Annenberg students express appreciation for retiring journalism professors

“We are in the midst of a truly significant transition among our School of Journalism faculty,” said Gordon Stables, director of the journalism school.

Three of USC Annenberg’s journalism professors -- William Celis, Sasha Anawalt and Philip Seib -- are wrapping up their careers at USC and retiring at the fast-approaching end of the semester. Students expressed gratitude for the dedication of all three professors, along with sadness that future students would not get to experience their teaching and mentorship.

Celis formerly worked at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal before joining USC over 20 years ago. He served as an associate dean for diversity and an associate director at the school, and has taught many undergraduate and graduate journalism courses.

Lindsey Byster is a senior in Celis’ Advanced Digital Media Storytelling class. She said Celis “definitely cares a lot about his students and wants them to find success.”

She recalled her final class session with him on April 27.

“He got pretty emotional in sharing his belief that newsrooms need to be more inclusive and diverse and welcoming,” Byster said. “He wants us to take care of each other. He wants us to know that we know what our worth is. He was in tears talking about that. And it shows how much he cares about his students and the future of journalism and the future of our careers.”

Kaitlyn Huamani, a student in one of Celis’ introductory journalism courses, worked with students in her virtual class to surprise Celis by holding up messages of gratitude to their cameras. The moment was captured and posted on TikTok.

“We wanted to do something to try to make his last class with us more special, because we all felt really bad that after teaching at USC for so many years, his last semester was from his house and he wasn’t on campus,” said Huamani.

Similar to Byster, Huamani told Annenberg Media that Celis communicates his care for students, even in the Zoom learning environment.

“He spends maybe the first 10 minutes of class saying hello to everyone, asking us how we’re doing,” said Huamani. “He asks if we have enough food, if we have a safe place to stay, if we were vaccinated. He just really cares about everyone and you can tell just how much he wants to support us and help us grow.”

Beginning in 2010, Celis led the Annenberg Diversity Initiative, aiming to improve the school’s efforts towards diversity and inclusion. The initiative won the 2012 Equity and Diversity Award from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

“In his 20 years at USC, Bill has contributed in every facet of the Annenberg experience,” Gordon Stables, director of the School of Journalism, said in a written statement to Annenberg Media. “Bill remains a passionate champion of a robust notion of equal opportunity and, while we will miss him, we are eagerly awaiting his forthcoming books focusing on the half-century campaign in Texas and the Southwest over equal schools for Mexican-Americans.”

Sasha Anawalt spent her career before and at USC immersed in the arts, working as the chief dance critic for a number of Los Angeles outlets and serving on the Pulitzer Prize jury for criticism for two years.

“Sasha is truly dynamic,” Stables told Annenberg Media in his statement. “Joining USC 20 years ago, she emerged as the leading voice in the creation of our Specialized Journalism of the Arts graduate program… Her vision for incorporating arts and culture education will have a long-term, lasting influence within the School of Journalism.”

In an interview with Annenberg Media, Anawalt explained why she began every class she taught at USC, even the ones over Zoom, by having students get out of their seats and stretch.

“It’s a way of… reaching for something, literally stretching yourself, your mind, your being further than you think you can go,” she said. “When you come back into the classroom and everybody’s done something together, it sort of unites us and then we’re ready to go. We’re focused. And it equalizes us all.”

Elizabeth Cuzzupoli, a senior studying public relations and theater, took Anawalt’s Arts Reporting class in fall 2020. She said Anawalt’s care for her students created a safe space for students to share “really personalized” work.

“She had a greater understanding of each of us as individuals,” said Cuzzupoli. “She was just really good at talking with us in a way that ended up making us see something deeper in work that we were not only analyzing, but work that we were creating as well.”

Anawalt said that as an arts journalism professor, she feels “you have to build a structure that everyone trusts” so that students can feel free to use their personal voice to strengthen their work and collaborate.

That sense of collaboration is what she said she will remember most about her time at USC, recalling the image of seeing faculty, staff, graduate students and undergraduates working together.

“We’re all mixed in and we’re all working really hard and we’re creating and moving and making journalism together,” she said. “I think the thing that I love the most is just the opportunity to work side by side in the same room… the electricity of being with really exciting, interesting people.”

Cuzzupoli recalled how Anawalt requested students participate in Zoom class with their cameras on and microphones unmuted. At first, Cuzzupoli thought the request would cause disruptions in class.

“There was a method to the madness,” Cuzzupoli said. “I think it really ended up getting all of us just really invested. And more than any of my other classes, that one felt like I knew the people in the class.”

Anawalt said she doesn’t have specific plans for what retirement life looks like.

“I’m trying to keep myself clear and open because it’s really easy to panic and say, ‘OK, I’ve got to be doing stuff,’” she said. Instead, she said she’s looking forward to exploring “what does it mean to actually start fresh.”

“I’ve heard stories of people who suddenly realize they just love making soba noodles and they switch from being a lawyer to being a soba noodle maker. And they love it and they get really into it and they get really good at it,” she explained. Laughing, she added, “And that’s sort of like what I’m thinking. It could be soba noodles, but it’s not going to be soba noodles.”

Philip Seib is a professor of journalism, public diplomacy and international relations. In his 14 years at USC, he served as director of USC’s Center on Public Diplomacy from 2009 until 2013. He later was the vice dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism from 2015 until 2016.

Stables told Annenberg Media that Seib “provided important thought leadership in how we study and teach global affairs through the perspective of journalism and public diplomacy.”

Beyond the ways he innovated Annenberg’s teaching of international affairs, Seib has a prolific bibliography.

“He always kept himself incredibly busy by both designing and teaching several new courses while authoring more than a dozen award-winning books,” said Stables. “Phil always took great pride in helping our students understand the larger world around us and it is appropriate that in his final semester he was helping students publish global affairs stories with The Pacific Council.”

Senior Kate Ly Johnston was among the students who expressed appreciation and admiration for Seib, who worked closely with colleagues, undergraduates and graduate students.

In his statement to Annenberg Media, Stables expressed his own appreciation for Celis, Anawalt and Seib.

“We are so thankful for the many contributions they made during their time at USC and going to miss working with each,” Stables said.