Heather Gehlert, Communication and Digital Strategy Senior Manager
Hometown: Gerald, MO
Current city: Berkeley, CA
Graduation year: 2004
Major: English and communication
Sorority: Kappa Alpha Theta
What other degrees have you earned?
Master’s degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley
What is your current career position?
Senior Manager, Communication and Digital Strategy for Berkeley Media Studies Group, a program of the Public Health Institute
Please describe your current work.
I oversee communication and digital strategy for a nonprofit organization that researches how journalists report on public health issues. That involves using a range of both traditional and digital means, from news releases to social media, to amplify our work to journalists, funders, community groups and advocates working in the public health and social justice space. I also do my own reporting and write blogs and case studies to highlight innovative ways that some communities are advancing health.
What are your future goals?
My first goal is to set new goals! In August 2019, I learned I have breast cancer, and a diagnosis like that has a way of turning a person’s world upside down. I’m currently reevaluating my priorities and making sure that my personal and professional decisions truly align with my core values. One of those is interconnectedness. In reflecting on this, I keep coming back to one question: How can I use my time and talents to help others? Currently, that means sharing my story, in the hope that my story may help others who later find themselves in a similar situation. Then, if — no, when! — I am healthy enough, I want to do more to support young writers, especially at Westminster, in launching their careers. And if I am really dreaming big, I would start an online newspaper in a community that doesn’t currently see its successes and struggles reflected in mainstream coverage. So many important stories are waiting to be told — they just need a platform.
In terms of your professional life, what would you say is your overarching purpose today?
My purpose is to use storytelling as a vehicle for social change. Stories allow us to identify problems, shed light on solutions and find our way forward. Much of what we know about the world around us, beyond personal experience, comes from the stories we’re exposed to through books, film and the news media. Yet not all voices enjoy equal time in the media spotlight, leaving the public with incomplete or distorted views, not only about the challenges facing some communities, but also about what’s possible. My goal with my writing is to find and elevate those underrepresented perspectives.
Did your liberal arts education allow you to uncover particular passions that you’ve carried into your career?
Absolutely. When I first enrolled at Westminster, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I declared a major in biology and began a pre-med path because it sounded good on paper, but I quickly realized that wasn’t the right lane for me. The world will always need doctors; I just wasn’t going to be one of them — and that’s OK. Through my English classes at Westminster, I discovered my passion for reporting, writing and editing. And through conversations with my professors, I learned to shed the weight of any expectations I had previously placed upon myself to enter a different profession and, essentially, to be someone I wasn’t. What’s more, the breadth of classes I took at Westminster — psychology, sociology, ethics, etc. — exposed me to new ideas and perspectives that have informed my writing ever since. Now, when I put on my journalist’s hat and conduct interviews, I have a deep well of knowledge to draw from, allowing me to ask better questions, approach my sources with compassion and humility and craft richer narratives.
Were any relationships you formed at Westminster particularly influential in helping you find clarity of purpose?
I don’t have enough fingers and toes to even come close to counting all the positive relationships I formed at Westminster and all the people who helped me discover my purpose. But I have to single out the English Department: Every English class I took felt like home to me. The enthusiasm that current and retired professors like Carolyn Perry, Wayne Zade and David Collins had when they talked about literature was infectious and helped me to envision a career for myself that would nurture my love of storytelling. And another former professor, Chuck Lewis, believed in me enough to give me an opportunity to join the editing staff of the student newspaper, The Columns. That experience really cemented my decision to pursue a career that would allow me to be, as Zade would say, “a traveler in words.”
What does being a “leader” mean to you?
For me, being a leader has always involved some form of mentorship. If I can help other people find their voice and pursue their dream, that’s when I know I’m leading. I think the most effective leaders are the ones who know not only when to step forward but also when step back.
My time at Westminster also taught me that a specific position or title is not what makes a leader; a leader can take initiative and add value to an organization or community no matter what his or her starting point is. Since graduation, I’ve had the opportunity to lead and help others cultivate leadership skills by returning to Westminster for several years as a visiting instructor and faculty advisor of the campus newspaper — the very paper I used to edit when I was a student. It’s been a beautiful experience to watch students grow into their roles as reporters and editors and really take ownership of the paper as a mechanism for elevating the views and interests of the student body.
What does success mean to you?
In some ways, it’s easier to define success by what it isn’t: It’s not the size of your bank account, the car you drive or how many letters you have after your name. Rather, success means finding your passion and leveraging it in ways that benefit the common good. It’s about doing the kind of work that allows you to sleep with a clear conscience and look back on your life without regrets.
What is it about Westminster that makes it the kind of community that empowers students to discover their purpose and find success?
First, Westminster gives students a lot of freedom to find their own path and to cultivate their own passions, whatever those look like. If there isn’t a course or academic major or club that nurtures those interests, students can work with faculty to create one. Second, support from faculty, staff and alumni doesn’t evaporate once students graduate. Westminster has a broad network available to students even years or decades after they walk through the Columns. In my case, several of my former professors continue to be invaluable mentors to me, and I know I can reach out to them at any time to get advice.
Do you recommend Westminster to prospective college students?
I recommend Westminster to prospective college students because I believe it gives students the foundation they need to live rewarding, well-rounded lives. The knowledge and skills I gained at Westminster prepared me for the rigor of graduate school, the challenges of becoming a working professional and even some of the other curve balls that life has a way of throwing at you. Because of that preparation, I feel I can face almost any obstacle with confidence.
Favorite Westminster faculty member?
It’s so hard to pick just one, but Keith Hardeman will always stand out to me, both for what he taught me about communication and for what he has taught me about life.
Favorite spot on campus?
The reading nook on the second floor of Coulter Science Center. Being there is like being a cat in a window!
Last book you read?
Aurora, a collection of poems by retired Westminster professor Wayne Zade. Fair warning: Once you start reading, you won’t be able to put it down!
Favorite movie or TV show?
It’s a Wonderful Life
Cozi — it’s a great way to track and synchronize shopping lists, to-dos and calendars with other family members.
Favorite way to spend a Sunday?
Reading, listening to music, sharing a meal with family and cuddling with my dogs.