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Omaha Magazine

Dedicated to Telling Stories In All Forms: Bellevue Student’s Pen Fights for Truth

Sep 30, 2020 11:42AM ● By Kara Schweiss
LeAnne Bugay

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Bellevue West High School student newspaper adviser Julie Rowse said she knows exactly when she realized LeAnne Bugay was going to stand out as a student journalist. A group of Bellevue West students, including then-sophomore Bugay, accompanied Rowse’s fellow journalism adviser Aaron Stueve to the Nebraska State Capitol in 2018 to report on legislative hearings related to LB 886. Rowse, who was testifying in favor of this bill proposing freedom of speech protection for student publications, watched Bugay confidently approach state senator Adam Morfeld and nationally known student journalism advocate Frank LoMonte.  

“She was fearless,” Rowse said. “I had never seen that in one of my student journalists before, that level of assertiveness and the desire to talk to the right people and get the story. I knew at that moment she was going to be the type of journalist I had been wanting to see since I took over the newspaper program at Bellevue West.”

The 2020 graduate said she had an interest in writing growing up and was intrigued by visual media, but her interest in journalism solidified after she took three semester-long elective classes in introductory journalism her freshman year. 

“My freshman year I did a couple of activities here and there, but it didn’t really stick until I got into journalism,” she said. “I found that this is the thing I really like.”

The next year, through an application process, she joined the staffs of the Thunderbeat student newspaper, which has web and print components, and the school’s video yearbook, which publishes online and supplies supplemental content, in disk form, to Bellevue West’s print yearbook. 

Rowse characterized Bugay as “someone dedicated to telling stories in all forms,” and said the school’s journalism program is comprehensive. Rowse and Stueve are published writers who have high expectations for their journalism students, but also foster an encouraging atmosphere.  

“Our goal is to provide the most holistic journalistic experience for our students so that when they go into journalism—or marketing or business or nursing or education or whatever—that they have this skillset of communication they can apply to pretty much any career they choose,” she explained. 

Bugay said that as she attained leadership roles on the three student media teams, she enjoyed transitioning into becoming a mentor for younger student journalists. By her senior year, Bugay was editor-in-chief of the Thunderbeat for a second year, director of the video yearbook, and she joined the print yearbook staff to serve as copy editor. The larger world had taken notice of her skills, too. A five-minute documentary she produced about a student athlete at Bellevue West, “Grace,” was accepted to the Omaha Film Festival this past March, one of the last large-scale area events before COVID-19 hit. In summer 2019, she spent a week in Washington, D.C., as the Nebraska representative at the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference for incoming high school seniors interested in journalism. Bugay relished the immersion experience and made like-minded contacts. She said they have become “some of the best friends I will ever meet.”

“I’ve always been a very dedicated and hardworking person, and journalism is something that you definitely have to be invested in and work hard at to get good at,” Bugay said. “I had learned early on from some mentors, like my teachers, that in the journalism and communication fields nowadays it’s really important to have a wide variety of mediums you can work through. I enjoyed those mediums, so I invested in learning how to take good photos, how to make a good video story, how to write clearly, how to do short, tight news writing and also try to expand to some fluffier entertainment writing,” she said. “I’ve really tried to expand my skills across all mediums and I enjoy all of them. I don’t think I have a favorite.”  

She may not have a favorite, but it has all paid off. This past spring, the Nebraska High School Press Association named Bugay 2020 Student Journalist of the Year. Rowse and Stueve also selected Bugay for the Omaha World-Herald Key Staffer honor for Bellevue West, submitting a statement that called Bugay “a talented designer, editor, filmmaker, and photographer.”

“It’s definitely a validation to a lot of the hard work I’ve put in for the past three years. I’m very thankful,” Bugay said of the honors. At the same time, she added, she’s more comfortable seeing her byline or credit than she is being the subject of an article. “It’s weird to be put in the spotlight because I’m used to writing about other things that are put in the spotlight.”

Although only 18, Bugay knows her lifelong passion is journalism. Now a freshman at UNL, she envisions many possible career paths including the education beat for a community newspaper, communications for a school district, or public relations for a post-secondary institution. 

“What I am looking the most forward to about LeAnne and her future, what I told her, is ‘Your life is actually very long and you can have second acts,’” Rowse said. “She is able to create and capitalize on opportunity. Her future is unlimited because of all the skills she took the time to develop while she was still in high school.” 

Visit bellevuepublicschools.org for more information.

This article was printed in the October 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.