The Cycle Continues: Kaci Aitchison Honored as COM Mentor
“Fear is not always an indicator that you should not do something,” answers Kaci Aitchison (B.A., 2001) when asked what words of wisdom she has for students. “When faced with a decision, you shouldn’t be afraid of choosing the ‘wrong’ path. Instead, it is important to remember that all choices will teach you something important about yourself and your career.”
On October 4, during the Communication Department’s celebration of its Alumni of Distinction, Aitchison will receive the 2017 Alumni Award for Excellence in Mentoring.
Now an Emmy-nominated host and reporter for Q13 News This Morning, Aitchison’s career path was not a straight one. During her junior year at the UW, she worked as a traffic reporter for KISS-FM Seattle and then spent the next few years there as an on-air radio personality. In 2004, she joined The Bob Rivers Morning Show on KZOK as a co-host and news anchor, and sang with their band. Yet, in 2008 during an economic recession, Aitchison made the risky decision to quit radio and seek work elsewhere.
“I had nothing lined up at the time,” she remembers, “but knowing what you don’t want to do can be just as important as knowing what you do; it’s the start of finding something better.”
After striking out on her own, Aitchison spent months trying to break into broadcast journalism. “It was eight months of emailing audition tapes and being told ‘no,’ even emphatically ‘no!’” How did Aitchison cope with the seemingly endless series of rejections? “I watched a lot of The People’s Court and cried,” she admits. “But I also tried really hard to listen to that tiny voice inside that kept reassuring me that if the timing would just pan out, I’d be OK. And it wasn’t only that tiny voice, but people like my husband who acted as my support network, which is why it’s so important to surround yourself with people who will tell you to keep trying.”
In 2009, Aitchison joined Q13 as a features reporter; four years later she became co-anchor of the morning show in 2012. “What I realize now,” she explains, “is that what I originally may have viewed as eight months of failure, was actually eight months where I was talking to people. I was getting to know stations that, although they said ‘no’ at the time, may have eventually said ‘yes,’ which is what happened with Q13.”
New to the world of television journalism, Aitchison credits her early success to the support she received from her friend and mentor, Lily. “Working with her was such a positive experience for me. As a mentor, I’ve always strived to treat others the same way she treated me. This industry is competitive, there is no doubt, but I’ve found that when you get to know others and help them do their best work, it makes the final product better. Also, it’s important to remember that at the end of the day, you’re likely not the one making those decisions about who is ‘in’ or ‘out.’ Instead, the only thing you have control over is how you’re experiencing things, so why not make it something good for everyone?”
When mentoring others, Aitchison adds, she often rediscovers what she loves about her job and what it means to be a storyteller. “Communication is unique because there are so many opportunities and paths for students explore. It’s thrilling, but also terrifying. It’s all too easy to get lost in that transition from the structure of college to the chaos of the ‘real world.’ When students have that connection with a mentor, it helps things click because it shows them how they can apply their skills and not limit themselves to any one vision.”
Aitchison also encourages students to form relationships with their professors and advisors, recalling how she benefited from their guidance as an undergraduate, even if some of those lessons were hard-learned. “Once after a midterm, the instructor came into class the next day and spent 20 minutes yelling at us for not doing what he wanted. But instead of mourning the fact that he did not understand my genius, I went to his office hours and ended up having a really personable, constructive discussion. That experience taught me that there are different ways to speak to different people. There is no one formula. Instead, what you have to be willing to do is learn their language. You can’t fix what you don’t know is wrong.”
Today, Aitchison continues tackling feature stories that celebrate local heroes and highlight communities all over the Puget Sound area. “Being an anchor was something I never actually considered,” she says, explaining why it’s so important for young professionals to keep their options open. “When I first started, there were times when I experienced ‘imposter syndrome,’ and I worried I wasn’t good enough to succeed in this new roll. In fact, I am still hard on myself to this day, and always striving to be better. I try focus on what I like about anchoring rather than being an anchor. That way I’m always looking for new ways to tell stories and work around challenges.”
Aitchison adds that the sweet spot for her when telling a story is the feeling of “being more in the moment than being sat in a chair. I feel I have been successful in my job when I’ve allowed myself to be vulnerable, and as a result, made those interpersonal connections that make the news relatable.” She also insists that when communicators embrace this shared sense of humanity, they have more to “bring to the table.” “No matter what career path you start down,” she says, “try to be well-rounded. Pay attention to what you enjoy, but push yourself out of your comfort zone. It’s OK to fail, and better to know what you don’t know. How else are you then going to be able to find someone to teach you? And once you do, consider being a mentor to someone else. The cycle continues, my friends.”