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Utica High School senior Natalie Garwood honored as Michigan’s Journalist of the Year

Natalie Garwood with camera

Although she works behind the scenes capturing memories for her school, Utica High School’s Natalie Garwood now finds herself in the spotlight. Garwood has been recognized as the 2024 Michigan Journalist of the Year by the Journalism Education Association, honoring her already illustrious career in scholastic journalism.

The official announcement came through an email from Joe Humphrey, the JEA Journalist of the Year Coordinator, extending his congratulations to Garwood on her selection. He expressed anticipation for celebrating her achievement at the National High School Journalism Convention in Kansas City in April.

“I got the call at the last basketball game of the season," Garwood said. "I was under the basket during the third quarter and was really surprised when [my yearbook adviser Stacy] Smale called me. I couldn’t believe it at first. I was fairly confident in my portfolio, but I didn’t think I was good enough to be the top in the state. Getting the chance to represent the state of Michigan is absolutely incredible. It was really fitting for me to find out while taking pictures, even though it made it hard to focus for the rest of the game. My hands were shaking, and I couldn’t stop thinking. Still, I don’t think there could be a better way for me to find out.”

Garwood’s journey in journalism began before she even set foot in Utica High School, having previously been a part of Shelby Junior High School’s Pawprint yearbook for two years. As a sophomore, she joined the high school yearbook program, quickly rising through the ranks due to her exceptional skills and dedication. Stacy Smale, adviser to the Warrior yearbook and Arrow newspaper, recalls being immediately impressed by Garwood’s initiative and passion for photography and journalism.

“Natalie has brought Utica High closer together than I thought possible,” Smale said in her letter of recommendation. “There are very few students and staff members that don’t know her work and appreciate all she does.”

Upon entering Utica High, Garwood quickly immersed herself in the school’s journalism program, serving as the Warrior yearbook and Arrow newspaper’s photography editor, while also taking the lead as a yearbook editor. Despite her sophomore status, Garwood’s “Photo of the Day” series on the @uhswarrior Instagram page garnered widespread attention and praise from students and staff alike.

“The unique thing about her project is that she cares about every student in our school, and strives to reach these students by sharing the diversity in our community, whether her lens is focused in a science lab, on various club activities, or under the stadium lights,” Smale said. “Her photography has brought the community together, experiencing, and in some cases reminiscing about, what it’s like to be a Chieftain.”

Since its introduction in 2021, the series has grown @uhswarrior’s following over 500%. Each school day Garwood posts a photo with a caption to give sneak peeks at the photography included in the yearbook.

“I started photography out of necessity but fell in love with the long hours spent outside and the thrill of getting that perfect shot. It gave me a way to connect to the rest of my school and the community,” Garwood said. “When I heard that an adviser who had been my MIPA Summer Journalism Workshop instructor twice, the incredible Cody Harrell, was showing my photos as an example to his students, I was on the verge of tears. That was the moment I truly realized how far my impact had reached. People from other schools, and even districts, have been following the project.”

After winning multiple awards at MIPA (Michigan Interscholastic Press Association) summer workshops over the years, Garwood ended her junior year with 27 individual awards for her photography, writing, and design.

“There is no other singular act of giving back to a community like being a photographer for your school’s publications, and Natalie takes that as seriously as anyone I’ve met,” Cody Harrell, adviser for Ceniad yearbook and Portrait newspaper, said. “She consistently posts a photograph a day of the work she does and holds each photograph to the highest standard. I use it to teach weekly, and it’s made us better. Want to see improvement? Go back a few hundred photos and see where she’s come from. Want to see grit? Check out any Warrior yearbook or Arrow newspaper over the last four years. Want to see heart? Have one conversation with Natalie. I promise you, it will make you wish she was your student. I sure wish she was mine, and I am a better adviser because she and her work exists in the world. I can already tell you that six months from now, I’ll be using the Utica yearbook and Warrior Instagram as teaching material at the summer workshop. If I can’t have Natalie in my class, at least I’ll have her footprint to show others where to walk.”

As Garwood prepares to embark on the next chapter of her academic and journalistic journey, her recognition as the 2024 Michigan Journalist of the Year not only celebrates her individual achievements, but also serves as a testament to the positive impact she has had on her school community. With her talent, leadership, and unwavering commitment to excellence, Natalie Garwood is poised to continue making a significant mark in the field of journalism and beyond.