High school senior Cuyler Dunn might appear to be just starting out on a career in journalism, but those who know him best were not surprised this week when the Kansas Scholastic Press Association named him the state’s Student Journalist of the Year.
As a staff member at the Lawrence High School Budget since freshman year, Dunn has told stories not only about biology classes and basketball games, but also a pandemic that turned education on its head. Now editor in chief, Dunn oversees nearly 50 writers, photographers, copy editors, and page designers who continue to keep students and staff informed. He credited the entire staff for helping him win the award.
“I firmly believe we are one of the best schools in the country at timely news reporting, and it would be impossible with only one person,” he said. “I’m the one whose name will be on the plaque, but really our whole staff deserves that award. That was a team effort, and I could not be more grateful for all of my staff.”
Budget adviser Barbara Tholen said that as a freshman staff member, Dunn came in nervous like most students do. However, she said he had a clear eye for finding the essence of an issue and understood the importance of telling a story even when it became uncomfortable.
Scheduling struggles and virtual classes during the pandemic limited Dunn’s options for participating in journalism classes traditionally during both his sophomore and junior years, but he persisted in being on the Budget staff. Regardless of the obstacle, Dunn was there to help wherever needed. Tholen said she saw how Dunn worked with fellow students and was confident that he could be an editor.
“Students always grow into those leadership roles but there tend to be sparks that give me an idea they should pursue it,” she said. “Cuyler has blown me away by how quickly he’s grown into that role. He really picked everyone up with the newspaper and helped push us forward in the unique ways we all needed.”
Outside the newsroom Dunn is also an all-state choir singer, a varsity tennis player and an award-winning debater, but he said being a part of the journalism program was most rewarding.
He has won multiple awards during his time on staff, and he said he was proud that the Budget had received exposure through the Associated Press, the Washington Post and the Guardian. His motivation as an editor, however, comes from seeing younger students find the same passion he feels.
“What kept me going was when a sophomore staffer that I had been mentoring got his first award,” Dunn said. “I almost cried. When a freshman saw their first story in the newspaper, just like I did four years ago. When I told a young designer I loved their graphic and their face lit up. Those were the moments that have made this year special.”
Family members said Dunn’s interest in writing dated back to elementary school, when he would write and illustrate books including a series titled The Adventures of Bacon Boy. In middle school, he transitioned into more of a news format when he and a friend began publishing a newsletter.
His father, LHS choir director Dwayne Dunn, said he had enjoyed watching his son channel his love of storytelling into journalism. Although he has helped many choir students navigate through awards and college applications, the elder Dunn said it was a different experience with a child.
“From the outside, it is sometimes tempting to think that they just have ‘talent,’ but talent alone is not usually enough to achieve at the highest levels,” he said. “I’m always encouraged for our future when I see young people succeed as a result of the efforts and passion they pour into their interests, leading to recognition and accomplishment.”
Tholen said all of her students had overcome great difficulty during the academic interruption caused by COVID. She said that because the Budget staff works in tandem with the Red & Black yearbook staff, it isn’t always easy to coordinate projects and assignments.
With the current staff, however, Tholen said it was common to see collaborations that included multiple authors and half a dozen contributing writers. She said that after a year of virtual learning, it had been rewarding to work with students in person and watch them grow.
“At least once a year, I tell the kids that their job is to leave the journalism program stronger than they found it,” Tholen said. “I often think that’s a really big challenge, but they have stepped up to the plate during this recovery year.”
After graduation Dunn plans to attend the University of Kansas, where he was awarded the John P. & Mary Kaiser scholarship for journalism. He received $1,250 from the KSPA and is now eligible to earn Journalist of the Year from the national Journalism Education Association. JEA winners will be announced in April.