Cheryl Pell steps down from MIPA after 25 years of promoting scholastic journalism in Michigan
By Anya Rath
Cheryl Pell is rarely the focus of attention. For the past 25 years, she’s largely been behind the scenes of the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association, making sure everything runs smoothly.
But those who worked with her say Pell was the person who kept MIPA focused on its mission: supporting student journalism.
“Cheryl positioned MIPA as the leading scholastic press association in the country,” said former MSU School of Journalism Director Stan Soffin, who hired Pell in summer 1987 to run MIPA. “I was delighted for her success and the success she brought to MIPA and the J-School. She was exactly the right person for the job.”
In May, Pell retired from MIPA, although she maintains ties with the organization as the J-School’s scholastic journalism course coordinator.
MIPA at MSU
Soffin wooed MIPA from its home at Central Michigan University in 1982 — one of his first acts as J-School director. Within a few years he set out to hire the organization’s first full-time executive director. Pell was his pick.
She had spent more than 11 years as a high school teacher, including as the adviser of a student newspaper. She left when she was pressured to only run positive content in the paper.
“I sensed the passion stored up in her — a passion for scholastic journalism, a passion for teaching, and a passion for the First Amendment rights of high school students,” Soffin said.
Pell turned that passion into a career.
Under Pell’s leadership MIPA added new programming and its membership grew. The organization added a fall how-to conference and individual contests for yearbook. Michigan became one of the first states to have a strong video awards program. And MIPA’s Summer Workshop, which started with 45 students the first year, is now a draw for students from throughout the region. Nearly 400 students attended this summer’s workshop.
“Cheryl is MIPA,” said Betsy Rau, who retired in 2011 after serving as MIPA’s summer workshop director for 18 years. “She turned an organization into a person. She listened, problem-solved, fired up, educated and inspired advisers, students and friends. She added college classes for advisers, built the organization to its current size, sponsored mid-winter retreats, Up North workshops and so much more.”
A national leader
Pell has received numerous honors for her work, including the National Scholastic Press Association Pioneer Award, AEJMC Scholastic Journalism Teacher of the Year, Journalism Education Association’s Medal of Merit, Columbia Scholastic Press Association’s James F. Paschal Award and MIPA’s John V. Field Award. In 2007, she was inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame.
“No one will forget Cheryl Pell. I can tell you that,” Rau said. “She has saved publications from being eliminated, helped advisers keep their jobs and made MIPA a nationally known force. High school journalism in Michigan flourished due to her inspiration and care giving.”
But for Pell, it’s never been about accolades for herself. Her focus, she said, has always been on making experiences for students and advisers to learn and grow.
‘Good things will happen’
“I loved to see students get excited about covering stories in their newspapers, yearbooks and broadcast programs,” she said. “The awards conference in the spring was always a highlight — to see students reaping the benefits of their hard work that year is really meaningful to me. Those awards can mean so much to students and to their teachers and parents as well. It’s as though we are validating their choice to be on their publication staff and their choice to push themselves to do good work.”
She’s continuing a piece of that work. Pell remains on the School of Journalism’s faculty, where she coordinates courses for journalism advisers, including its journalism education master’s program.
She said she is looking forward to the next chapter in MIPA’s history.
But Pell isn’t likely to be written out of that chapter, said Jeremy Steele, a MIPA and MSU alumnus who was hired as MIPA’s new executive director. He said he hopes she’ll be a frequent speaker at MIPA events and she remains an adviser as the organization transitions to new leadership.
“Thank goodness Cheryl’s office is right across the hall,” Steele said. “Like so many people who have come through MIPA, I feel like I’ve grown up with Cheryl as a mentor and I’m lucky that she’s right here. No one loves student journalism more than she does. She’s a tough act to follow.”
Soffin, who was also part of the search committee to replace Pell, said he never regretted his decision back in 1987 to hire her.
“Cheryl is living proof that if you work hard, good things will happen, and good things happened to MIPA, to the J-School and to Cheryl,” he said. “MIPA will certainly miss her, but because she will remain on the J-School faculty, current and future journalism majors will continue to enjoy the excitement of learning she brings to her classroom.”
Anya Rath is an MSU journalism sophomore and MIPA’s membership and contests coordinator.