Journalism apprenticeship: Why I quit university to become a reporter

Belinda Dickins, 22, is the community reporter for Havant and Gosport at The News, Portsmouth. She left university and instead started a journalism apprenticeship which led to her first job in the newsroom.

Belinda Dickins took a journalism appenticeship

I knew from a young age I wanted to be a writer. I recently discovered my self-evaluation on my Year 2 school report: I had written that next year (aged seven), I would write my first novel.

I love to read and write and have always been in love with the use of language. But I never really thought about making a career out of it, and found throughout school and college I was pushed towards choosing subjects which would lead me towards a specific career.

Although it seems bizarre to think back now, I didn’t even choose to study English at A Level at Barton Peveril College in Eastleigh. Life started to pull me towards a career in healthcare, heavily influenced by a family member’s long-term illness, and my dreams of writing were pushed even further to the back of my mind.

Going to university

I chose to study a degree in occupational therapy – helping people to take part in activities meaningful to them despite disability – which I found absolutely fascinating… in theory.

I adored university life in Bournemouth: living away from home, making new friends, getting out of Fareham where I had spent my first 18 years of life. But towards the end of my first year, I felt increasingly low, struggled to get out of bed and began skipping lectures.

Realising I may have chosen the wrong career for me, I decided to give year two a try, but nothing improved so I made the terrifying phone call to tell my mum I wanted to come home.

Worried I was going to disappoint everyone, I had put this off for a while, but I was so shocked to find that my entire family was so supportive of my decision and my mum and stepdad welcomed me home with no issues at all.

There was one condition: my mum said I had to decide what I was going to do next before I came home. Not a set-in-stone plan, but just an idea of what I wanted.

Discovering a journalism apprenticeship

One of my housemates had been studying journalism, and I had always thought her course sounded brilliant – writing, coming up with ideas, filming documentaries, learning shorthand. It was everything I wanted to do, and I had often found myself feeling jealous that I hadn’t chosen to study that course.

Not wanting to rush back into university, I discovered a journalism apprenticeship scheme at Highbury College in Cosham, to work in Chichester as an apprentice journalist and learn the ropes on the job. It sounded perfect. I went for an interview, took a skills test and got the job, and the next chapter of my life began.

Being an apprentice

Embarking on the apprenticeship is one of the best decisions I have ever made. Alongside three others, I was based in the Chichester Observer offices and worked on weekly newspapers across Sussex, learning from my colleagues and studying at college one day a week.

It was hard work balancing a full-time job with studying for exams and learning shorthand up to 100 words per minute, but I absolutely loved the challenge. Within a few short weeks of turning press releases around, I was having my own words published in papers with my byline.

It was absolutely thrilling, and I learned so much from the people around me and by throwing myself into the job. Of course, I made a few mistakes but it was great to have free reign to write about things I was interested in and learn from my own experiences.

Getting qualified

I took plenty of exams over the 18-month apprenticeship, including media law, shorthand and ethics, to gain the gold standard NCTJ diploma which I would need to continue my journey as a trainee journalist.

As the apprenticeship drew to a close and I sat my last few exams, I started to think about what I would like to do next. Since starting the apprenticeship, I had thought a lot about wanting to work for The News, Portsmouth – my local paper – but wasn’t really sure if it was going to be possible.

Some of my earliest memories are of my dad giving me some money and sending me to the shop for a copy of The News, letting me buy sweets with the change. It was surreal when I was told by my college lecturer that an opportunity had come up at the paper to work as a community reporter through Facebook and the NCTJ’s Community News Project, which aimed to bring news from communities back into the forefront of local reporting.

I had a one-to-one interview with the editor and took a skills test similar to the one I took for the apprenticeship. I was overjoyed to find out I had been given the job reporting on communities in Havant and Gosport, which had lost their own editions of the daily paper when it was all changed into one edition.

Working as a journalist

Moving from weeklies to a daily was so exciting: having my stories published as quickly as I could write them and picking up a copy of the paper each day to see my name, having old friends message me to say they had seen my pieces in the paper, it was brilliant.

Over the past year, I’ve covered a royal visit, a D-Day veteran’s 100th birthday, a community pulling together for a fundraising appeal following the tragic death of a teenage mum, hundreds of charity events and so much more. Each day is different, and I am so thankful all the time that I made the decision to follow my heart and embark on the career I always wanted.

If I was going to give some advice to anyone feeling like they are on the wrong path, it would be to do what is right for you and don’t worry too much about what others will think – most people will surprise you with their support, and you’ll feel a huge weight fall off your shoulders.

Read more: How I became a newspaper editor in my twenties

How I got my first journalism job

What it’s like to work as a magazine journalist

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