She arrived on campus at Pasadena City College during the early morning and had no clue where she was going. No schedule and absolutely no information on hand that could alleviate her anxiousness. To gain some knowledge of where she needed to be, she proceeded nervously into the human resources office.
Shortly after being accompanied to her new office, she received a call from the campus print shop asking about the deadline for that week’s paper. Having no retort, she continued onward to meet her first group of students and teach her first lesson. It was 1973 and her first day on the job, a job that would last 34 years.
Mikki Bolliger was PCC’s journalism department adviser for those 34 years.
When Bolliger walked in that first day, she remembers experiencing nervousness but also finding comfort in students offering to show her around campus. She recalls her first trip to the print shop on that day and believes she was being tested.
“There was an error somewhere on the first page, and the print shop guy goes, ‘there’s a problem with this page, tell me what to do,’” Bolliger said.
With confidence, she knew exactly what the problem was and had no hesitation pointing it out.
Bolliger describes her first year on the Courier as “chaos, chaos, chaos.”
She recalls a “smart-alecky” student trying to pull a stunt with his story during the first week.
“I went into the print shop and I’m looking at his page and thinking, ‘what?’” Bolliger said. “As I’m reading down, the kid that wrote this story, counted every single space down the left hand column of his story, and it basically says screw the college president by his name. And I said to the printer, ‘Oh c’mon. You didn’t catch that?’”
An average day of production was easily 10 hours of work due to the fact that there were no computers to assist the students with layout. But when the newspaper staff was finally able to acquire a computer, they had a unique student who was able to design a website for the Courier.
The Courier was the first college newspaper in California to have a website and it was due to the hard work of a legally blind student who made it possible.
“She designed it and learned HTML,” Bolliger said, referring to the coding language. “She was a wiz and so good at it.”
When the newspaper staff explained to the Board of Trustees what they had accomplished, the board “couldn’t even grasp the importance of it.”
When the newsroom finally attained more than a few computers, they took a trip to Ventura College to learn how to do layout on a computer – a skill that Bolliger and the students were in no way familiar with.
At the time it was difficult for the newspaper staff to tear themselves away from the print shop because they had been dependent on it for producing the paper.
“Everybody was anxious to learn and be able to do more things themselves,” Bolliger said. “We were totally dependent on the print shop…I wanted to do it and get rid of all the extra steps so [the print shop] thought we would never survive without them but we eventually convinced the administration.”
One of the constant issues that has always loomed on campus is the relationship between the newspaper staff, and the administration and faculty. There are always going to be faculty and administration who disagree with certain stories being published, and yet they seem to always forget that at the end of the day, the Courier is a class where students learn all facets of publishing a paper.
“A couple of times people came up here to complain about something with the paper,” Bolliger said. “If people on both sides of the issue were mad at us then we knew we did a good job because we must have been fair. The administration has always been supportive of the paper, they have never interfered with the production of the paper, and the board has never interfered. It’s been great. I take it as a compliment for the students and the paper, because I think that means we’re doing a good job and they trust in our judgment.”
Haroldine Gardner, an administrative assistant in the purchasing department and a friend to Bolliger, worked on campus with her for many years and remembers her having a big influence.
“She came to PCC with a wealth of experience in the newspaper world and shared that with her students,” Gardner said. “The Courier flourished and was full of interesting stories, interviews, and often times interesting revelations. Occasionally, a school employee would try to avoid providing information about campus projects but they soon were advised that the student reporters were to be treated just like a professional … the students got their information. The paper looked great; everyone looked forward to the weekly publication.”
“Personally, I admire her strength of character, her fearlessness,” Gardner added. “She has always been a friendly outgoing person who makes everyone she meets feel very comfortable.”
Bolliger grew up in Burbank with a passion for writing, but it was her work on the school paper in high school that allowed her to recognize her love for journalism.
“I’ve always loved writing,” Bolliger said. “I was split between photography and writing so I had to make a choice, and writing won because I really, really love to write. Still do.”
After being informed by her counselor about the excellent journalism program at Los Angeles Valley College (LAVC), she went on to work simultaneously as an editor for the school paper as well as the school magazine and describes the decision as being “really dumb” due to the fact that it was a lot to take on all at once.
While attending LAVC, Bolliger received the LA Times Scholarship to attend the University of Southern California (USC), in addition to a scholarship to Cal State Northridge (CSUN). She remembers the decision being a difficult one to make because the department chair from CSUN was pushing her to accept their scholarship.
“The department chair over there wouldn’t speak to me after I decided to attend USC because he felt that I should go there instead,” Bolliger said. “But my adviser said, ‘Really? Are you that dumb where you wouldn’t choose to go to USC for free?’”
Bolliger received her bachelor’s degree from USC and went on to receive her master’s degree from the University of La Verne.
After her time at La Verne, Bolliger worked at several internships, a small paper and in the public relations department at LAVC.
