Now in its 27th year, AAJA Voices is a student program that provides aspiring journalists with career-ready skills to succeed in the continually-evolving media landscape. By nurturing relationships between students and professional volunteers, Voices also gives students the opportunity to tap into mentors’ networks and begin their own while also providing AAJA journalists leadership and management opportunities. 

Making the best out of our college journalism experiences

By Farnoush Amiri, Michael Lee, Shafaq Patel & Amanda Zhou

Our reporting for AAJA VOICES looks into the educational and racial diversity in newsroom internships and what it means to become a successful candidate for them. Each one of us on the investigative team have diverse and unique tales of how we ended up where we are today. Some of us went to private schools and some of us went to public universities. We all had varied internship and work experience and believe that while where you came from is important, it should not be indicative of where you end up or how successful you are. This is why we chose to pursue this topic. In this blog post, we are going to take you behind the scenes of our own journeys.

Farnoush Amiri

The university I attended as an undergraduate student mirrored me in so many ways. It was eclectic, not willing to conform, open-minded and distant. It also had one of the few journalism programs in the state of California. But it was a state school and even as I watched all of my friends attend UCLA, UC Irvine and UC Berkeley, I knew at the time I had to make the right choice for the major I wanted to pursue. My time at San Francisco State University helped shape me into the person I am today, for better and for worse. 

I wouldn’t say my experience was perfect or everything I imagined. I wish I had more resources and pursued more high-level internships in the Bay Area. I wish I had been more prepared for the rocky and unforgiving journalism industry I would be stepping into. I also resent not having the supportive mentors and faculty that I believe are incremental to success, both while in school and once you graduate. I, like many others, graduated unprepared for the industry I was yearning to succeed in. This led me to graduate school, where I first understood what it takes to make it in this industry and how competitive it is. I received my first major bylines while as a master’s candidate at New York University. My editors at NBC News, The Orange County Register and The Hollywood Reporter believed in me and advocated for me more than any of my undergraduate professors. That is why graduate school felt necessary and has been the catalyst to my success. For others, it's not the case. 

I think educational diversity in newsrooms could be the difference between an open and closed door for students around the country. There are smart, innovative and diverse voices in state, public, private and Ivy league universities, in every corner and community around this country, and major news organizations should reflect that. It is the only way to produce journalism representative of the country we are reporting for and on. 

Michael Lee

When I was applying to colleges for my undergraduate degree, I applied to various journalism schools, ranging from Northwestern and NYU, to the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. After I got rejected from these J-schools, I decided to go to Ohio State University, a land-grant, state university in Columbus, Ohio. I made the choice because my dad works there, and therefore I get a tuition discount. As a high school student, my understanding of journalism was that to succeed in the industry, you had to go to a top journalism school. So, seeing that I was going to Ohio State, which I didn’t see as a “journalism school,” I changed my major to music education. But after I found out that performing music wasn’t for me, I decided to give Ohio State’s journalism program a chance. I’m glad I did.

Despite Ohio State not having a journalism school (it was dissolved years before I arrived; the major was absorbed by the School of Communication) I personally feel like my two years in the program prepared me well in the internship application process. There, I wrote for my student paper, The Lantern, and produced many of what I felt were application-worthy clips. We had to take a class for the major that required us to write for the student paper, something my program did that I later found out was not the case at many other journalism schools. During my first year in the program, I was able to secure myself an internship at my local NPR station as an intern producer for one of the talk shows, due to a recommendation from my professor for the position as well as the skills I developed my first semester. My second year in the program — and my last year as an undergraduate student — I also worked as an editor for my student paper, where I copy edited reporters’ stories, as well as was responsible for one myself.  After accruing clips over a two-year span, becoming the president of my local Society of Professional Journalists chapter and honing editing skills, I was able to land an internship at my local metro paper, the Columbus Dispatch. There, I work alongside students from schools considered more “elite,” such as Ohio University, Northwestern and Miami University.

