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Keely McCormick: 'This is the real deal. This is terrifying'

Keely McCormickKeely McCormick graduated in spring 2020 with a bachelor’s in journalism and a minor in business. At KU, she was involved in Media Crossroads, where she started her own show called “Wake Up Call.” She also volunteered for Best Buddies and was the social media team for Her Campus, a member of Delta Gamma and involved in various other media-related positions. 

McCormick learned about the pandemic while traveling in Colorado, where she moved in with her parents for a short while before returning to Lawrence to finish the semester online. She touched on the anxiety and loss that she felt when she learned class would be online the rest of the spring semester and her graduation was canceled. She also touched on the concern she has for her fellow students who do not understand the severity of the pandemic. McCormick said she appreciates all the J-School has done for her and approves of the methods they have done to keep students safe this semester. McCormick also discusses her job in Eugene, Oregon, where she works as a TV reporter for KVAL-TV. 

► Listen to the audio version here.

Catherine Brierton: This is Catherine Brierton. Today is Nov. 9, 2020. I am interviewing Keely McCormick for the William Allen White School of Journalism pandemic oral history project. Going back to March, what were your initial reactions when the pandemic hit and where were you when you heard the news that KU was closing?

Keely McCormick: When the pandemic first hit, I never realized the severity that it would be. I had just left Colorado just as things were -- COVID was kind of becoming a known thing. It was all over the news. People were talking about it. I just left Colorado on spring break to go back to my home in Chicago. And that's when I found out that KU was going to close. So I decided to stay home for a few extra days, but I had no idea that this is what was going to be the outcome. I thought it would be -- I thought we would all go back to KU. We'd have like a week just to hang out with our friends and do our classes online, but I didn't realize that it would be the end of the semester. And I never thought my graduation would be taken away from me. And I never thought that I would still be wearing a mask to this day to go out to the grocery store or do anything. So I really did not understand the severity of it at the moment.

Catherine Brierton: How has the year been different comparing the spring semester with the pandemic to working now with the pandemic?

Keely McCormick: It's been a complete 180 just because my life is so different. I'm all the way in Eugene, Oregon. And that's obviously very far from Kansas and very far from my home in Chicago. So that's different enough as it is and moving and getting the job in the middle of the pandemic was crazy. So right now, I am working in person, so that's different than my spring semester at KU. Everything was online. All my classes and all that. I didn't get to go anchor at KUJH-TV because of the pandemic. And here I am in the station, I am working with people. So that's definitely, definitely a big difference from last semester.

Catherine Brierton: What has been the biggest challenge of adapting to the changes in your job?

Keely McCormick: The biggest challenge I would say is that it is every single day that it's go, go, go. I feel like every day as a TV reporter, you're running a marathon. And last year at KU, I would turn a package, a story probably once a week. I would, it would be the big event of my week and now I'm turning one every single day. So it's -- that was probably the hardest part was realizing, OK, this is going to be every single day. It's going to be a lot of work and you're not really gonna have a chance to take a breath during the day, but it's also worth it because I just love what I do so much.

Catherine Brierton: How has your workload changed as a result of the pandemic?

Keely McCormick: I think it's changed a lot because a lot of starting out reporters, they go to these markets and they -- my mentors have told me that it's kind of a stretch. They're stretching for stories, kind of doing what they can to dig up these stories. And they're never really hard hitting, but I have not had a -- I haven't experienced that at all because I got here, we're reporting on COVID. Right now, COVID numbers are spiraling out of control. There's a COVID story every single day. And then on top of that, there were the wildfires here in Eugene that I was reporting on. And it's -- I just have felt like there's been so much hard news and not a lack of things to cover at all. Every single day, there's multiple different, hard-hitting obvious stories that I could run with and news.

Catherine Brierton: How has your perception of the pandemic changed over time? How have you emotionally coped with it?

