Keeping the public informed

issue 01 | winter 2024
News notepad and pencil

There are still times when Ray Walker ’22 marvels at his landing place after Denison: at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, where that famous gigantic tree sparkles through the holidays, where he might hop on an elevator and discover he’s sharing the ride with NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt.

That happened just the other day, as a matter of fact.

But gradually, the professional life taking shape for Walker is starting to feel — dare he say it? — like another day at the office.

“It kind of becomes the norm, where you’re not even starstruck anymore,” he said.

Walker majored in communication and anthropology/sociology, with a concentration in narrative journalism. He was a President’s Medalist and received a Distinguished Leadership Award.

After graduation, he started at NBC as a news associate, which served as a yearlong introduction to NBC designed to jump-start careers at the network. He learned all facets of the business, working closely with anchor Craig Melvin, producing social media content of all kinds, and interviewing the likes of musician Darius Rucker and presidential hopeful Nikki Haley.

In spring 2023, he accepted a full-time position as a production assistant with NBC News NOW, the network’s streaming news channel. Ask him how Denison prepared him for this career, and he’ll flip the question on you.

“How didn’t Denison prepare me?” he said. The Knowlton Center helped guide him. His professors challenged him. And his classmates inspired him.

“I got excited seeing my peers doing great things,” he said. “I was already driven, but I wanted to do so much more because everybody (at Denison) was doing so much.”

Since moving to New York City, Walker found a passion outside of work. He joined the running community and became so committed to it that he ran in the Berlin Marathon in October 2023.

“It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, magical in both the struggle and freedom that comes with it,” he said.

He has his professional sights set on becoming a national news correspondent.

“I want to travel the country, telling stories,” he said. “To me, it’s all about connecting with people.”

He said he learned that at Denison, too.

“I think sometimes people think it’s clichéd,” he said. “It’s not a cliché for me. It’s real. It’s ingrained in the framework and fabric of what Denison is.”

Ask Allie Vugrincic ’17 what drew her to journalism, and the radio reporter who deals in words and voice might hesitate.

“In truth, I did not so much choose journalism as it chose me,” she said.

Vugrincic works for 89.7 NPR News in Columbus. Before that, she spent four years as a reporter, features writer, and photographer at two Youngstown, Ohio-area newspapers, the Tribune Chronicle and The Vindicator.

At Denison, her primary medium was film.

“I have always loved storytelling in all forms, which is why I decided to study cinematography at Denison,” she said. “I saw it as the perfect marriage of writing, photography, and theater.”

However, it was a creative writing teacher who set her on course to study abroad in Ireland, both over a summer as an undergraduate and again for a master’s program in creative writing at University College Cork in Ireland.

“I was there to write, but more than anything, Ireland taught me how to listen to other people’s stories,” she said.

A year wiser and a degree richer, she came home to Warren, Ohio and waited for the next part of her life to start.

“When I took the job at my local newspaper, I thought it would be a temporary thing,” she said. “But over the course of the next four years, I discovered a career in which I thrived. I had a camera around my neck and a new story to tell every day. And the stories mattered — especially at a time where fewer and fewer communities had people to tell them.”

Radio allows her to lean into her theatrical flair and use the sound-editing skills she learned at Denison. But at its core, the job is the same — tell a new story every day.

A few years after graduation, Courtney Vinopal ’13 was working for the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., fielding questions from the U.S. press about terror attacks in France, including the killing of 12 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly newspaper in Paris.

It was grim work, but Vinopal realized while dealing with the media during those tense moments — when getting reliable and unbiased information to the public was paramount — that she wanted to cover the news herself.

Now, Vinopal is a business journalist based in New York City, covering human resources and the workplace. She reports for HR Brew, an industry-focused vertical published by Morning Brew.

“In the seven or so years I’ve been working in the media, I’ve written on everything from foreign affairs to gender to real estate,” she said. She has seen her work published by The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and PBS NewsHour.

Vinopal double-majored in French and English literature and minored in communication. She admits she didn’t expect to use her French skills much. Still, they came in handy when she worked as an English teaching assistant in France during the year after graduation and later at her embassy job.

She earned her master’s degree at Columbia University in 2016 and has worked as a reporter since.

“When I was at Denison, it was hard to envision how the courses I was taking would translate to a career, given I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life at that point,” she said. “It’s a lot clearer now how they served me, and I’m forever grateful to all the wonderful professors, particularly Drs. Christine Armstrong, Sylvia Brown, and Kirk Combe, who helped me hone my language and writing skills.”

She said the college prepared her well for journalism, even before the major was an option at Denison.

“The curriculum at Denison encourages students to be curious, which is essential for any journalist,” she said. “You’re constantly asking questions and learning a little bit about everything.”

Uncertain about his future, John Wendle ’02 got his international start at a Denison career fair, where he happened to see a table for the Peace Corps.

He signed up then and there.

“Everyone should do it,” he said. “Hugely formative experience.”

Within a few months of graduation, he was studying Russian in Kazakhstan and living with a local family.

After two years teaching on the shores of the Caspian Sea, where he once swam with giant sturgeon, he landed a job in Baku, Azerbaijan, where he worked at a regional newspaper. It was there, during violent anti-government protests, that he started taking photos — mostly blurry ones of his running feet.

His newfound passion for photography propelled him to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and his experience in the former Soviet Union helped him land a job at the Moscow Times. Wendle also began to shift his coverage to war.

In 2008, while working for Time magazine, he rode in on Russian armored vehicles to report on that country’s invasion of Georgia.

Then, a friend from the Peace Corps hired him for a job in Afghanistan, in Helmand and Kandahar. Later, he worked as a Time Afghanistan correspondent.

In 2014, after five years of embeds, close calls with snipers, suicide bombs, and a girlfriend’s kidnapping (which fortunately ended with her quick release), he moved to Ukraine to cover the war with Russia. He was one of the first reporters to arrive at the scene of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 by Russian-controlled forces, an act that killed 283 passengers and 15 crew members.

He met his wife, a British journalist, in Ukraine. From Kyiv, he worked for National Geographic and other outlets. He wrote about Russian polar bears and sailed the Svalbard archipelago to cover climate change research.

In 2018, the couple moved to Dakar, Senegal.

Now based in West Africa, Wendle has pivoted to video and television production, though he still writes and takes photos.

He has searched for long-snouted saiga antelope in Kazakhstan and manatees in Guinea. He said he is happy, at this stage of his life, to have replaced soldiers with scientists and Kalashnikov rifles with roaring lions.

Published December 2023
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