Julian Wyllie ’16 taught himself how to be a journalist in two weeks.
The setting was the Butler University Library and it was winter break 2015. Wyllie, a junior, had just been named The Collegian’s Editor-in-Chief. Despite being named the leader of the campus paper; Wyllie didn’t really know journalism.
He was a business major. He had never taken a journalism course at Butler. He wondered why the paragraphs in newspapers were so “little.” He was used to writing essays. He enjoyed reading long books. He had worked at The Collegian, but was the Opinion Editor, and didn’t feel ready to oversee an entire paper.
So, he locked himself inside Irwin Library for two weeks. A crash course, of sorts, in journalism.
“I read everything cover-to-cover,” Wyllie says. “The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, everything I could get my hands on. For two straight weeks, I just went to the library, borrowed newspapers and magazines, and read every single word. I copied down stylistic things I noticed, reporting tricks, everything. I did not talk to anyone for two weeks.”
It must have been a decent crash course. Wyllie, who graduated from Butler in 2016 with a degree in Economics and Entrepreneurship, has already worked at the Indianapolis Recorder, Governing magazine, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Politico.
But it was more than just that self-guided, bleary-eye-inducing, two-week course that set Wyllie down the journalism path. He credits Butler’s tight-knit community, which was conducive to “stumbling,” he says, upon the student paper. And more than that, it allowed people with no reporting background to get involved, very involved, in the paper. Butler’s curriculum also enabled an individual in the Business School to explore other interests, something Wyllie says he wouldn’t have been able to do at a larger institution.
Wyllie recently accepted a full-time position as a reporter at The Chronicle of Philanthropy. This comes after completing the 2018 Politico Journalism Institute, which offered 13 university students intensive, hands-on training in government and political reporting. His goal is to continue to tell the stories that drew him to the library in the first place: individual people who are experiencing something that represents a much larger societal issue.
“I stumbled on my life’s passion while at Butler and I am so lucky that I was able to find that, cultivate that, almost by accident, all while still pursuing a completely different major that helped me in so many ways,” he says.
“The primary reason I am where I am, is that Butler is small enough to meet people who can change your life by accident. If you go to a massive school, you can only focus on business, or engineering, for example. At Butler, I was able to have a business major, yet also get involved in the college paper, which was something I didn’t even know I wanted to do, all because of the small community. I never would have been able to get that support at a bigger place. At Butler, I met so many people who pushed me to do what I knew I wanted to do, but didn’t have the courage to do.”
Off to Indiana
Wyllie grew up in Brooklyn. The son of immigrants. Most of his family is from the island of Saint Vincent in the Caribbean.
Wyllie’s mother moved to Canada in the 1980s to attend graduate school, and eventually moved to New York where Julian was born in 1994. His parents broke up in the late 1990s, and after his mother remarried someone from Indiana, they moved to Indianapolis when Wyllie was 13.
When it was time for Wyllie to start thinking about colleges, Butler was very much on his mind. In fact, it was on the minds of most people in Indiana, he says. It was 2011 and Butler was fresh off an NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship appearance.
Wyllie knew he wanted to stay in Indiana for college and narrowed his list to Indiana University, University of Indianapolis, and Hanover. Butler, he says, was his top choice, but he didn’t think he had a chance of getting in.
Enter Jamie Martindale.
Martindale was Wyllie’s government teacher at Pike High School. And Martindale didn’t want to hear Wyllie say he couldn’t get into Butler. He pushed Wyllie to “just give it a shot.” Wyllie took Martindale’s advice and was thrilled when he was accepted early.
“Butler seemed like the type of place where people would ask you how you are,” Wyllie says. “I remember visiting campus and just being completely sold on it right after my visit. I loved the size, the feel, and the people. Random people were just so friendly.”
Fear of rejection wasn’t Wyllie’s only hesitation in applying to Butler. Even if he did get in, he figured he wouldn’t be able to afford it.
But, much to his surprise, Butler ended up being more affordable than any of the other Indiana schools he got into. Wyllie received the Morton-Finney Leadership Award and the Heritage Award.
The Morton-Finney Leadership Award is given to students who have taken a leadership role promoting diversity and inclusion in their schools or communities. The Heritage Award, Wyllie says, was because he was a first-generation college student.
