UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In February 2015, first-year Penn State students Candice Crutchfield and Adriana Lacy attended a talk at Eisenhower Auditorium delivered by journalist Soledad O’Brien and spoke with her briefly following the presentation.
“We told her how we didn’t really feel included in certain media outlets on campus and she said something along the lines of ‘start one yourself,’” Crutchfield said.
The students laughed, but the idea stayed with them for the rest of the night.
That night was the beginning of The Underground, a multicultural, student-run website that seeks to tell “the untold stories within the Penn State community.” In the three years since, the site has blossomed from a free Wordpress account that posted mainly poems and essays to a diverse organization that covers campus news, race and identity, politics, sports, arts and lifestyle.
Lacy, who was an elementary education major, and Crutchfield, a criminology and communication arts and sciences major, had little writing experience beyond class papers and the occasional blog post, and no journalism experience.
“We didn’t really know what we were doing but we were taking that leap, because we thought it would be good for the Penn State community,” said Crutchfield, a recently graduated Schreyer Honors Scholar who was Head of Brand Strategy for The Underground.
As the students gained experience in covering different kinds of stories, however, the staff grew, from about a handful of students to more than four dozen contributors. Many of them came from existing Penn State student media organizations. As the staff grew, the content gradually shifted from contributors choosing their own topics to the senior members assigning them. The staff used Slack software to coordinate coverage and eventually found physical space to meet at the HUB-Robeson Center, though most of the planning is still done digitally.
Stephanie Keyaka, a Schreyer Scholar who is replacing Lacy as the site’s editor-in-chief, recommended The Underground to one of her friends during her sophomore year, and not long after realized she wanted to contribute.
“It’s become this massive thing,” Keyaka said. “Every single semester, it has grown.”
AnneMarie Mingo, assistant professor of African-American studies and women's, gender and sexuality studies at Penn State, who serves as an adviser for the organization, remembers reading a story written by Lacy about the University of Missouri football players boycotting to protest racism on campus in 2015. She had received an email with a link to the story from a friend in Florida.
“That was my first realization of the reach beyond Penn State,” said Mingo, who had known Crutchfield from her AFAM/WMNST 101 course. “The way that they were covering it was what people were being drawn to. It wasn’t the approach that had become standard. It was a fresh set of eyes looking at these issues, trying to push back on them and challenge them, and they were also grounded in a lot of substance.”
The Underground has been unafraid to take on a variety of timely and often controversial topics, including a first-year student explaining on video what it is like to be a college student with autism; exploring the Identity Evropa presence on campus; and, this past winter, a three-part investigative series on secret societies at Penn State.
With Crutchfield and Lacy moving on, the leadership of the staff is changing. The returning students, who will continue to publish during the summer, want to ensure the mission remains the same.
“In the future, I hope that The Underground provides representation for those who don't always see themselves depicted in fields like journalism,” Lacy said. “In addition, I hope that we continue to change the narrative.”
Keyaka, who is majoring in women’s studies and political science, hopes to continue to increase the site’s readership and collaborate with more organizations on campus in her new role.
“I would like to make sure that everything our founders worked to build becomes a legacy organization,” she said.
Lacy will intern at The New York Times this summer, while Crutchfield will study human rights at Columbia University. The Underground wasn’t in their heads when they started at Penn State, but the experience has influenced them and a segment of the Penn State community that they quickly discovered was hungry for another kind of media.
“They found their voices, but I think they’ve also found parts of callings,” Mingo said. “This will continue to shape who they are and the way they face the world.”