The Journey of a Yerd

A yearbook nerd’s reflection on doing yearbook for six years

When I was a freshman in high school, I remember filling out a form during my English class that expressed my interest in wanting to join yearbook. The form was supposed to help me determine what classes I wanted to take the next school year. At my school, yearbook doubled as an extracurricular activity and a class titled “Publications,” so it was listed as an elective on the form. I don’t remember why exactly, but I had to choose an elective from the list, so I chose Publications. I didn’t actually want to take Publications that next year, though. Signing up for yearbook would take away my lone free spot in my schedule, and I wanted to fill it with Spanish II to complete my foreign language requirement.

During my appointment with the guidance counselor when we’d determine my sophomore year schedule, she asked me about taking Publications. I told her I actually wanted to take Spanish II instead. But there was a reason I picked Publications on that form. I didn’t just pick it to pick it because I had to choose something. I picked it because I really was intrigued by the idea of helping create a yearbook and the creativity that’s required of it. And, after all, I was one of those people who had always loved getting and flipping through yearbooks.

When it came time to choose my classes for my junior year of high school, I undoubtedly knew that I wanted to stop taking Spanish and join yearbook instead. My foreign language requirement would already be fulfilled, and the extra honors credit that came along with Spanish III wasn’t anywhere near as enticing as was the chance to take a fun class for once and use my creativity in Publications. My best friend Phoebe would be in the class and so would my friend Josh. I was in no position to pass on this opportunity.

And I’m glad I did, because joining yearbook was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

As a result of joining Publications, I fell in love with yearbook and truly became a yerd (yearbook nerd). It easily became my favorite class and one of the few things I looked forward to every school day. The combined process of writing stories, taking photos, and designing spreads fulfilled my creativity in a way nothing had ever before. It allowed me to indulge in a hobby I’d been wanting to try in photography. It allowed me to further my interest in design. It allowed me to realize that I really did want to study journalism in college.

The most underrated and unexpected part about joining yearbook, though, was the community it brought me.

Being on the yearbook staff gave me a sense of belonging that I hadn’t really felt since my freshman year: the last time I played organized sports. Being a part of the yearbook staff was in high demand at my high school, and I was one of the ones lucky enough to be a part of it. I felt like I truly had a place. I didn’t know it going into it, but I needed that. I really shouldn’t have been surprised by it, though. When you spend so much time with a group of people—whether you’re close with everyone—and everyone’s working together for a common goal, it’s difficult to not become like a family.

★★★

I continued doing Publications my senior year of high school, but yearbook had become so important to me that it was saddening to think it could be ending soon. When looking into colleges, I didn’t even think about yearbook or look into schools that had yearbook, because, at the time, I was all in for doing newspaper in college. As a journalism major and aspiring sports writer, I figured writing for the student newspaper wherever I go would be my main extracurricular activity.

I’d end up deciding to go to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. And when I found out there’s a yearbook there, I was thrilled. I looked up their yearbook, Illio, and wanted to find out all that I could about it. I wanted to know how their staff worked. I wanted to learn about their application process, but I couldn’t find much anything besides information about the fact Illio did in fact exist. So, until the time came that I would be in campus to find out more about it, I held out hope that I could be a part of it and that my yearbook journey wouldn’t end in high school.

I’d eventually learn that U of I’s independent student-run newspaper, The Daily Illini, and Illio are housed under the same parent company, Illini Media. So when it was time to learn more about Illio, it was also time to learn more about The Daily Illini—at Illini Media Info Night.

I wasn’t sure whether I’d be allowed to do both Illio and The Daily Illini, but I hoped I would. And sure enough, I was, as I distinctly remember being relieved upon finding out the different units had no policy against working for multiple Illini Media outlets. Thank goodness, too, because, if I had to choose, I, as an aspiring sports writer,  would’ve gone with The Daily Illini, feeling it’d best suit me and my career ambitions moving forward.

Even though I considered working for both Illio and The Daily Illini as hobbies, Illio was the one I truly considered as a hobby. The Daily Illini would be my writing outlet, the place where I’d be working toward my goal of becoming a professional sports writer, the thing that’d get the most attention from me besides school (most of the time), what I was dedicating myself to. Illio was just the place where I’d get to keep my love for yearbook alive and dabble in photography and design. For a while, this was my mentality.

