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Meet Noëlle Lilley, Our Class of 2020 Commencement Speaker

  • By Amy Dunkin
Noëlle Lilley

When southern California native Noëlle Lilley moved to New York City to study journalism in the fall of 2019, she was a bit apprehensive about the winters. But she was willing to endure the cold to live in a city where she could pursue her passion for visual storytelling, cover diverse communities, and immerse herself in the vibrant arts and culture scene. “It’s a place where nothing is bizarre, where you can be who you want to be,” she said.

Noëlle hadn’t intended to go back to school so soon after graduating with a B.A. in Journalism from Arizona State University in 2018. But after spending that summer as a Newmark J-School Knight Diversity Fellow, she accepted the offer of a full-ride scholarship to the Class of 2020. In between, she worked as a TV reporter for an ABC affiliate in Bakersfield, CA.

At the Newmark J-School, she says she learned a different approach to journalism.  “I used to feel I had to keep a part of myself tucked away, or it would be seen as biased,” she said. “I now know I can have a perspective in storytelling, as a woman and a Black person, and still be balanced and fair.”

Alongside her stellar academic record, she has racked up a long list of achievements: Ida B. Wells scholar, summer intern for CNN’s Reliable Sources, president of the J-School’s chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists, intern for The Today Show, freelance reporter for News 12 in the Bronx.

Her good friend and classmate Kirk Cohall says about Noëlle: “Although she’s already accomplished so much, she remains extremely down to earth and relatable, showing that you can be great without losing sight of who you are.”

Noëlle and her fellow 2020 graduates have completed their studies during one of the strangest and most challenging years in history. She admits to suffering from moments of Zoom fatigue, and she has missed the on-campus social interaction.

She was constantly trying to strike a balance between self-care — which consisted in part of watching reality TV shows and downing Coke and cherry slurpies — and doing her work. “I’m my toughest critic, and I’m used to achieving at a certain level,” she said. “I had to tell myself, ‘You’re going through a crazy time. It’s okay to take a break and not to want to get out of bed.”

But get out of bed she did, and after the December 18th virtual commencement ceremonies have concluded, she will continue to do so as she heads into the journalism profession to make her mark.

More about Noëlle:

Her capstone project: She produced a documentary about the founder of a grassroots arts movement in Canarsie, Brooklyn that started in the 1990s.

A class she loved at the J-School: Craft 101 with Associate Professor Judy Watson and Wil Cruz: She said the students were very close, and they were always laughing. An inside joke was naming their Trivia Bowl team the Chik-a-Fils because during a discussion about the fast food chain Chik-fil-A, Prof. Watson kept mispronouncing the name Chik-a-Fil.

Where she would like to work after she graduates: She’s looking for on-camera reporting opportunities, in television or on a social media platform. She’s hoping to stay in New York for the next couple of years before moving some place warmer and closer to her family in California.

Journalist she most admires: Tamron Hall, host of the eponymous syndicated daytime talk show, formerly of NBC News and MSNBC: “I think back to her time at The Today Show and NBC, how she went on a journey to have her own show. It’s a testament to what Black women in many industries need to go through.”

News story she would most like to cover: The SARS protest in Nigeria, calling for the abolition of the federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad, which has been accused of unlawful arrest, torture, and killings.

Favorite places in NYC: The East Village and Washington Square Park. She also loves independent bookstores, such as Sister’s Uptown in Harlem (where she lives) and Shakespeare & Co. on the Upper West Side.

***To hear Noëlle’s commencement speech and follow the rest of the ceremony, tune into the live stream on the Commencement 2020 page starting at 11 a.m. on December 18.