Keely McCormick: I would say at first I was -- thought it was just -- not that I thought it was funny, but my sisters and I were like, “Oh, yay. Let's do charcuterie and let's do face masks. And we'll ha-ha we haven't showered in two days. Well, we don't need to because we're not doing anything.” So at first it was just lighthearted and I thought it was -- I just didn't realize how bad it was going to be. And then once the numbers started getting out of control is when my anxiety started rising. And I was like, “Oh my God, like, this is the real deal. This is terrifying. And this is something we've never dealt with before.” I think the way -- once I left home after about a week of quarantining there, and I went back to my house in Lawrence and once I was there, I think that's kind of when the anxiety hit in, not only about COVID, but about me losing the rest of my semester and me being a senior in college and me not having a job lined up.

I remember the last day, my last day of classes, I woke up from my Zoom in, or my Zoom class and just started sobbing on the Zoom because I was like, this is my very last class, my last journalism class with one of my favorite professors. And I'm sitting in my bed right now, taking it. I tried to just stay positive through it all. I mean, I think that that's all you can ever do. That's kind of the only way that I was able to cope with it was, I was like, “This is bad, but it could -- it could be worse.”

And the only thing that I can do is look forward and do what I can: wash my hands, wear my mask and stay inside. And just trying to find any little positive thing in that. Another thing is I started running a lot because the gyms were closed and I've always been a runner, but never the -- I never ran the distance that I was running during quarantine. I was getting up to 10 miles a day. I found the most beautiful path in Lawrence. I would just run around Lawrence and that really helped me cope and get to say goodbye to Lawrence. In a way, it helped me get back in the community and get to see everything and just breathe for a few hours a day. So that helped a lot, too.

Catherine Brierton: How was your involvement in J-school organizations, other student organizations, Greek life and other clubs affected in the spring?

Keely McCormick: It was very different. I was in a sorority as well. So obviously all of our events were canceled. Chapter was canceled. Everything at the Journalism School was, yeah, last semester we weren't open at all, which was so hard because my favorite thing about the journalism school was that my professors were my friends. And I could constantly just jump into the studio and chat with them for a little bit, ask for some advice, talk about the job search, or just talk about life.

Keely McCormick: And I mean, being from Chicago in Kansas, when you're -- when you don't have your family around, the journalism professors, I felt like kind of became my family. They became my rock and support system in the job search. And just in the, I dunno, the crazy, crazy college life that we live. So that was really hard to not be able to be with them, to not be able to be editing in the studio, to be able to be using the cameras and turning packages and just practicing. So yeah, that was definitely, definitely difficult.

Catherine Brierton: How do you feel about your fellow students’ response to the pandemic as an outsider looking in?

Keely McCormick: I think that there's a lot of judgment that goes along with COVID, and I understand it because we're all -- it's unprecedented and everyone's confused and it's a crazy time. And I think there's a lot of judgment on college students and I feel bad and like my sisters are in college and I don't -- I don't want to cast judgment, but I do think that college students aren't understanding the severity of it. And I especially think the freshmen and sophomores that just got to KU, they don't understand the community of Lawrence, Kansas, outside of the University of Kansas.

I don't think they realize that there are old people and there are these people that grew up there and Lawrence is their home, and it's not just their little college town. There's just more to Lawrence than the University of Kansas. And I think that that's, what's hard to see is it's hard to see people continuing to party and go out and drink in these large group settings.

And then the next day, they go to the grocery store and it's just putting the other people in the community at risk. And so that's kind of where I'm a little bit disappointed. But at the same time, I don't want to cast judgment on them because I definitely made mistakes while I was still in Lawrence. I definitely was with too many people at some points. And I just think judging is just not the best way to handle that, but I do -- I do wish that the younger kids could understand that Lawrence is a bigger community than just the university.

Catherine Brierton: Do you have plans to adopt your career to the current situation? Do you, and let me follow up on that. Do you think that this will become a new norm?

Keely McCormick: See, OK. That's what I'm confused about. I've been saying, I think that people now are going to be wearing masks all the time. Even once, once this is all handled, I just think, I think masks will be the new norm. I think that people are going to be very hypersensitive to how close you are to them now. I think wiping everything down, hand sanitizing will continue to be like, be the way it is, but I hope that one day we'll be able to have groups together.

