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Mills’ bees-knees Meredith May

Meredith May: beekeeper, teacher, award-winning journalist and 1991 Mills graduate.

(All photos courtesy of Meredith May)
(All photos courtesy of Meredith May)

For students of the college who have not yet taken her Journalism 1: “Telling True Stories” class, you may at least have seen her name on the Notable Graduates page on the Mills website.

May, who graduated in 1991 with a degree in government, has been teaching Journalism 1 at Mills for the past eight years, when she took the class over from Program Head of Journalism Sarah Pollock.

Not only does May teach at Mills, but she has also been at the San Francisco Chronicle since July 1999. Since being at the Chronicle, May has won numerous awards, and her 2004 series “Operation Lion Heart” about an Iraqi boy and his family’s plight received attention nationwide and won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for photography.

But before May landed a job at the Chronicle, she spent five years freelancing and worked at three different publications. One of those was the West County Times in Richmond, where she was a poverty beat reporter. It was with her reporting at the West County Times that May finally received attention from the Chronicle.When she was first hired at the Chronicle, she was an education reporter for the
Oakland bureau.

May attended Mills from 1987-1991, and is proud of the fact that she attended Mills during the 1990 strike when the administration tried to make the Mills undergrad department co-ed.

“I was one of those who camped out,” May remembered. “Our strategy was to put tents in front of the main administration doors and shut the school down until we got what we wanted.”

While at Mills, May was published in three publications, one being UC Berkeley’s student newspaper The Daily Cal. When the strike was going on, May approached an editor at The Daily Cal and asked if they wanted her to file some stories.

“I wrote a few stories about the strike, which I would love to see again,” May said. “I was on assignment in the middle of trying to change the world.”

May also wrote for The Weekly, The Campanil’s predecessor, and Gleanings of Bee Culture, now known as Bee Culture, where she wrote about her grandfather’s honey factory in an old WWII army bus.

“Sarah [Pollock] told us that if you want to get published, the first thing is to get published in small places,” May said. “I thought, what’s something I know about? Oh, beekeeping.”

This story is a favorite of May’s and also of Pollock’s, who tells the story to some of her journalism classes. Pollock has been May’s mentor since May was in Pollock’s first-ever class at Mills.

“She was a delight as a student, and I mentored her until she became a colleague,” Pollock said. ”I couldn’t ask for a better arc.”

About teaching, May said, “At first I was nervous and thought ‘What do I have to say?’ But over the years I’m surprised at how much I love it. I look at my table on the first day of classes and I’m looking at myself, so I know what every student is feeling and I know it intimately,”

And students love May. Natalie Meier, The Campanil‘s current news editor, said, “Meredith made me feel like I could be a real journalist. She made me feel unafraid to fail and pushed me to try things I was unfamiliar with. She was my first taste of journalism and I’ll always remember that.”

In May 2006, May wrote a series called “Diary of a Sex Slave,” where, according to the Pulitzer Center, she “broke journalistic ground by telling the story of a Korean woman who was trafficked to San Francisco and forced to work in a massage parlor.”

Another story May wrote was about Nepali girls who were sold as domestic slaves to wealthy people by their parents who could not afford to raise them.

“I lean towards the little guy,” May said of her work, ”because I was a poor kid. I was raised by my grandparents in Carmel Valley, stood in the reduced lunch line with the three farmer’s kids. My sympathy always goes to the person who is different, who doesn’t fit in.”

“When people talk about bias in reporting, bias can be what makes you cry,” May said, “and it makes you understand the impact of  that story.”

Aside from her career in journalism, May also has a long history with beekeeping. She grew up at her grandparents’ house in the Carmel Valley where her grandfather was a beekeeper and delivered honey to other homes nearby.

Now she is the beekeeper for the Chronicle’s two rooftop beehives, which have been there since the Chronicle‘s Home and Garden Editor Deb Wandell had the idea to start them in 2010.

“She and I started two hives and I thought I knew a lot, but I realized I had a childhood memory of making honey. I had no idea about managing hives, or dealing with it, or mites,” May said.

The hives are healthy and occasionally people stop by to check in on them. San Francisco State professors have actually partnered with the Chronicle beekeepers to study their bees.

“It’s funny, my childhood and career are merging,” May said.

The rest of us can hope to be so lucky.