But, in early winter of my sophomore year after being asked about potentially becoming editor-in-chief next school year during a staff meeting, I lightly entertained the notion of doing more with Illio. When asked, I quickly declined, saying I’d surely be busy with The Daily Illini. But I kept it on my mind. I was intrigued by the idea of having creative control of the yearbook. I didn’t want to be in charge, though. I wanted to take on a bigger sports beat at The Daily Illini so I could continue working my way up to covering the men’s basketball team. I wouldn’t have time to be in charge of Illio. But the more I thought about it, the more I was open to taking on a smaller role at the paper and stepping into a bigger role for the yearbook—the more I was open to giving up one goal for another one.

The thought of having sole responsibility really worried me, though. I’d still have school to worry about, and I didn’t want to take on more than I could handle. That year, Illio had co-editors-in-chief, and so I thought that maybe I could handle being editor-in-chief of the yearbook if I didn’t have to do it alone—if I shared the responsibilities and co-editors-in-chief with my twin sister, Amanda.

Amanda and I both joined Publications together in high school. And I wasn’t the only one who ended up loving yearbook; Amanda did, too. I may have been a tomboy, and she may have been a girly girl, but we both enjoyed writing and being creative, so yearbook was a perfect fit for us both. So, in college, we both joined Illio.

I eventually mentioned to Amanda that I wasn’t against being editor-in-chief for Illio but would only do it if she’d did it with me, and she felt the same way. We agreed it was our new goal you become co-editors-in-chief for our senior year. We didn’t want to do it next year, our junior year, because we wanted to get experience in assistant editorial roles as opposed to jumping right into the biggest role.

★★★

To be honest, the road to getting there wasn’t difficult. Unlike in high school, being a part of the yearbook staff at U of I wasn’t very desired or competitive, so moving up was easy as long as you were dedicated and put the work in. That said, Amanda and I were specifically chosen right away by the incoming editor-in-chief to be the writing and photo editors, respectively, for our junior year. It meant more responsibilities and more time to give to the yearbook, but we were ready and more than willing to do more. After all, this would be preparing us for what we ultimately wanted.

As our junior year went on and the time for the next editor-in-chief, nothing had changed much: Amanda and I still wanted to be co-editors-in-chief, Illio didn’t suddenly gain popularity, and no one else showed interest in wanting to be our competition for the roles. Despite that, in the spring, we still had to go through the formal process of applying for and being interviewed for the job. Right after we were hired, Amanda and I went to the Illio office to work on the 2016 book.

That summer of 2016, Amanda and I got started on planning the 2017 Illio right away. We had a potential theme idea set aside for almost any entire year, and we were finally refining the finer details of it.

We played with colors on Photoshop, trying to figure out what looked best. We scrolled through Pinterest endlessly, hoping to find inspiration for elements we could use throughout the book. We browsed dafont.com, hoping to find the mix of fonts we’d be dreaming of. We looked up words on thesaurus.com, seeking out as many words as we could to use to further the depth of our theme. We even designed various covers, made layout templates, and started to compile a list of coverage ideas.

Obviously we were excited to get started.

During that summer, our mom asked us if we could do it, as in could we actually handle our responsibilities as co-editors-in-chief and make a yearbook that covered a Big Ten university with 44,000-plus students? I told her we could, as I had the utmost confidence in Amanda, myself, and our abilities.

★★★

Once the school year rolled around, there wasn’t much else for us to do besides hire assistant editors and more general staffers and actually work on the book. And, once we actually did get started on the book, we quickly learned how helpful it was to have done all of that summer planning. But it wasn’t easy.

Trying to make Illio more well-known throughout campus was a never-ending task. Communicating with staff proved to be a problem at times. Making sure everyone was doing their work and doing it on time was difficult. Getting people who were willing to write stories was such a challenge. (Ever since we joined Illio, we were always understaffed on writers.) Getting people to do assignments they weren’t interested in required some pleading on my and Amanda’s parts. Developing new content ideas when old concepts fell through took so much brainstorming and research.

Working on old, slow computers with outdated software tested our patience. Using just two computers to complete a 300-plus page book took a lot of effort. Handling yearbook responsibilities while still being a good student was stressful. Cooperating with your twin sister while you’re both stressed, hungry, fatigued, and tired of being in an office makes everyone cranky.

But I never wanted to quit. Even with all the stress, technological difficulties, late nights, and too many chicken McNugget dinners in the office, I enjoyed it too much. So when the day came that we submitted our last set of pages and would be leaving the Illio office for the last time, I was sad.