“It was great and fun,” Bolliger said. “I could write every day and get my stuff published.”
However, one day when a public relations instructor at LAVC unfortunately experienced a heart attack, the school’s administration asked Bolliger if she would be willing to take over his class.
“I didn’t want to do it but they convinced me to do it by saying that it would be easy and it would only be for a couple of weeks,” Bolliger said. “I went in there and taught them everything I knew in an hour and it was a three hour class.”
When the administration told Bolliger that the instructor was going to be out for the rest of the semester and they expressed how happy they were that she was going to teach the class, Bolliger remembers not feeling as confident as they appeared to be.
“I thought I was going to have a stroke,” Bolliger said.
Even though Bolliger was thrown into the position and teaching was not something she had initially planned to do, it was the students’ enthusiasm toward her teaching that made her passionate and confident.
“This one kid at the end of the third class said, ‘I get it now!’ and other students were starting to say, ‘yeah, I didn’t really understand it before but now I’m getting it,’” Bolliger said. “Then I was hooked.”
As to the reason students were more inclined to understand, Bolliger credits her ability to teach from her experiences rather than out of the textbook.
“I was encouraging them to take journalism classes and not just public relations because you have to know how a newspaper works before you can really be successful,” Bolliger said.
When Bolliger found out about a job possibility at PCC, she found herself in another dilemma because she was also offered a summer relief job at the Los Angeles Times. In the end, she followed her heart and decided on PCC.
“I really felt inadequate because the instructors had been there for years and years,” Bolliger said.
At the time, the Courier was published on four full-sized pages with four advisers—Bolliger, Dorothy Colts, William Butler, and Wilhelm Bleckman, the photo adviser—overseeing their own page. Bolliger was in charge of the front page, design, layout and headlines of the paper. The job of a journalism adviser is more intimate than a job as an instructor.
As a teacher, you show up to class, give your lecture along with your lesson plan, hand out assignments and part ways with your students at the end of class. As an adviser, not only is the instructor teaching a class, but they are also spending time outside of class helping students learn the skills necessary to become successful in the business.
They spend a lot of time with students working on the school’s weekly paper, especially Wednesdays when the newspaper staff works roughly 10 hours to put the paper together. The adviser’s office is in the classroom, which also allows them to be available to students’ needs whenever necessary.
“I miss the students the most,” Bolliger said. “I can remember them all. Everybody brought something special to the paper … I loved them all. There’s always the slackers, there’s always the people who do twice the work of everybody else, and those who have a million excuses as to why their story didn’t come in on-time; you just have to know how to deal with it.”
In 2013, six years after Bolliger retired, journalism adviser Warren Swil was on administrative leave during an investigation into inappropriate behavior and Bolliger stepped in as interim adviser to help keep the newspaper staff focused and the paper thriving. The news editor at the time, Christine Michaels, remembers what it was like for Bolliger to return to the Courier.
“She was very involved in class and she gave us the hardest ethics quiz I ever had to take on libel,” Michaels said. “It was the scariest quiz I ever took … she really challenged me. I’ll always respect her for that, she really pushed the students to think about journalism in different ways then just stylebook guides. She really made you think about what it is to be a journalist in the real world.”
Even though Bolliger was interim adviser for just three months, Michaels feels having her in the newsroom was, “a blessing.”
“She taught me that even when you think your work is really great, it can always be improved,” Michaels said. “Being able to learn that humility has carried far for me.”
Within those three months, Michaels grew close to Bolliger and was offered the editor-in-chief position for the upcoming year by Bolliger.
“She gave me a lot of really good and strong advice about how to be an editor,” Michaels said. “She told me to be honest with the writers and not to make major decisions blindly. Being able to know that she’s always there, that was probably the best thing, to be accessible to those that will probably need you.”
“I always looked up to her because she was always so dedicated to the students and to journalism in general,” Michaels added. “Just keeping it alive.”
Over 34 years, countless students have had the privilege of having Bolliger as an adviser and have gone on to become successful because of the commitment she brought when teaching her students.
“When you ask about Mikki’s relationship with her students, the fact that her students continue to stay in contact with her long after they leave school gives you the answer,” Gardner said.
Michael Rocha at the San Diego Union Tribune as a features design editor, Gary Kline at the LA Times as a sports editor, Mark Langel at the Dodgers as a historian, and David Rust at CNN as a senior photojournalist: these are just a few of her past students’ success stories.
“It feels good that maybe I contributed in some way but all these people were talented to begin with, you just steer them the right way,” Bolliger said. “I am always amazed by the stuff that they’re doing. I still keep in touch with a number of my students and different ones will say I can’t believe it took me so long to understand why we had those deadlines.”
After overseeing 1,036 issues of the Courier and more than 40 Spotlight magazines, Bolliger retired in 2007.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Bolliger said. “We’ve had a lot of really good stories over the years and that’s what kept me going back. I miss the students the most.”