W&L alum says sociology background enhances her reporting

Caleigh Wells, ‘17, said SOAN prepared her to work with data and prioritize diversity


Wells interviews Los Angeles residents at a Black Lives Matter protest in summer 2020. Photo courtesy of Caleigh Wells, ‘17.

Emma Malinak, Arts & Life Editor

Washington and Lee alum Caleigh Wells, ‘17, is reporting on some of the biggest issues facing California today, from droughts and wildfires to the challenges of the pandemic.  

She cites Sociology and Anthropology (SOAN) as the department that kick-started her intuition and professional sense to find and report good stories.

“I figured if I wanted to be this ‘big deal’ journalist one day, then I needed to know how Americans lived and what they care about all over the country,” Wells said. “Being able to understand your audience better is only going to make you better.”

Wells, who graduated from W&L in 2017, gave a virtual lecture on Oct. 18 as part of the SOAN Matters lecture series. The series invites alumni from the SOAN department to discuss why they took SOAN classes, how they presented their degree in resumes and job interviews, how SOAN has affected their careers, and their advice for current students. 

Professor Lynn Chin, organizer of SOAN Matters, said that most alumni of the department don’t become professional sociologists, anthropologists or archaeologists after graduation. Rather, they apply SOAN skills in other career fields to better understand how groups of people interact with each other, their community and the wider world.

“Most come in [to the department] because they are really interested in making the world a better place and being more aware of the mechanisms by which we have constraints in our lives,” Chin said.

Wells said her SOAN classes not only helped her gain these skills, but also taught her how to recognize patterns in large data sets. 

Wells triple-majored (which was allowed at the time) in SOAN, Journalism and Politics and minored in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. This combination of academic frameworks allowed Wells to have a unique approach to the stories that she now covers for KCRW, a radio station in Los Angeles. 

In fact, one of the projects that Wells said she is the most proud of incorporated this broad range of subjects. 

When reporting about COVID-19 vaccination rates in the LA area in spring 2021, Wells first analyzed data and noticed that a neighborhood called Hawaiian Gardens had the lowest vaccination rates. Then, when she interviewed local residents, Wells realized that they were not able to get vaccinated because there was no clinic close by. More affluent areas nearby did have vaccine clinics, but the appointments were always booked.

A couple weeks after she reported on this neighborhood’s plight, a political leader in the county responded to Wells’ story and set up a pop-up clinic right in Hawaiian Gardens.

“I found the data, I told the story and then it made a difference,” Wells said. “That may have saved someone’s life.”

Wells reports on both public health and the environment, covering local news in LA and broader news in southern California. She estimates that about 20% of the work she does involves breaking news, and she must gather interviews, write scripts and produce stories quickly to meet deadlines. The other 80% of her day is spent working on longer projects that require meticulous research and extensive conversations with field experts, Wells said.

Regardless of the type of story, Wells said that her coursework in sociology prepared her for covering the diversity of people and points of view in LA. 

“Every kind of person that exists lives in this city,” Wells said. “They are experiencing our city very differently, and they all have different stories to tell. Understanding these differences in people is really major.”

While journalism isn’t the path for every SOAN student, Wells advised all students at Washington and Lee to take advantage of the liberal arts curriculum, not be afraid to try new things and take initiative to ask for opportunities. 

“There are opportunities around that you might not realize are there unless you ask, and the worst that happens is they say no, and you’re right back where you were anyway,” Wells said.

Overall, Chin hopes Wells, and the remaining four lecturers of the SOAN Matters series, can help students see how the humanities are applicable to countless career paths and they can enrich academic experiences.

“Sociology and anthropology are both the study of societal structure and culture,” Chin said. “Even though it seems like it would be obvious that it would be applicable in the real world, I don’t think professors give a logic for how to do that. Who can explain that logic better than alumni?”