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Coffey takes unique path into journalism

'It was a dream my heart had never even recognized.'

Donavyn Coffey, a 2011 Russell County High School graduate, has taken a long, winding, and unexpected road into becoming a professional freelance journalist.
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Ten years ago, if you had told Donavyn Coffey that she would be writing about genetically modified mosquitoes for a national magazine that Albert Einstein once contributed to, she wouldn’t have believed you.

The same goes for living in Denmark and New York City; transitioning from studying agriculture biotechnology to science, health and environmental reporting; and traveling the country working as a freelance journalist.

Coffey has in fact experienced all of these things, and she “still can’t believe it sometimes.”

The road to Denmark

Coffey, who grew up in Eli, graduated from Russell County High School in 2011 before attending the University of Kentucky and graduating in 2015 with a degree in agricultural and medical biotechnology.

But a lot of prayer and trying out other educational opportunities came before landing on that field of study.

“I changed my majors four times and didn’t settle on a major until spring of my sophomore year,” Coffey said. “My friends were panicking on my behalf.

“The whole time, I was taking science classes, trying all kinds of things. I liked science, and I was pretty good at it … I have a deep curiosity of how things work. That all goes back to my faith, the wonderful privilege of being in awe of what God designs, how intricate it is and how masterful.”

After establishing that she wanted to try something in the science field, Coffey “stumbled” into UK’s agricultural biotechnology program.

“It was very hands-on, very lab-oriented,” Coffey said. “I thrive in a workplace with mentors, being able to watch people do the work and then trying the work out for myself.

“Once I tried the work out, even though it was such a privilege to be in the room with such smart people, I realized this isn’t for me … I knew I wanted to be science-adjacent, but I didn’t want to be a PhD.”

It was around this time that Coffey received an email inviting her to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship.

“Upon first looking at the email, I thought, ‘I could never do this,’” Coffey said. “[The U.S. Fulbright Program] is internationally renowned. I’m no one. I can’t do this.”

In short, the U.S. Fulbright Program allows students to study abroad while exchanging a student from a different culture to study in the U.S.

“In an attempt to create harmony globally after the second world war, we’ll send you some of our bright minds, you send us yours,” Coffey explained, adding that the exchange program was between the U.S. and more than 150 countries.

Although Coffey felt like she wasn’t qualified, God had different plans for her.

“I was deeply convicted to apply for this,” Coffey said. “I kept wrestling with God. I told Him, ‘No, I’m just a normal girl from Russell Springs. I can’t do this.’ It then became a matter of, ‘Will you obey me?’”

So she did.

She decided to apply to study in Denmark because, for one, they did not have a language requirement, so she could be educated in English.

Another factor in her decision was that her favorite part of science had become food and nutrition. The program she was looking at was a Master’s of Science in Molecular Nutrition and Food Technology at Aarhus University.

Coffey was intrigued by Denmark’s policies implementing “more aggressive” taxes on food, alcohol, and sugar, among other public health-focused laws that could potentially benefit the United States.

“Our country has a need for better public health,” Coffey said. “My pitch was, ‘Let me go on behalf of the U.S. and start a degree, begin doing interviews to see if we can learn anything about how we can do it better.’”

Coffey’s application was good enough to get her name on the short list of candidates, but she would soon have to make a decision: Coffey had received an offer to work with a big company but she hadn’t yet been accepted for the Fulbright Program.

Coffey knew that she would need to give the company a “100 percent commitment” if she were to accept the offer.

Having God on her side made it an easy choice.

“Once I made it through the first round, I believed I was going to get it because God initiated this whole process,” Coffey said. “That’s what I was thinking … I hadn’t gotten the Fulbright yet, but I knew I was going to get it.”

Coffey turned down the job offer, and for a full week, she had no job prospects and no word from the program.

She was “ecstatic” when she finally learned that she had been accepted and would be heading to Denmark in August. “It was beyond what I could have dreamt for myself,” Coffey said.

Embracing a new way to live and learn

“The moment I’m off the plane, it’s just panic.”

Coffey was reliving the instant after she touched down in Copenhagen, attempting to catch a train to Aarhus.

“I’d barely gone anywhere by myself before,” Coffey said. “I went on a mission trip to Haiti with my church family, but I was sitting here, alone on this plane, with this suitcase … It was just a weird challenge.”

Coffey would eventually make it to her destination, but that challenge was the first of many.

“Scandinavian people, it’s a very hard community to break through,” Coffey said. “Hospitality is not a high value to them. Alternatively, they’re a very genuine people. They’re not fake but very authentic. They challenged me to say what I meant because they’re excellent at intentionality.

“With that intentionality, where we can be in such a rush all the time, they focus on slowing down and enjoying time together and enjoying life.”

Coffey’s adjustment period didn’t end when she entered the classroom, either.

“It was all just session-based learning,” Coffey said. “They don’t really believe in grades. There was a measuring system to whether you passed or not, but there’s no concept of GPA. You can fail, but it takes legitimate negligence. It’s very discussion-based.”

