As a kid, Sellers Hill ’20 was obsessed with NASA and the Space Shuttle program. Rocketing into the sky as a fighter jet test pilot or an astronaut filled his dreams, as did imaginations of diving beneath the ocean’s waves to explore what lay below.
By the time he arrived at NCSSM-Durham from Hoggard High School in Wilmington, Sellers wanted to be an engineer – some days an electrical one, some days a mechanical one.
What never factored into those plans was that one day he would lead The Harvard Crimson, America’s oldest continuously published daily collegiate newspaper.
Yet after spending two years as a staff writer for the paper, the pre-med junior with an eye on medical school became The Harvard Crimson’s 151st president on Jan. 1
On the surface, Hill acknowledges that medicine and journalism don’t seem all that closely related and that, when combined, the two certainly don’t leave much opportunity for downtime. But that’s okay by Hill. Running the paper alongside his pre-med studies, he says, is “the only thing I want to be doing right now.”
A new direction
Sellers Hill is the next-to-youngest of five kids in a tight-knit blended family. With seven people total in the house, it was helpful to love one another. Still, when Hill found out about NCSSM in the eighth grade, he saw an opportunity for a bit of independence.
By the time he was accepted for enrollment in his junior year, Hill had come to appreciate the academic opportunities NCSSM provided him as a future engineer. But when he took an American Studies class with NCSSM-Durham humanities instructor Elizabeth Peeples in his first year at NCSSM, Hill’s mind began to swirl again. “I began to pivot quite a bit,” Hill says.
As a younger student in Wilmington, the importance of humanities courses didn’t quite register with Hill. Neither did the papers he was assigned to write. The book reports and short, simple research papers and essays were never “really about things I super enjoyed, or that I thought were particularly pressing,” he says. “Writing wasn’t something I found particularly enjoyable.”
The American Studies course was a game-changer. “We were learning about really difficult subjects, about complicated and painful parts of American history. A lot of this had only been touched on back home. It all was incredibly relevant to society and current events; it related to the real world a lot more.”
“I could tell,” says Peeples, “that Sellers was one of those students that was doing the readings to really learn from them, rather than to just fulfill the requirements of the course.”
Writing assignments began to feel more important, too. Now Hill was thinking deeply on concerns that had shaped the nation and affected people’s daily lives from the country’s founding to the present and exploring on paper his own ideas on it all. Crafting a cohesive argument became a welcome challenge.
“We used to have the American Studies kids all year, and Sellers came in regularly to see me for writing conferences,” Peeples says. “He was really engaged with the documents and making connections in his writing that were really advanced. He really grew as a student and a writer over the course of a year.”
The feedback Hill got from his peers and teachers convinced him that he’d stumbled upon a skill he could cultivate. “I found,” he says, “that I was finally enjoying writing.”
Hill became confident enough in his writing that, by his senior year, he joined NCSSM’s newspaper, The Stentorian, as a co-editor. That presented a new challenge, however. “I had no idea how to write a news article,” Hill says. “I had no clue what I was doing.”
“For someone who didn’t know what he’s doing, Sellers did great,” says John Kirk, an instructor of engineering at NCSSM-Durham and long-time advisor to The Stentorian. “He was funny and smart, and hardworking and charismatic. And he was incredibly resourceful, too; he just picked up things really quickly.”
Hill began reading The New York Times alongside newspapers from other high schools, trying to teach himself how to write news stories. From time to time, he even studied stories in The Harvard Crimson. And though, Hill says, his stories for The Stentorian now look amateurish in hindsight (“I mean, listen,” he says, “they were not great at times.”), the experience was a formative one.
“We were just a small team of students trying to figure out what was important and what our peers wanted to know about, and to think about the school as an object of study,” Hill says. “There was never a point where I was like, ‘Oh, I’m really good at this.’ I totally knew that I was imitating what I thought a journalist was.”
The stories, Kirk says, were not as bad as Hill recalls. “I didn’t know he had this sort of impostor syndrome about his writing,” Kirk says. “His stories were really well written, really good.”
Eager to learn more about journalism, Hill immediately became involved with The Harvard Crimson after arriving on campus as a freshman. For two years he worked as a staff writer where he wrote just over 100 stories. He also found time to help evaluate the paper’s readership analytics.
But in a surprising but honest admission, Hill says that the actual act of writing could be – and sometimes still is – hard for him. “Words don’t come that easily for me,” he says. “I’m not one of those people who can effortlessly produce prose that’s like poetry. So, in that sense, I’ve always considered myself a journalist more than a writer. I’ve always enjoyed the story gathering, the process of getting it all together, more than the actual writing. The writing is just the part of journalism that comes at the end.”
By the time his junior year rolled around, Hill was ready for a new and bigger challenge, eager to engage even more deeply with a paper and staff he had grown to love. That meant seeking a leadership position.
He got it.
As president of the paper, Hill now shares responsibility for around 350 staff members, the paper’s budget, its buildings, and is more involved with the paper’s editorial board than in the past. The majority of his time with the paper is spent in meetings, on phone calls, and in front of his laptop answering email. He’s also on constant standby to address any sudden, critical situations from personnel matters to breaking news.
It’s a high-stress environment, for sure, but Hill has always been drawn to such tension. As a child of physicians, he grew up hearing stories of high-stakes medical emergencies, so he naturally began to equate intensity with meaning. The risks assumed by pilots and astronauts – his earliest heroes – carried the same weight. If a job was dangerous or stressful, Hill’s young mind reckoned, then it had to be of importance.
“Now that’s not accurate, I know,” Hill says. “There are tons of extremely important jobs that don’t have people experiencing panic attacks. But that was the calculus I made as a kid and it never really shook off.”
The rush of practicing medicine is one of the reasons Hill is moving in the direction of a career as a doctor. But it’s also why he’s still working in journalism as well. The way a crisis can arise at any moment, whether at The Harvard Crimson or in the community it covers, is much the same as in a medical setting. “There’s an urgency to it,” Hill says, “and we have to be able to respond, to process information, at a moment’s notice with very little room for error. And that, for me, is really, really fun.”
Charting a course
Hill recognizes the good fortune he’s had in rising from junior reporter to president of the paper, and is very cognizant of the trust that has been placed in him to steward the paper appropriately. “It’s a rare opportunity to help shape the course of an institution that’s 150 years old,” he says, “and, fingers crossed, nothing I do is going to totally change the direction of the Crimson. That would mean I’ve done something dramatic and maybe not so good. It’s more like directing a cruise ship out in the ocean; if you change course just a few degrees, just the smallest amount, then way in the future you’ll be in a totally different place. And that someone gets to do that is such a rare opportunity.”
Though journalism will likely never be a primary career path for Hill, he can’t imagine a life without writing, however difficult it may be for him sometimes. And he can’t imagine being where he is now, as a pre-med at Harvard and president of the school’s student newspaper, without the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics.
“I always tell people that going to Science and Math made me more of a humanities person, too,” Hill says. “Instead of focusing my interests, it actually diversified them.”