Daily Week: Alumni find love, careers through the Daily

From top left to bottom right: Benjamin Phelps (LA'11, AG'13) and Rebecca Santiago (LA'13), Madhu Unnikrishnan (LA'94) and Elin Dugan (LA'94), Jake Taber (LA'17) and Becca Leibowitz (LA'17), and Neil Swidey (LA'91) and Denise Drower Swidey (LA'90). Courtesy Elin Dugan, Becca Leibowitz, Ota Richter and Rebecca Santiago / Seohyun Shim / The Tufts Daily

Editor’s note: The Daily’s editorial board acknowledges that this article is premised on a conflict of interest. This article is a special feature for Daily Week 2019 that does not represent the Daily’s standard journalistic practices.

The basement of Curtis Hall is where the magic happens. Huddled over computer screens and draft printouts, editors and contributors spend as many as 35 hours each week in our office to produce this paper. It is, in many ways, a life-changing experience — for some more literally than others.

This Daily Week, we spoke to four alumni couples who found love through the Daily, including one Daily-Observer couple. Their lives have been shaped by that fateful decision to join the Daily, as they found their significant others and went on to pursue careers in media, teaching and law. The long hours they spent covering campus events or working in Curtis Hall led to something truly special.

Elin Dugan and Madhu Unnikrishnan

Courtesy Elin Dugan

Elin Dugan (LA’94) and Madhu Unnikrishnan (LA’94) met as editors for the Daily’s arts section in 1991, their sophomore year. Dugan eventually became the Daily’s associate editor in spring 1993 and editor in chief in fall 1993.

Unnikrishnan recounted the very first time he met Dugan in 1991 in the Daily’s basement office in Curtis Hall.

“I turned around, and I thought, ‘Who is that pretty woman coming over this way?'” he said.

They quickly built a strong friendship over the next three years at Tufts. Unlike the other more theater- or gallery-minded arts writers, Dugan and Unnikrishnan bonded over their shared passion for reviewing music, movies and TV shows, even writing a weekly recap of the long-running 90s program “Beverly Hills, 90210” (1990–2000).

As student journalists, the couple noticed and valued each other’s flair for writing.

“She was a really good writer … just meticulous,” Unnikrishnan said of Dugan.

“When you are working together on something like [a newspaper], you … appreciate not having to edit someone’s writing,” Dugan said of Unnikrishnan’s work.

Their friendship blossomed outside of the Daily as well. Dugan fondly remembered going on trips to the beach in Gloucester, Mass. in Unnikrishnan’s 1974 Volkswagen Beetle with some of their friends, among other activities.

Dugan and Unnikrishnan did not start dating until about five years after they both graduated from Tufts. In those intervening years, they remained steadfast friends, keeping in close contact even when they were not living in the same city or pursuing similar careers.

The couple married in 2006. Dugan is currently senior counsel at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Unnikrishnan is editor of Skift Airline Weekly, an airline industry trade publication. They reside in the San Francisco area and continue to share a love for all things pop culture.

Benjamin Phelps and Rebecca Santiago

Courtesy Rebecca Santiago

Benjamin Phelps (LA’11, AG’13) and Rebecca Santiago (LA’13) met on the Daily in 2010, also as editors for the Daily’s arts section. Phelps went on to serve as executive arts editor in spring 2011, while Santiago succeeded him as executive arts editor in fall 2011 and became editor in chief in fall 2012.

The day was Sept. 6, 2010, the first arts section meeting of the semester, hosted by then-Executive Arts Editor Emma Bushnell (LA’11). Phelps was a returning arts editor, and Santiago had just joined the editor ranks to cover the theater beat. Before that meeting, there had been an email thread for editors to share their ideas for the arts section.

Ben had all these brilliant ideas for expanding television [coverage] and how to modernize,” Santiago said. “But I didn’t have any ideas for theater coverage, so my first impression of him was as somebody who was very fastidious and meticulous, and I just rolled in not knowing what I was doing.”

Phelps, too, formed a memorable first impression of Santiago from this meeting.

“I think she had just come to the meeting after a day of cliff jumping with her friends. I remember thinking she seemed fun, adventurous and cute,” he said. “[She] seemed like someone to keep an eye on at least, at the time, to be friends with. Luckily, I was right about all those things.”