Again, I think that part will go back to normal, but I think now, just since we've seen this, and since we know a nationwide pandemic can happen, I think masks will stay, stay in place. And career-wise no, I don't plan to change anything. I want to continue doing what I'm doing, and I mean, I would be really disappointed if my station were to send us home and have me report from home. That would be difficult to do, but no, I don't have -- I signed a two-year contract here and I have no plans to change my career according to the pandemic right now.

Catherine Brierton: How do you feel about the School of Journalism's response to the pandemic?

Keely McCormick: I think that they handled it really well. I mean, I don't know exactly what they're doing right now. I think I've heard that there are some in-person classes and some online, which I think is good because the students, like your mental health will go crazy if you're sitting at home in your room, taking all these classes, you know, we need human interaction, we need a teacher smiling face, especially the KU journalism ones. They're just the best.

And I think that they want to see their students. They want to help kids out. And so I think that I just have a lot of respect for the journalism school. And I think that they're -- I'm sure they're handling it very well. When this first all happened, I think everyone, no one really, I didn't know what Zoom was. So I think that at first there was a lot of technical difficulties with my classes, but my professors all managed to figure it out fairly quickly.

And I mean, would always, if anything was wrong, they would offer a FaceTime one-on-one and they were constantly reaching out. And another thing that I really liked about the journalism school is I don't know what exactly it's called, but I know they have that food pantry for people with food insecurity. And that also, I mean, I've done reports on that and I've seen studies that food insecurity is through the roof right now, because jobs are down, people aren't making as much money. So I just have a lot of respect for them to do that. And like just allow students to be comfortable and be able to come and grab something to eat if they can't get that, that day. So I think that's awesome that they're doing that, too.

Catherine Brierton: How do you think the pandemic has changed the William Allen White School of Journalism and KU?

Keely McCormick: I think that the pandemics obviously put us all at home. It's taken away that camaraderie. It's taken away the marching band singing all of our songs and us all being in the basketball Allen Fieldhouse together. I think it just -- it's taken so much away from us that once we get it back, it's going to bring us all together so much more. And I think that our Jayhawk pride will be that much stronger and we'll come back so much stronger together as a family. And I also think when you go through something so traumatic like this, and it's been so long now, way longer than we expected, but I think when you go through something like that, you always come back stronger and you always come back with a new perspective.

And I think Jayhawks across the country are just going to come back stronger. I think that the next basketball season we have is going to be absolutely insane and I can't wait for it because I'm sure the team will be so ready to be back on the court. And we're going to be ready to be cheering our team on again. So I think everyone's going to come back stronger for that, from this.

Catherine Brierton: How do you think KU will be better from everything that happened? I know you just touched on it a little bit, but if there's anything else you'd like to add?

Keely McCormick: Yeah, I just think that there's going to be more events. I think once we're allowed to be together, there'll be more tabling on Wescoe again and all that. And I think that people will just be so happy to be together and be involved again and show off their Jayhawk pride. I'm sure that merchant sales will go through the roof because people are going to be wanting to run around and show off that they’re Jayhawk. And again, just sports I think are going to be so insane. And I think it'll just be so fun and so much excitement and passion towards being a Jayhawk.

Catherine Brierton: What advice would you give someone 100 years from now who may be dealing with another pandemic?

Keely McCormick: I would say stay positive. It's terrifying. And it's scary, but really the only thing you can do is look to the future and look, you can't save the world. I mean, we can, but you can't solve all the problems at once, so don't think you have to. Do the little things like wash your hands, wear your masks, listen to the doctors and just stay positive. If you're parenting or if you're with your family, and those are the only people you can hug, hug them extra tight, tell everyone you love them and just stay positive and try to find any little happy, positive things that you can be grateful for in the moment.

Catherine Brierton: Is there anything else you'd like to add before we conclude?

Keely McCormick: Just that we're going to get through this together. We're going to come out stronger together and positive thinking is what will get us through and what is getting us through and Rock Chalk forever.

Catherine Brierton: This is the conclusion of this oral history.

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