How I Met Journalism

It’s always interesting to look back and discover how one small thing alone would turn out to have a big impact on a person’s life. One event, one conversion, or even just one warm smile from a stranger can be a significant turning point.

Looking back from where I am now, my turning point in life was proven to be the Journalism class that I took during my one-year exchange at the University of Maine at Farmington (UMF) in the United States.

(The Merrill Hall of UMF. Photo by Siran Liang)

As an English major, I knew from the moment I entered college that I wanted to join one of the exchange programs offered by the university in some English-speaking country to better hone my skills in English language. But initially, Maine was not in my plan.

We chose our exchange program in the order of our GPA ranking — he who had the highest GPA got to choose first. The US schools are always the most popular destinations. While the cream-of-the-crop students in our class competed for the University of California schools, I went for a less competitive program which was of the University of Queensland in Australia, but I was proven wrong after I failed in the interview later. At the time when I was trying to accept the fact that I would not have an exchange for one semester of my college years, the email introducing the one-year UMF program came in.

I had never heard of the school. In fact, I knew very little about the state of Maine. Another fact, no one from our Foreign Languages and Literature College had ever been to that school — it was the first year of the program, and no one showed any interests in a school “unheard of”, me included. So when the dean of our department, Prof. Sun first asked me when told I couldn’t make it to Australia, if I was considering the UMF program, I hesitated.

“What is UMF like?”

“It’s a good liberal arts college. Other than that, we don’t know exactly. You can do some research by yourself.”

None of the professors has ever been there, I was told. The respectable former president of UMF came to Fudan a year before and completed the final procedure of launching this exchange program which had been on the agenda for years of negotiation.

“You would be the first person from Fudan to go there, and you would let future students know what UMF is like.”

Somehow his words hit me.

I went back and did what he suggested. I researched on UMF and when I saw the pictures of Maine’s gorgeous lakes and mountains where students went for excursions, I decided to go. I wanted to see Maine by myself.

(Overlooking from the French’s Mountains in Maine. Photo by Siran Liang)

Though I didn’t know what exactly would come in this one-year program, I knew I was excited about it. I had the feeling that it would be an important experience for me and that I would regret it if I didn’t go.

Therefore even having to take the risk of not being able to graduate with my classmates due to the long time span of the program and the complicated credit transfer problem, I submitted my application, got the admission, obtained a Visa, and finally set off for Maine in August on my own.

Now I have to jump to the spring semester as I could go on for dozen more pages on my stories with Maine and UMF that happened during the first half of my stay there, which, however much I would love to do so, would be horrible digressions.

To sum up briefly, for the first semester at UMF, I immersed myself completely in literature — poems, myths, and works of Ancient Greek philosophers. And I decided to try something different, something other than academic writing on literature for the second semester just to get myself familiar with more varieties of English writing.

An intention simple as such led me to the Journalism course, to the many stories that last till present, and to still many more to come in future.

I had imagined a bunch of freaking-out situations before the course started, for example, failing to pitch ideas, being rejected by potential interviewees, stuck in the writing, missing deadlines, etc. But all went step by step, and all worked out fine. We started from a press conference with the editor-in-chief and the assistant editor of the school’s newspaper, Farmington Flyer, who were then both students, and shared their stories with journalism and the Flyer. Then we moved on to all tips and tricks about AP style of writing. There were five big reporting assignments for the semester, each followed by an in-class review session during which half of the groups’ news stories would be read and discussed by other group members and the editor once finished. In-class interview and writing practices were not unusual. We had discussions on journalism ethics as it appeared in different scenarios. We talked about libel, freedom of press, journalism access, and risks and challenges confronting journalists today by reviewing real-world cases and watching documentaries like Page One.

I bet most journalism schools share a rather similar curriculum. For me, it was like a new world had opened up. For the first time, I was truly amazed at how much I was able to do with journalism — that is, to express my views and understanding of the society, and to better reach out to the people I am concerned about, even though I was just doing journalism in such a small town and a small school in the remote northeast of the US.

(Three news stories published on the Farmington Flyer. For further reading, you may check out the links here:Study Abroad Opportunities at UMF, New Club Brings Pottery to UMF, From Paul Bunyan to Ourselves.)

Among the five news articles I did for assignments, three got published on the Flyer, which were great encouragements for me to continue writing. My favorite, is From Paul Bunyan to Ourselves, a story on a new and pilot course at UMF called “Rethinking Paul Bunyan” which tried to re-interpret the Paul Bunyan myth. The students were inspired to re-think the relation between human and nature, to establish and cherish their own identity and culture, and to take on their responsibilities to preserve the cultures. I joined the six-hour Saturday course with the instructors’ permission one weekend after days of research of this lumberjack character called Paul Bunyan from North American folklores whom I had never heard of before. It turned out that I was totally into the Paul Bunyan story not only as a reporter or a student enrolled in the course, but as a traveler who trod into the jungle of history of human civilization. Observing the course discussion I realized again as I did before by reading literature, yet more deeply this time, that all cultures, however different they may appear, are fundamentally connected, and share a common goal — that is, seeking for the ultimate meaning of existence.

At that point, the idea of pursuing journalism for my graduate study began to take root in me. The more I looked into journalism, the more I found it important for me to dig deep into the society, to gradually get rid of the ignorant self, and to believe in its capabilities to build connections between people and bring about positive changes while at the same time seeing the ugly side of the world as it is. Journalism provides no answers for my queries about this world, as I am aware. It is itself a query, a state of seeking. It is this of journalism that keeps me spellbound and determined to join the journey.

(Me in the JMSC hoodie. Photo by Shen Zhefan)

Oct. 14, 2015

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