A New Passion Emerges
Hilary Buttrick knows she is not supposed to have favorite students, but when it comes to Wyllie, she can’t really help it.
“He is one of those students who really sticks out in my mind,” says Buttrick, Associate Professor of Business Law. “He is a great kid, who is really creative, and has a natural curiosity. He just has an interest and desire to go way beyond what the assignment requires.”
Wyllie first met Buttrick in her Business Ethics course when he was a sophomore. That’s where, he says, he really learned to write, and also realized how much he loved it.
Buttrick’s class tackled Karl Marx, criticisms of a capitalist society, classical philosophy, and more. Wyllie, she says, had a gift for close reading and writing. If the whole journalism thing doesn’t pan out, he would make a great lawyer, she says.
“He was always such a good contributor to our class discussions,” Buttrick says. “He raised the bar in class. Our entire class benefitted because Julian would raise his hand and say something truly insightful. He is the kid that every professor wants to have in their class.”
As he was taking Buttrick’s class, he just happened to be approached by a Collegian reporter for a story she was writing and asked to do an interview. He agreed and, because of that interview, learned more about what The Collegian was.
He connected with the Opinion Editor at the time and she looked at his essays.
“I remember she said to me, ‘If we could teach you to write for a newspaper, would you be interested?’” Wyllie says. “I figured why not? Initially, I thought it would be fun to show my friends that I could just write my opinions. That’s what I thought journalism was. Boy was I wrong.”
A Long Way from the Library Crash Course
Wyllie remembers his first column with a bit of disgust. “It wasn’t very good at all,” he says. He waxed poetic about why it was perfectly OK to be an independent student at Butler, but still have friends who were part of the Greek system. “It was very basic,” he says. “I was still learning how to write, let’s put it that way.”
Eventually, he became the Opinion Editor and put his business background to good use, shaping the section through a new lens.
“I wanted to have different types of writers for the opinion section. A business-focused person, a culture-focused person. I wanted an opinion writer for everybody,” he says. “I wanted to build the section so that if someone tuned in for one specific thing, they would be able to find it. I approached it from the perspective of, we need to get readers. I would never take back my business background. Without it, I would never have had that mindset.”
After serving as Opinion Editor, Wyllie became Editor-in-Chief.
“Julian is the only non-media major to ever hold the Editor-in-Chief position that I know of,” says Nancy Whitmore, who has been a Journalism Professor at Butler for 18 years. “He was very unusual and unique in terms of the history of the paper and we not only enjoyed that, but greatly benefitted from his new perspective.”
Wyllie used his business background to tackle stories that others at the paper shied away from, Whitmore says. He wrote about student debt and tuition increases, the endowment, and budget-centered stories.
“He had an outstanding ability to take complex things and make them understandable to the reader,” Whitmore says. “Journalism students, typically, hide from number stories because they aren’t drawn to math. But Julian took on those big issue stories and was able to succinctly translate that information into something that students could relate to and that was compelling.”
Then, she says, he started to embrace the narrative style, as well.
As Wyllie became more experienced, he started to dabble in human interest stories. Whitmore recalled a story he wrote about two students who nearly died in auto accidents. With time, Whitmore not only saw Wyllie’s writing style expand, but she also saw his understanding of journalism grow.
“It was special having him around because we really got to see, right in front of us, his love for journalism, and what it could do, come alive,” she says. “His passion came from this sense of community service and how journalism could result in positive change for the greater public.”
When all was said and done, Wyllie took one journalism course at Butler. But, he clarifies, it wasn’t a writing course. It was a journalism readership course.
But between The Collegian, his business courses, and the people he met, the blended skills he acquired have helped him land gigs at places he never would have dreamed of, such as The Chronicle of Higher Education and Politico, he says.
“The primary reason I am where I am and have been able to do what I love so far is because Butler was a small enough campus to allow me to meet people who would change my life quickly,” he says. “I had people telling me to do as many things as possible—not just focus on one thing—and I will forever be thankful for that. That led to me learning way more than just my major.”
And let’s not forget about his two-week crash course, too.
Photo courtesy of Gary Cameron