The two became friends over that year and started their relationship in earnest toward the end of the spring, according to Santiago. At the Daily, they shared a lot of the same editing shifts and spent a lot of time together in the Daily office working on the Weekender, the Daily’s weekly arts long-form feature. Both Phelps and Santiago had the same ‘arts’ energy that made them a good match.

“I like what [the arts] department was because … we were this funny, hipster-y, irreverent department. It was just like a goofy section and a good group of people,” Santiago said.”We both watched this TV show called ‘Fringe’ … and Ben would try to use that to flirt with me even though I didn’t keep up on it in the same way he did.”

“We weren’t there for hard-hitting journalism as much as thinking and engaging with pop culture in a slightly smarter way,” Phelps added.

Although Phelps graduated that spring, he stayed at Tufts to get his master’s degree in educational studies, which kept the relationship going strong.

Post-Tufts, both Phelps and Santiago have pursued fulfilling careers in media. Phelps works at WNET, the Public Broadcasting Service station in New York.

“Because of my strong interest in TV — which was very apparent on the Daily — Rebecca actually was the person who pushed me to intern at WGBH in Boston, and ever since then I have worked in public television,” Phelps said. “That was a major life path decision that was influenced by the Daily and by Rebecca.”

Santiago currently works as a features editor at the New York Post.

“I kind of have the same job. I have frantic days where I’m hunting down photos and working with writers and running around trying to talk about what’s happening in New York City, what are the topics people are talking about,” Santiago said. “It has the same good newsroom energy and conviviality that I really liked in the Daily … I love it. I highly recommend it.”

Meanwhile, the couple still keeps their passion for arts and pop culture alive with other Daily arts alumni.

“We have a film club … where we get together once a month … to watch one highbrow movie and one lowbrow movie around a theme,” Santiago said. “This is basically what we would do in college.”

The couple married just last month on Sept. 7, nearly nine years to the day they first met. Santiago created a spoof front page of the Daily to commemorate the occasion, bringing back many memories for both of them.

Becca Leibowitz and Jake Taber

Courtesy Becca Leibowitz

Becca Leibowitz (LA’17) and Jake Taber (LA’17) met on the Daily as fellow sophomore members of the features section in spring 2015. Taber was leading the section as executive features editor, while Leibowitz was a features editor. Taber also served as managing editor in fall 2016.

They shared their first impressions of each other from that spring.

“She was probably the best writer on features, definitely the most timely,” Taber said. “She was really cute.”

“I thought Jake was funny, and I really enjoyed attending his features meetings. They were casual, and it was just a fun time to hang out,” Leibowitz said.

Their friendship grew during that semester, but they did not start dating until the summer when they reconnected at an off-campus party, according to Taber.

Junior year brought about logistical challenges, as Taber was in China in the fall and Leibowitz went to Copenhagen in the spring, but they were able to make it work and spend time with each other during the year.

“When I was [in Copenhagen], we got a chance to have a nice trip. We went around Europe — it was a nice, romantic trip,” Taber said.

While they did not overlap much in terms of social circles or activities outside of the Daily, they had plenty of shared interests and compatible traits just from their time on the Daily that has kept the relationship going.

“[The Daily], especially in features, pushes people to think about the community that we’re in and the way that Tufts and Tufts students are a part of that community,” Leibowitz said. “I always found it interesting to hear Jake’s ideas and thoughts at those [section] meetings.”

“It’s such an operation that [the Daily] is instantly something that you bond with another person over,” Taber added.

It has been a season of transitions for the Boston-area couple: They recently started new jobs and also moved in together for the first time. Taber writes for Public Interest GRFX, the communications arm of the Public Interest Network. Leibowitz works as an early child educator for the Somerville Family Learning Collaborative and hopes to go to graduate school soon.

“What comes next depends on whatever city [Becca] ends up going to grad school in,” Taber said.

Through it all, the Daily has remained close to their hearts.

“I’m grateful to the Daily for a lot of reasons, including for letting me meet Becca,” Taber said.