The lack of a rigid grading system, in particular, was a test to Coffey’s resolve, as she was accustomed to the typical American classroom. One aspect that helped Coffey come into her own during her year of study in Aarhus was that nearly half of the students in her cohort were international students, too.

Donavyn Coffey has been able to make her dream of traveling the globe a reality and has studied in both Denmark and New York City.

‘I talk too much to be a scientist’

After her year abroad was up, it was time for Coffey to move back to Lexington and continue her work as a research scholar.

“[Living in Denmark] was huge for my confidence,” Coffey said.

Back in Kentucky, a company paid Coffey to do a research project, which she was also able to use as her master thesis.

The project/thesis was, essentially, an examination of how the nutritional supplements fed to livestock affects the quality of meat consumers eat. Coffey used three basic measurements: shelf life, texture, and taste.

“Can we optimize [these food quality measures] by the way that we feed the animals?” she asked.

Coffey returned to Denmark in the summer of 2017 to present her research. She passed, which allowed her to graduate from the program.

Coffey continued with the company for which she had been doing research through 2017, studying scientific variables and how those variables affect business and people’s real lives.

But her life was coming to a crossroads.

While Coffey liked science in the real world, she didn’t feel like she was a good fit in the university or lab setting. She was beginning to wonder if she was even in the right field at all.

“I talk too much to be a scientist,” Coffey said with a laugh. “I began to pray, ‘Lord, I have these degrees, these experiences.’ I couldn’t make anything of it, so I asked Him what He would have me do.”

One avenue became apparent quickly, although it wasn’t a route that Coffey expected. She should write

“I don’t think I had a positive reception to that initially,” Coffey said. “Science is a very different way of thinking. It’s observation, not necessarily creative all the time. It wasn’t completely out of left field, though. People had told me that I was a good writer, encouraging me to just keep using my words.”

She began writing for the company she worked for on the side as a test run. The company had a “PR issue” in January 2018, so the vice president called Coffey in his office and asked her to transition to a new role writing about the company from a scientific viewpoint.

Coffey was soon added to the company’s public relations arm as a science expert. At that same time, though, she began applying to New York University.

Coffey was intrigued by the school’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting master’s program because she “wanted to do a little bit more objective writing,”

After initially missing the application deadlines, Coffey was encouraged to continue applying and received an extension. She was accepted and began the 16-month program in 2018.

Coffey left her job and headed to New York.

Again, what awaited her at NYU was a nontraditional classroom by American standards.

“There were only 11 people in the program when I got there,” Coffey said. “We wrote pieces, wrote articles. We would spend [three-hour to eight-hour] intervals around a conference table discussing journalism. I did a lot of listening.”

Sixteen months later, Coffey graduated from the program, ready to take on a career path that she would have never imagined even a few years prior. “It was a dream my heart had never even recognized,” she said. “That’s what God had for me, what he encouraged me to do.”

Ahead of the curve

Coffey graduated in December 2019.

She applied for jobs, but at the time, her plan was to stay in New York City and start her new career as a freelancer.

“I would not have chosen freelancing,” Coffey said, “but as the time came near, I had accumulated some clients looking for me to freelance for them, so I decided to go that path.”

Coffey learned how to adapt to her new environment, and three months before many in the workforce began working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she was learning how to do it all on her own.

Being a freelancer — and already knowing the ins and outs of at-home work —  gave Coffey the freedom to go home to Russell Springs when the pandemic hit, without having to give up her work.

For a while, because she was working as a health and science journalist, COVID-19 was Coffey’s primary topic of coverage.

“I was covering a lot of developments in the disease, potential treatments,” Coffey said. “I profiled a German doctor trying to develop a respiratory treatment that wasn’t typical … COVID was in the news all the time.”

Eventually, she was able to branch out and broaden her coverage.

There was a story about a New Zealand indigenous group that was trying to preserve its language and protect its info from large tech companies.

Coffey wrote about genetically modified mosquitoes being released in the U.S. for Scientific American Magazine, the oldest continuously published monthly magazine in the United States.

There was her piece on black lung and the ongoing struggle for miners to collect insurance money after contracting the disease.

Freelance journalism was far from where she expected to be at this point in her life, but she loved learning each day about her chosen field.

“I’m still learning how to find important stories, and what I want to write about, and write them in a way you want to read and in a way that is impactful,” Coffey said. “But I’m learning every day that this takes time, that I have to put in the work daily.

“This has been so good for my courage, learning how to build something from nothing, learning commitment. Long-term, I see myself growing as a professional and as a journalist.”

For the future, Coffey envisions how, if she continues to build her client base, freelancing could be “a really ideal job” within the next 10 years.

Since coming back to Russell Springs in the early days of the pandemic, Coffey has continued living at home in Eli with her parents, Troy and Allison Coffey.

She said she doesn’t have any immediate “concrete plans” but is open to whatever God has in store for her.

“I love being here, and I want to be here as long as God says, and when he wants me to move, I’ll move,” Coffey said. “I just want to write stories that are important and impactful, and I want to be very present. Those are my plans for now.”

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