Jonathan Tjarks Fellowship to fund master of arts degree in the School of Journalism and Media

Tjarks on His Fellowship: ‘Awesome Program, an Awesome Opportunity’

Even though he didn’t study journalism in college, sports journalist and UT-Austin alum Jonathan Tjarks described the recently announced fellowship in his name as “an awesome program, an awesome opportunity.”

Looking back, I wish I had done more of The Daily Texan, but I just didn't use my time in college -- I wasted a lot of time in college,” Tjarks said with a laugh.

The Jonathan Tjarks Fellowship, set up by the Bill Simmons Family Foundation, will fund a master of arts degree in the School of Journalism and Media. The $50,000 fellowship is intended to cover the cost of tuition, housing and incidentals for a graduate student pursuing the 12- to 18-month degree. Applications open in September; the deadline is Dec. 1.

In April 2021, Tjarks (pronounced CHARKS) announced that he had sarcoma, a rare form of cancer in adults. Don’t do internet searches on survival rates, the doctors told him and his wife. As he wrote in a column a month later: “But telling someone not to Google their illness is like telling them not to look at a car accident as they drive past it.”

This past March, amid his usual columns about college and pro basketball, he wrote a first-person piece about life, death and fatherhood. It’s a subject he’s known most of his life.

Tjarks, who earned a Plan II degree in 2009, wrote his senior thesis about his father’s hospice care, “writing about that experience from the son’s perspective.” His father died before his last semester at UT. In a blog interview before his own cancer diagnosis, Tjarks called the thesis “a real turning point.” “The writing process was incredibly therapeutic for me, and I realized it fit my personality a lot more then working in corporate America,” he said then. “The whole experience was a wake-up call for me, personally and professionally.”

These days, how does he characterize what he’s going through?

“I really hope that one day I will say I ‘went through it,’ ” he said, “but for now I'm looking at more like this is just part of my life, just trying to manage as is.”

Tjarks said he “didn’t have a ton of connection” with the School of Journalism and Media while at UT-Austin. His journalism experience came in high school in Dallas, as part of St. Mark’s award-winning journalism program – led by the legendary Ray Westbrook  – and as a Dallas Morning News intern.

In fact, a St. Mark’s retreat taught him the importance of storytelling, the skill the M.A. fellowship emphasizes. Tjarks and his fellow editors were tasked with profiling each other.

“At the end of it, we read all of them, and it was just like, wow, all these people had so much,” he recalled. “I know these kids, I went to school with these kids,  but I didn’t know their stories. I never forgot: everyone has a story. Everyone has something that they’ve gone through in life that's hard, that's been a struggle.

“I think that so much life, we overlook that – the struggles that people go through.”

That’s what “so cool” about storytelling. “Literally, you can profile anyone,” he said. “I firmly believe that. If someone said you need to profile X person at UT or X person in Austin, if you talk to them for two hours, you would find a story.  Everyone’s got a story.”

He “parlayed” his high school experience into arts and entertainment freelancing gigs at the Austin American-Stateman that extended after he graduated from UT. “That was kind of my main journalism timeline in college,” he said, along with starting a sports blog.

He was hired at The Ringer in 2016, when Simmons, the sports media entrepreneur, founded the website. Tjarks said getting into sports journalism is much tougher these days.

“It’s just so competitive, so cutthroat, it’s like any extra you can get is worth it,” he said of the fellowship. “There are so many reporters, any little bit helps because, gosh, it feels like there's 100 people for every one job.”

Whoever is awarded the fellowship will have Tjarks as a mentor, who still lives in Dallas (according to his Ringer bio, he loves “Jesus and Dallas, in that order. Texas Forever”).

He looks forward to returning to campus and actually getting to know the School of Journalism and Media.

“I would love any excuse to go to Austin,” Tjarks said with a smile. “That would just be great.”

WHAT: A $50,000 fellowship designed to cover tuition, books, housing and other incidentals while a student pursues a master of arts at the University of Texas at Austin. The M.A. program is usually 12 to 18 months.

WHO IS ELIGIBLE: Anyone accepted into the Graduate School at the UT-Austin, School of Journalism and Media, who expresses interest in journalistic storytelling. Preference will be given to a student with HBCU undergraduate degree.

WHERE: In-residence at UT-Austin (tuition will be considered in state).

WHEN: Fellowship begins Fall 2023. Applications accepted from Sept. 1-Dec. 1, 2022.

For more information about the fellowship and the graduate program:

https://moody.utexas.edu/graduate-programs/jonathan-tjarks-graduate-fellowship

Kathleen McElroy
Moody College of Communication