Curiosity Compelled Sophia Paffenroth (SF19) to Become a Johnnie—and a Journalist

March 21, 2024 | By Andrew Wice

Unforeseen turns have led Sophia Paffenroth to good places. Originally from New York’s Hudson Valley region, she spent the past decade traversing the country in pursuit of education and a career in journalism. Currently a community health reporter for nonprofit news outlet Mississippi Today, her journey has been driven by what Paffenroth identifies as the key quality for a journalist: curiosity. 

Sophia Paffenroth (SF19)

In the late 1980s, Paffenroth’s parents fell in love at St. John’s College in Annapolis. When it came to her own college search, she had been considering art school before attending Summer Academy, the St. John’s summer program for visiting high school students. Her experience as a Johnnie-in-training was so formative that Paffenroth ended up applying not just to but only to St. John’s College, with the twist of choosing the Santa Fe campus instead of her parents’ meeting place.

During Paffenroth’s time at St. John’s, she found that the school’s small group discussions and interrogation of primary sources were everything she had hoped for. However, she was surprised to discover that her favorite discipline was math, a subject that had previously left her cold. While studying Euclid’s Elements, the concrete elegance of mathematical equations suddenly became clear to her.

“It completely changed my world,” Paffenroth says. “I loved the way that math at St. John’s felt really beautiful and poetic. That really appealed to me. So, I loved the whole arc of the math program—going through Euclid, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Einstein. I just really thrived on learning new things that I had once felt I’d never be good at.”

While mathematics spoke to her realist side, the Program’s ancient Greek literature offerings fed her love of poetry. Her artistic side was further nourished by the St. John’s-affiliated summer programs in which she participated: the Leo Marchutz School of Painting & Drawing in France and the Rome Institute of Liberal Arts in Italy. Then, after completing college, Paffenroth found herself at a crossroads back on the East Coast, trying to plot a future course as COVID-19 hit and shut down the world.

Working at a local farm and doing odd jobs, Paffenroth seized an opportunity to get in on the ground floor with Girl Rising, a global nonprofit team that was creating a documentary film. Although she was not directly involved in the filmmaking process, this fortuitous detour led Sophia to realize that pursuing journalism would allow her to fuse both sides of her personality: the poet and the realist. To hone her storytelling abilities, Paffenroth pursued her master’s degree in journalism at Northeastern University, specializing in print media.

“Journalism tends to be pretty interdisciplinary in the sense that whatever beat you’re covering, it is going to overlap with other beats,” Paffenroth says. “My experience undergoing the Program at St. John’s has definitely made it easier for me to see the connections between healthcare and other social issues. The way that we learn at St. John’s is [also] around the table, in discussion with one another. And one of my favorite things about journalism is that every interview is really an opportunity to learn from the person in front of you.”

After graduation came another fork in the road, and Paffenroth accepted a job at the Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit watchdog news organization Mississippi Today in Jackson, the state’s capital. She says she is energized by the challenge of reporting on public health in a state with some of the nation’s worst metrics not just in healthcare but education, poverty, and access to independent news.

While she is no longer close to either place she previously called home—New York or New Mexico—the conflicts and opportunities she encounters daily in Mississippi provide endless new challenges. “Being a young reporter in a new place is very exciting,” she says. “When you’re a journalist, everything you encounter is new; there’s always a story. That can feel intimidating, but if you look at the world through the lens of journalism, nothing is ever boring.”

And, if one looks at the world through the lens of being a Johnnie, she adds, they might just wind up becoming her colleague. “I think there is great possibility for St. John’s students interested in pursuing a career in journalism. The entire profession of journalism hinges on the ability to ask the right questions. At St. John’s, we do that every day.”