Commencement 2021: Theresa Brown found her niche while leading The Cigar’s coverage of the pandemic

KINGSTON, R.I. – April 28, 2021 – Her first year at the University of Rhode Island, Theresa Brown planned to be a nurse, hoping to one day work with children. There was just one problem—after every anatomy lab, she’d get physically ill.

But her troubles in anatomy helped point her toward majors that have led to an exciting college career.

Brown, who graduates in May with a triple major in journalism, writing and rhetoric, and Italian, has spent her four years at URI on the student newspaper, The Good Five-Cent Cigar. As editor-in-chief, she led the 10-member staff of editors and reporters during a tumultuous year as the paper covered the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s been really exciting and I’m grateful for the experience,” says Brown, a Cranston resident, whose year-long term as editor-in-chief ended in December. “The pandemic has been disappointing for many students who’ve lost opportunities like internships and study abroad trips. But for journalism students, it really created an amazing opportunity to have this experiential learning and to work in crisis mode. I am appreciative that we may have gotten the one good thing out of all of this chaos.”

Brown found her way into the journalism and writing and rhetoric programs after feeling miserable about her classes her freshman year. Unhappy, Brown approached her honors professor, Cheryl Foster, who encouraged her to follow her interest in writing. And her orientation leader, Emma Gauthier ’18, then the Cigar’s editor-in-chief, pushed her to write for the newspaper.

“I hated it at first. But after a few weeks, I finally got used to writing an article,” says Brown, who was surrounded by journalism students her first year in Hillside Hall – then the living and learning community for the Harrington School of Communication and Media. “I was like, ‘OK, I enjoy this. My friends are here. Maybe this is something I want to do.’”

Her sophomore year, Brown was elected the paper’s web editor, and managing editor her junior year. In December 2019, she was named editor-in-chief. The experiential learning provided by The Cigar ratcheted up just months later when the University first began dealing with the growing pandemic.

Last March, Brown was on the subway in New York City when she learned that the school had canceled in-person classes for the remainder of the semester because of the pandemic. She was immediately on the phone with the Cigar’s publishing company to tell them the paper would be going remote. The need to report on the pandemic was brought home when an administrator emphasized the need to get information out to the students, she says.

“The Cigar’s production manager, Mary Lind, suggested that we do regular updates. I thought what was a great idea,” says Brown. “I didn’t even have a chance to consider what our plan was. It was just an automatic switch.”

During the spring, as their classmates were sent home, the Cigar staff worked remotely to provide daily updates on the University’s response to the crisis and how students were being affected. Over the summer, they continued to file weekly reports. The response to the coverage was amazing, says Brown, with the updates getting thousands of views.

“Theresa and her staff worked above and beyond over the summer months posting information and stories on the Cigar’s website,” says John Pantalone, chair of the journalism department and adviser to the paper. “Before the website was fully established a few years ago, students never worked on the paper during the summer. She and a few other editors did this because they wanted to contribute to student knowledge about the pandemic, but I really think they did it because they have the journalist’s instinct and desire to be part of helping to solve problems. Theresa spearheaded the effort, and she did a tremendous job as editor during what I believe is the most challenging and difficult time the student newspaper has ever faced.”

Brown is proud of the accomplishments of the staff, and is thankful for the administration’s availability to sit through numerous interviews about the University’s response. High on the list also is Pantalone, who advised her on everything from coverage, reporting safely and ethics questions.

“When Greek Life was having problems with their COVID positivity rates, I was going to him about whether we should print the names of the sororities and fraternities, and even whether I had a conflict of interest because I am in a sorority,” she says. “He was always available and always willing to help.”

With three majors and four years on the Cigar staff, Brown could be called a workaholic. But she didn’t want to miss anything. She will graduate with 150 credits and made the time for numerous other positions, including freelancing for publications such as Rhode Island Monthly; serving as web coordinator for the Public Relations Student Society of America; publicity chair for Ether(bound), URI’s literary magazine; social media intern for the writing and rhetoric department; and managing charity events at her sorority, Chi Omega – including raising $15,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

“I used to leave my dorm at 8 in the morning and I wouldn’t be back until around 1 in the morning after classes and extracurriculars,” says Brown, who earned the Journalism Department Excellence Award and the Stephanie Bounds Award for Excellence in Writing and Rhetoric, among other awards and scholarships. “If I didn’t have something every second of the day I felt I was missing something. I really wanted to get the most out of the college experience. So, I was just always running around.”

She’s also found time to complete some great memories – the friends she’s made, late nights going to the emporium for fast-food, a summer semester in Calabria, Italy, where she took a class shadowing an Italian journalist and writing stories in Italian.

With a lifelong passion for books – thanks to her grandparents – she is poised to pursue a master’s degree in book publishing next fall at New York University. Her goal is to eventually be a literary agent.

“NYU is the number one publishing school in the U.S. All of their classes are taught by industry professionals,” she says. “My marketing class the first semester is taught by one of the people who did the marketing for the Harry Potter series.”

While she’s ready for the next adventure, she’s felt some withdrawal after finishing up as editor-in-chief. In December, she oversaw the election of a new team of editors at The Cigar, including a new editor-in-chief, Kate LeBlanc.

“I got off the call and I just bawled my eyes out,” Brown says. “The Cigar has been my everything since the first day. I felt that I didn’t have a purpose in college anymore. Then the next day, I got into NYU. So, it was like my life’s moving on.”