While I am going to be heading to Northwestern to get my master’s degree in the fall so I can potentially teach in the future, I feel like everything I learned at Ohio State prepared me well enough to get a job post-internship if I had decided not to go to graduate school. To me, it doesn’t matter what J-school or what college that someone goes to in order to pursue a journalism degree. It’s what you make out of the experience yourself, with the clips and experiences you choose to gain.

Shafaq Patel

Around the time I was applying to undergraduate programs, College Factual ranked Emerson at the top of its journalism college list. While that list put Emerson on my mind and was a reason I applied to the college, I committed to the school instead of the other schools on that list because I truly believed I could belong at Emerson. The small liberal arts college was everything my high school was not — it was artsy, in the middle of the city, and had passionate and dedicated students who were loud and ambitious. I’m grateful that I chose to be a part of that scene because it helped sculpt me, which inherently — and I think positively — impacted my reporting style.

During my time at Emerson, I have immersed myself in the campus organizations. I knew with certainty that I would join the college paper, The Berkeley Beacon. After a few semesters on staff, I served as news editor then editor-in-chief. The Beacon offered me a place to hone my reporting and writing skills and gave me the opportunity to help lead the paper’s transition to a digital-first mindset. I’m fortunate that I made strong connections with the people on the student paper — they became my mentors and friends and guided me through the internship process and helped me get bylines at local publications.

While Emerson has good journalism classes and I thankfully have peers and professors that have helped me, I don’t think Emerson is known nationally for its journalism program. While one of my friends interned at The New York Times, most of my peers went to The Boston Globe or local publications and broadcast stations. Local publications are wonderful opportunities, and I am so grateful for my bylines and everything I am learning at these places. However, I hope the fact that many of my school’s alumni have not worked at national papers and magazines does not hinder me or my classmates from getting a shot at our dreams.

Amanda Zhou

The first time I met more than one or two college students who wanted to seriously pursue a career in journalism was last year. I had flown from a still-warming New England to Nashville as a part of the Chips Quinn Scholars program. I was the only student who wasn’t majoring in communications or journalism. I studied a major that was a combination of statistics, political science and public policy and loved it. There was nothing else I could imagine majoring in even if my school had a journalism program. 

Part of the reason I chose Dartmouth College was because of its daily newspaper and the school’s outdoor setting. I had always been interested in journalism in high school but I wasn’t ready to commit my entire undergraduate education to one career. I wanted to try a variety of classes in college — everything from computer science to English to biology to economics. When I was ready to take the leap into this uncertain market, I felt like I had little guidance on how to do so. Of course, Dartmouth, an Ivy League school, is an elite institution by definition and that privilege helped me get into journalism. I owe my first newspaper internship, which was the launching point for my career, to an alumni connection.

Dartmouth is an elite school but I but I didn’t know many people who cared about journalism enough to pursue it as a career. I didn’t have journalism professors to introduce me to editors or write me recommendations about my work as a reporter. Even at the student newspaper, there were rarely more than a handful of students who had tried an editorial internship. My lifeline through the internship application process was my friend at the paper, Annie Ma, who was two years older than me. She patiently edited all my cover letters, answered endless questions about publications and explained how reporters network. 

I’m glad I went to Dartmouth and I’m lucky that I’ve made it this far in journalism. But I hope that when editors choose their interns, it’s not because of some words on the screen — whether that’s a prestigious school or specific internship — but rather the drive, experiences and promise their interns have.

Farnoush Amiri, Michael Lee, Shafaq Patel & Amanda Zhou are 2019 Voices Students. Farnoush Amiri is a reporter and bilingual journalist based in New York City. She recently graduated with a masters in investigative journalism from New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Michael Lee is a graduating senior at Ohio State University with a degree in Public Affairs Journalism and will be attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University starting in the fall. Shafaq Patel is a senior studying journalism at Emerson College and will be editor-in-chief of a campus lifestyle magazine. Amanda Zhou will graduate from Dartmouth College in June 2019 after studying quantitative social science and public policy.

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