Last year in a last-minute decision, Summer Dorr, then a 20-year-old University of Alaska Southeast student, sent a magazine correspondent application to Teen People magazine in New York City.
"It was due like the next day," Dorr said. "I actually turned it in late."
Months later the magazine sent her an unexpected response.
"I totally spaced it," Dorr said. "Then come July, I got this packet saying, 'Congrats! You got it!' "
Dorr was selected out of 500 applicants as one of 14 teen correspondents for Teen People, a national magazine for young people ages 13 to 24 with 1.6 million readers. She has been contributing to the magazine since August.
"I love Summer, she is amazing," said Isabel Gonzalez, special projects editor for Teen People, who reviewed Dorr's application. "I was like determined to find somebody from Alaska and she was stellar - above and beyond the other candidates."
The Teen People job was an amazing windfall, Dorr said. She graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School in 1999 and went on Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla., to pursue a degree in communications. After a year at Flagler, Dorr decided to return to Juneau to attend UAS to save on tuition, she said. That was when she took her first writing class and decided to join the school newspaper, The Whalesong. She had been at the Whalesong only three semesters when she got the Teen People job.
"Before this, journalism was kind of a hobby for me," she said. "If I hadn't come back to UAS, I would never have gotten into writing."
Now 21, Dorr is a slight, smiling young woman who still can't get used to seeing her picture in print. Teen People published her photo in a recent issue and she has been asked to give several interviews to local media. The sight of a camera makes her blush and pull the cuffs of her zip-up sweater into her palms.
"I think I like to read my own stories better than I like reading stories about me," she said.
Along with attending UAS, Dorr works full-time as an ad writer and producer at Juneau FM radio stations KSRJ and KFMG, known as Star and Magic. In part because of her radio station experience, she's decided to finish her communications degree at Flagler and concentrate on broadcast journalism, she said.
Dorr confers with other teen correspondents and Teen People editors by phone a few times a month and communicates with the magazine by e-mail weekly. So far, she has contributed to an article about teen drug use and gathered some quotes for other stories. Only some of what she submits is printed, she said. Teen People pays her by the word.
So far Dorr's biggest story, the first with her byline, is a short essay about meeting her biological father, who she hadn't seen for years. It will be printed with a photo in the Dec. 1 issue.
Most other teen correspondents hail from the Lower 48, the majority from the East Coast, Dorr said. After they were selected, some circulated e-mail profiles, detailing their experience at major magazines and their numerous journalism awards.
"I was reading all this stuff, and I was like, 'You've got to be kidding,' " Dorr said, ticking off her own imaginary e-mail profile with a laugh. "I work at The Whalesong, and at a radio station and yeah, that's it."
Dorr said some things about writing for Teen People surprised her. When she wrote for The Whalesong, she used to just take notes longhand for stories. Now, she must tape-record and transcribe every interview, even if she is only going to use one quote. She also must collect contact numbers for every person mentioned. Fact checkers from Teen People go over the transcripts and call all the people interviewed.
In the short story she wrote about her father, for example, she only mentioned her mother in a sentence. Teen People called her mother to verify the sentence was true.
"They are, like, always covering their bases," she said.
She also said she has to be aware of the young audience she is writing for. When she pitches and writes stories, she goes for the widest appeal and watches her word choice.
"You can't say, 'I had an epiphany,' you have to say, 'I realized," she said.
Dorr said she hopes to continue as a journalist after her year-long commitment at Teen People ends in the fall. Gonzalez suspects Dorr has a promising future.
"She'll always have access to me and the other editors," Gonzalez said. "She has a great instinct for stories. ... She is beyond her years."
Julia O'Malley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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