and very well taken care of. So, when I found out that Italy as a whole, was the No. 1 recycling and waste collection country in Europe after I had witnessed their huge issue, I was shocked.

How did it feel to have your work recognized when you won the national SEJ Press Freedom award?

It was great! Dr. Neužil was the one who sent me the email and said that I should apply. I just thought, OK, not really thinking much of it. He said that it would look good on your resume even if I didn't win. So, I was quite shocked when I got the email that I had won, but it feels really good to have my work recognized. In journalism and as a journalist, it can be difficult to get your work recognized because we're all kind of doing the same thing in a sense. It's nice to have someone appreciate your work, especially as a student, still trying to navigate what I want to do and find what my writing style is. It was so nice to have someone essentially say that I'm on the right track, my writing is good and I'm in a good spot. That's what I liked about and took from the win. 

When did you develop a passion for journalism?

Well, when I was senior in high school and everyone had started to decide what they’re going to school for, I still didn't really know. I knew I wanted to continue reading and writing, since that's what I've always been good at and that’s my thing. I picked journalism on a whim. I'm an English minor now, but I didn’t want to pursue English as a major just because I felt like it was too broad, and I wanted something a little more specific where I could still tailor my reading and writing skills.

Are there any events/issues you would like to focus on after you graduate from St. Thomas?

I enjoy environmental journalism more than I thought I would, so I'd like to see where that goes. I would like to help bring more awareness to specific issues and I would like to focus more on women's issues within marginalized countries in terms of women’s rights and care of menstrual-related hygiene and education on the topic. Unfortunately, there are a lot of marginalized women all over the world and a lot of issues regarding women. I would like to focus a lot on women's rights, especially now abortion rights.

How has your time at St. Thomas helped you grow as a journalist?

I definitely think that my involvement in TommieMedia has helped me a lot because I guess it’s my first taste of what being part of a news organization will be like. Again, when I picked journalism, I didn't really know exactly how my education would look, so being able to be a part of a mini-news organization which is replicating what it's going to be like after graduation. It’s really helped me to discover different aspects of journalism like broadcasting, podcasting and whatnot. The professors in the Journalism Department are great, great people with a lot of great resources. They are very smart, very educated, and they have been around for quite some time, so they have a lot of valuable information. That's really helped me grow.

Is there anything else you would like to mention?

I know St. Thomas has a focus on sustainability. I haven't looked into it as much as I should, but now I’m more focused on environmental and sustainability topics. With the St. Thomas 2025 plan I think bringing awareness and seeing that it exists, it’s on our campus, and there are a lot of people doing a lot of great things around campus to help challenge climate change, is something I hope more of our students can become more aware of.