I had stepped into that office hundreds of times over the course of my four years there. I had developed a setup for how I arranged all of my stuff in that office: where my laptop went, where I placed my backpack, the spot I kept my water bottle, even how I elevated my left leg on one of the empty chairs at the desk. That place became my second home at school, and it was the place where I truly poured my heart into that book. But the book was done, and my time there had come to an end.

Unfortunately, the yearbook wasn’t set to come out until sometime in August, meaning months would pass by before I’d get to see a physical version of my work. Fortunately, as a co-editor-in-chief of the yearbook, I got sent an approval copy before all of the books would be sent out.

I was in New York for an internship when my approval copy came. Amanda was back home in Illinois, so we weren’t able to get our first look at the book together. It seemed wrong to not open it and get our first look at it together considering we were through it all together. But I was at work when my copy was delivered to my apartment, and Amanda was at home free and available to look at her copy. I didn’t want to force her to wait just because I was at work without my copy—though I considered going home on my lunch break just to get it and bring it back to work with me. So she sent me Snapchats of her opening it and of some of the pages.

I tried to walk home from work every day—unless it was far too hot or rainy out—given that I lived about a mile away from work and needed the exercise after sitting at a desk for six hours. But, on the day my yearbook came, I opted for the Subway, knowing it’d get me home quicker—albeit not by much—and make it so I’d get to see my yearbook quicker, too.

When the package was in my hands, I was so excited that I ended up going on the elevator and up to my apartment only to realize I’d been so preoccupied that I forgot my keys at the front desk. So I had to go back down just to get them.

I wanted to cry upon ridding the cardboard that was encasing the book.

I remember feeling the black matte cover and thinking that this was the exact kind of matte finish Amanda and I were hoping for. I remember opening the book up to see the colorful endsheets and thinking that this did indeed look really cool in contrast to the nearly all-black cover. I remember turning to the table of contents and thinking that the numbers were larger than I expected, but it was okay. I remember going to the One Book One Campus spread that featured To Write Love on Her Arms founder and New York Times best-selling author, Jamie Tworkowski, and thinking that I’ve commemorated such a special memory. I remember looking at the trading card module I created for the athletics spread and thinking that they turned out wonderfully.

I remember flipping to the editors’ note spread at the end, seeing the words Amanda and I had and written and the photos we had chosen and thinking, “This is our time at U of I.”

After I went through the book on my own, Amanda and I video-chatted so we could go through the book together to ensure nothing was missing. We found some errors here and there, but overall, everything was there, and we were happy—and so proud.

We both referred to our own copies of the book as our baby, because that’s basically what they were. We had brought the book to life, and there we were with brand new yearbooks that didn’t know life before.

★★★

It has been weird to not have a yearbook to work on anymore. Summer felt normal, as I was preoccupied with my internship and typically wouldn’t spend a lot of time working on yearbook anyway. But now that the school year has been well underway, it’s strange, because I had spent the last six years doing yearbook. Now I’m not a part of it anymore, so I, of course, miss it. I don’t have the creative outlet I once had. Yearbook was a big part of my life, and it helped make me who I am today.

A couple of days ago, the Associated College Press held its annual National College Media Convention in Dallas. At the event, ACP has its Best of Show contest, awarding the top student print and online newspapers.

The Daily Illini published an article with the results of its performance: first in “Best of Show Newspaper Four-year More Than Weekly” and third for “Best of Show Website Large School.” But, in that same article, it mentioned the 2017 Illio placed eighth in “Best of Show Yearbook 300+ Pages,” and I was shocked.

Little did I know ACP awarded the top collegiate yearbooks, too.

When Amanda and I became co-editors-in-chief, our goal was to make the best Illio yet. Ever since we joined Illio, it hadn’t really been recognized, but we wanted to change that. We wanted to make Illio an award-winning book. With our years of yearbook experience, creativity, and tendency for perfectionism, we knew it was possible. We knew our book would deserve recognition.

When I read that my and Amanda’s book was named eighth best in the country, I was somewhat in disbelief. There are so many yearbooks with better themes, ideas, and designs—graphics I can only wish I could create. I never expected such a high honor.

But it happened.

It’s listed on the Best of Show results. There’s a certificate that proves it.

Thank you to everyone who has helped me get to where I am today, to everyone who helped make the 2017 Illio possible—especially my staff, my assistant editors, and my twin sister. I couldn’t have done this without any of you, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to end my yearbook career.

Photo credit: Sydney Cooper
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