When incoming Department of Journalism chair Stephanie Bluestein, née Stassel, first arrived at California State University, Northridge (CSUN) as a freshman in Fall 1983 she never dreamed she’d one day be a journalism professor there, much less head the department. In fact, she wasn’t thinking about journalism at all, having declared a psychology major based in part on one of those generic career aptitude tests. She briefly entertained thoughts of becoming a therapist, but by her own account her first year at CSUN was a disaster. Miserable in her classes, she fell asleep sometimes in early morning lectures owing to off-campus work hours, a commute from North Hollywood, and disengagement with the “sage on the stage” teaching style more prominent in that era. Having earned a “solid C average” that first year, Stephanie credits a casual acquaintance with a timely suggestion that she complete her lower-division units at a community college and figure out what the heck she actually wanted to do.
On entering Valley College in Fall 1984 Stephanie made a fateful course correction by joining the staff of the campus newspaper, the Valley Star. Her interest in journalism had been sparked early, as a young teen, when she wrote a letter to a columnist she admired at her hometown paper, The Bakersfield Californian, and he mentioned her in one of his pieces. In an era before social media, it felt like a minor miracle to find a platform where you could make yourself heard. She joined her school papers in middle school and high school, reviewing albums borrowed from the mall record store and writing topical editorials and articles, including a piece on anorexia nervosa she was finalizing when she heard Karen Carpenter had died from complications with the illness. Her passion for the day-to-day business of newsrooms came rushing back to her on the Valley Star and it struck her that she could make her affinity her vocation. She took newswriting courses and remained on the paper for three semesters at Valley College, then transferred back to CSUN as a journalism major in Spring 1986.
Stephanie returned to CSUN a far more serious student, fully engaged with her studies and campus life. At times she found herself working simultaneously at papers both on and off campus, working as a reporter on the Daily Sundial for two semesters, holding part-time employment at The San Fernando Sun, and completing internships at the Simi Valley Enterprise and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. At the Herald Examiner she felt like she hit the big time, working in that gorgeous mission-style Hearst building downtown, and she covered serious stories for the paper, including a devastating abduction and murder of teen girls in Chatsworth that haunts her still. As that internship was wrapping up she jumped on a job offer from the Simi Valley Enterprise, working 50 hours a week while attending classes full time her last semester at CSUN. From the Enterprise she moved to the L.A. Daily News, working there for about 18 months before her dream job came knocking.
Longtime executive editor of the Los Angeles Times Valley Edition Bob Rawitch was acquainted with Stephanie through his wife, Cynthia Rawitch, a well-known entity on campus for her 40 years of service to CSUN, including stints as chair in the Department of Journalism, interim dean for the Mike Curb College, and vice provost of the university. Cynthia was publisher of the Daily Sundial during Stephanie’s time there and was instrumental in her professional development. They remained in touch, and Stephanie was on Bob’s radar when a position opened on the L.A. Times Valley Edition news staff. Long story short, she put in 14 years on that paper before layoffs throughout the newspaper industry finally claimed her job just as the Times was moving to sunset the Valley Edition entirely. During her time there Stephanie shared in three Pulitzer Prizes awarded for Breaking News, honoring her staff for coverage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots following acquittals of police officers in the Rodney King beating; the 1994 Northridge Earthquake that claimed 57 lives and caused tens of billions of dollars in property damage, including a devastated CSUN campus; and a shootout following a 1997 bank robbery at a North Hollywood Bank of America that held the surrounding residential area hostage for nearly an hour before the gunmen were killed.
Having worked her way through the news ranks Stephanie knew she didn’t want to go backwards, and for the first time since that unmoored freshman year she didn’t know what to do with herself. Happily, Stephanie’s habit of keeping in touch with her most influential journalism professors came through in the clutch. When former Valley College professor Rob O’Neil, then at Pierce College, heard she was available he invited her to teach a class. It’s not like teaching had never occurred to Stephanie. She recalls playing “school” in her bedroom as an 8-year-old; she still has spreadsheets of grades she assigned her imaginary students. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Stephanie enjoyed teaching journalism as much as she had enjoyed its practice. She knew she’d need more than a B.A. to continue, so she returned to CSUN for an M.A. in Mass Communication. O’Neil went to bat for her in the meantime, successfully arguing that her 17 years of experience served as equivalency while she was earning her advanced degree. Stephanie characterizes her grad studies at CSUN as formative, having the good fortune to work with mentors Linda Bowen, outgoing chair of the Department, and Melissa Wall, who chaired Stephanie’s thesis committee. “I seriously couldn’t have done any of this without the amazing mentorship I received along the way,” Stephanie says, adding that it’s a gift to return to your alma mater to teach alongside the faculty who were instrumental in your development.
Upon properly receiving her M.A. Stephanie taught everywhere all at once, or so it seemed, taking on classes at Pierce, Moorpark College, and CSUN for a couple of crazy semesters. Knowing she couldn’t keep up that pace for long, she was determined to land a tenure-track position that opened at CSUN the following year. She had by that time started studying for a doctorate in the Educational Leadership program—at CSUN, of course—but she wasn’t about to let less-than-ideal timing get in the way of becoming a full-time professor at her academic home. The job was calling her name. “I believe in destiny,” Stephanie says. “I also believe that we have and should take advantage of our own decision making. But if destiny is at play don’t fight it.”
Today she freely tells students about her days as a “solid C” freshman, even noting a couple of Fs on her first-year transcript. Such honesty is vital when appealing to students who may likewise be failing classes, feeling uncertain about their path, or thinking they’re just not college material. She recalls consoling students when they didn’t do well in competitions they expected to ace at regional and statewide conferences of the Journalism Association of Community Colleges. Her empathy comes from a deep well of understanding what it’s like to feel devastated by the gap between your perceived performance and expectations. But expectations are sometimes just sign posts that prompt you along the road to something else, something better. She finished her Ed.D. despite having landed the CSUN position, sweating out a couple of semesters as a full-time professor and doctoral student. Finishing may have felt like a formality by then, but she’s no quitter.
But now, after 17 years as a professor to match her 17 years as a practicing journalist, she finally brings that training in higher education leadership to the table—as a department chair. And when questions inevitably arise that weren’t covered in the classroom, she knows she can call on her M.A. committee member Linda Bowen, who ably steered the department for a decade prior. Stephanie understands the power of relationships in building a career and the importance of family support from her husband, Steve, and two adult children, Jesse and Jenny, and others. She’s not a bit shy about sharing a little credit for her success.