In her own words, Marisa Sardonia lived much of her youth in the “continuation of grief.” 

That’s understandable.  

When the Knoxville native was 6 years old, her father died.  

But the East Tennessee State University senior, majoring in media and communication, has found a way to channel that grief, transforming her into a more compassionate person – and a stronger writer. 

“Grief is a really integral part of who I am,” said Sardonia, who is set to graduate this spring. “I do think that it makes me more understanding and empathetic, especially in my journalistic endeavors.” 

Her accolades make that plain. 

She was recently recommended to and completed the competitive Journalism Academy, hosted by The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville. At the state capital, she had sessions with investigative reporters, met with editors and networked with some of the South’s best reporters over a three-day period.  

At ETSU, she’s worked for the East Tennessean, the student newspaper. She has likewise played a leadership role in “Overlooked in Appalachia,” a student-driven publication that highlights key – and often ignored – issues in the area. 

And she is enjoying real-world learning thanks to an internship with WJHL

“Marisa is an example of why our students are so great. She is someone who has taken advantage of many of the opportunities in our department and grown personally and professionally as a result. Marisa has emerged as a leader in the Department of Media and Communication who will no doubt continue to excel after graduation. I am moved by her critical and gracious engagement with the world,” said Shara K. Lange, professor and acting chair of the department. 

Students getting hands-on learning opportunities is at the core of the university’s approach to education, as the newly redesigned core curriculum bears out.   

“I feel really lucky for ETSU’s Media and Communication Department because I feel like if I had gone to a bigger school, with a bigger journalism department, I would not have gotten as much of a personal look and relationship with the professors and faculty,” Sardonia said. “They have elevated me and given me opportunities that, otherwise, I would not have had. I don’t think I could have achieved all of this outside of ETSU.”  

Making her way from a different part of the state, it was clear to her that some outside the region have a deeply negative view of Appalachia. 

Like any good reporter, she notes that the Appalachian Highlands isn’t a perfect place.  

Still, she has fallen in love with the region. 

“It has a kind of beauty that is found not only within the natural wonder of the mountains but also within the hardworking grit of the people,” she said. “That has existed for a really long time. 

“I think,” she added, “that makes up the essence of its beauty.” 

Video Transcript

Marisa Sardonia:

My father actually passed away when I was six years old. So I have lived basically my whole youth kind of in the continuation of grief.

But I do believe that this grief has made me not only a stronger person, but a stronger writer, a more emotional writer.

I feel really lucky for ETSU's Media and Communication Department, because I feel like if I had gone to a bigger school with a bigger journalism department, I feel like I would have not gotten as much of a personal relationship
with my professors and faculty.

They've elevated me and they've given me opportunities that I otherwise wouldn't have gotten.

For "Overlooked in Appalachia," it's a student-run publication associated with the Media and Communication Department here at ETSU.

I have now been the editor for three semesters, but as of last May I took over the rights to "Overlooked in Appalachia" after Dr. Mimi Perreault left.

So I've since been the owner, operator, and editor in chief of "Overlooked." I've had some really great experiences learning leadership in a journalistic environment.

I've had some really great opportunities to go out to many different fields of interest within Appalachia and write about them.

I was invited this past November of one in a dozen Tennessee journalism students to attend a three-day conference in Nashville at The Tennessean.

But really, it was just an experience for me to get a look at what a newsroom actually looked like and what it felt like.

One thing I've learned a lot with "Overlooked in Appalachia," I do believe that it is one of the most unique areas of the entire country.

It has a kind of beauty that is found not only within the natural beauty of the Appalachian Mountains, but also within the hardworking grit of the people that has existed for a really long time.

And I think that that makes up the essence of its beauty.

Marisa inside the D.P. Culp Student Center


East Tennessee State University was founded in 1911 with a singular mission: to improve the quality of life for people in the region and beyond. Through its world-class health sciences programs and interprofessional approach to health care education, ETSU is a highly respected leader in rural health research and practices. The university also boasts nationally ranked programs in the arts, technology, computing, and media studies. ETSU serves approximately 14,000 students each year and is ranked among the top 10 percent of colleges in the nation for students graduating with the least amount of debt.

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