Denise Drower Swidey and Neil Swidey

Courtesy Ota Richter

Unlike the other alumni featured, Denise Drower Swidey (LA’90) and Neil Swidey (LA’91) did not meet on the Daily. Drower Swidey was photo editor at the Daily in 198889, but Swidey was the Tufts Observer’s managing editor in fall 1988 and editor in chief in spring 1989. They did, however, meet because of the Daily.

The day was Oct. 11, 1988. The presidential election was looming, and Tufts had invited Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis for a town hall in Cohen Auditorium. Drower Swidey was assigned to cover this event for the Daily. Swidey was there as a reporter from the Observer.

“Just to show how exciting this event was, I took a picture of [ABC News reporter] Sam Donaldson, who was a national broadcast star in his own right. And I just showed how this was so awesome, that here he was in Cohen Auditorium,” Drower Swidey said.

Little did she know that she happened to get Swidey in the background of the photo, furiously taking notes behind Donaldson.

Denise Drower Swidey / The Tufts Daily Archives

“I didn’t know Neil at the time, but I was with the photo editor on [the Observer], and he said, ‘Oh my God, you’ve got a picture of Sam Donaldson and it’s got Neil in it. Can you print a copy of it and give it to me?'” Drower Swidey said.

At the event, Swidey had his own encounter with Donaldson, who was sitting in front of him.

“[Donaldson] just kept turning around and asking these bizarre questions like, ‘What is Tufts known for?'” Swidey said. “It was kind of funny when I came back to the office and was telling people how loud Sam Donaldson was, and … the photo editor for the Observer showed me the photo with me in it.”

Meanwhile, Drower Swidey and Swidey continued seeing each other at different campus events covering for their respective publications.

“I thought she was cute,” Swidey said.

“Likewise, I thought the same,” Drower Swidey added.

The two acquaintances finally met while studying for midterms late one night in Wessell Library, the predecessor to Tisch Library, in fall 1989.

“Everyone around me in this whole room looked like they were beaten down by … midterms, and as I was leaving, I walked by this table with Denise looking sunny and bright at 2 a.m. in the morning. She offered me fresh strawberries and said ‘I just went to the farmer’s market in Haymarket today.’ I was mystified that someone could be so cheery that late,” Swidey said. “I just mumbled something about how [former U.S. President] Zachary Taylor died by eating berries one day, and she looked perplexed.”

“I was confused because he knew a lot about presidential trivia, and I was just offering some strawberries,” Drower Swidey said. “I told Neil that I didn’t think anybody could ever use Zachary Taylor’s death as a pickup line … A couple days later was Homecoming and we ended up in the stands near each other and started chatting.”

The two started dating shortly afterwards, a whole year after their chance encounter at the Dukakis event.

With both of them coming from rival publications, Drower Swidey joked that they were like a modern day “Romeo and Juliet.” But the competition between the Daily and the Observer was always collegial, Swidey remarked.

“If you work in campus media, it’s a fairly small community. You sometimes bumped into each other,” Swidey said. “We started having regular baseball, softball games, basketball games between the Daily and the Observer.”

The intensity of their work with campus publications certainly created a closer bond and shared passion for the community.

“There is no way to get to know a college campus as well as you do by covering it. Both of us were intensely involved in our publications,” Swidey said. “You meet people you wouldn’t otherwise meet, and look for stories you wouldn’t otherwise see. We both like to meet people and we both like to get a sense of … where we are and to understand the place around us.”

Unlike in “Romeo and Juliet,” the couple married in August 1995 at Goddard Chapel. Swidey is currently staff writer at the Boston Globe Magazine, continuing to pursue his passion for long-form journalism first honed while on the Observer. Drower Swidey, who went to the Culinary Institute of America after graduating from Tufts, works in food media and produces several food shows on PBS.

And what happened to that photo of Swidey and Donaldson?

“It was Christmas 1989. Denise came down to my parents’ house to visit and saw the picture there,” Swidey said.

“I saw that … my very photograph has been framed and was sitting on top of their mantle. So his parents enjoyed it,” Drower Swidey said. “Back in those days, we had no digital photography, so it’s not like I could just send it to Neil … Maybe if it was the modern era, we wouldn’t have met.”