Ireland Hayes grew up in the small town of Folkston, Georgia, on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp. Her parents made sure she got out and saw the world, taking her on frequent trips to upstate New York – where her father is from – and to Atlanta, among other places, but her rural upbringing had a big impact on her. She is set to graduate this summer from the University of Georgia with a degree in journalism and a minor in music, and eventually she would like to write about places like her hometown.
“I have a deep love for the South and think there are stories that need to be heard and issues that need to be addressed, especially in rural communities. I’d love to be able to come back and tell stories like that,” she said.
In fact, she did a research project on that very issue, working with UGA’s Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities to detail the way small, rural communities aren’t getting much news coverage, even areas that appear to be included because they are on the edge of larger cities.
But right now, she is busy finishing up her senior year. Currently, she has two internships – one with Georgia Magazine and the other with Bitter Southerner – is assistant news editor at The Red & Black student newspaper, and is finishing up her coursework before going on a travel writing program this summer in Prague.
Hayes grew up in a historic house that doubled as a restaurant run by her parents, which served upscale Southern food. When she was 3, they closed the restaurant portion and started catering instead. Eventually, they closed the business entirely, and her mother, who had gotten a computer science degree at the University of Georgia, began working for a bank.
Growing up, Hayes volunteered at the Okefenokee Swamp for different community days and created a website for them during high school. “I loved the swamp,” she said. “It was very important to me to help preserve such an ecologically diverse environment by going to those events, and spending time there and appreciating the history of it.”
Her first paying job was giving piano lessons to young children at a music studio in Jacksonville, Florida, the closest city.
When she arrived at UGA, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to study, but since she had to apply to a college, she picked the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication since she had always enjoyed writing and had won several argumentative essay competitions in high school. Soon after the start of her first year, she began to miss playing music and began using the pianos in the practice rooms at the music school. Later, she added a music minor to her degree and now plays bassoon in UGA’s symphonic band.
Getting a start in journalism
On one of her first assignments as an intern for Georgia Magazine, Hayes wrote about the way students personalize their laptops with stickers. She was able to borrow a camera from the Division of Marketing and Communications, where Georgia Magazine is housed, and wandered around campus asking people about the stickers on their computers and shooting photos of them.
“That really helped me with approaching sources and overcoming the fear of going up to strangers.”
It also got her interested in pursuing photojournalism, so she added some relevant classes to her course load and now plans to both write and take photos.
This year, she won both first and second place awards for feature writing from the Georgia College Press Association. Her first place story was about Jehovah’s Witnesses returning to door-knocking after COVID. Second place was a story about a local woman who keeps skeletons on her lawn year-round.
While Hayes doesn’t have much free time right now, she volunteers as deputy executive director for Designated Dawgs, the campus organization that helps students get home safely at night by coordinating free rides. For fun, she likes to play music and go to concerts, travel and crochet blankets.
This summer, Hayes is finally taking a long-awaited semester abroad, which was postponed due to the pandemic. After that, she hopes to find a job in the journalism industry and really get established and learn the business. Her eventual dream job, at least for now, is to freelance for places like The Bitter Southerner and New York Times. “I want to write long, documentary-style stories about the things I love and think are important. There are so many interesting people who are overlooked because they live in smaller communities. I’d like to be able to go find those people and tell their stories.”