To Return Or Not: A UC Berkeley Journalism Student (And CapRadio Intern) Considers Grad School During COVID | #students | #parents

Ashlea Brown was a CapRadio newsroom intern this summer and is a grad student at UC Berkeley. She shares her thoughts preparing for a very different college experience.

Life at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism has looked and felt different in more ways than one due to COVID-19. We jumped right into remote learning as soon as Alameda County and most of California went on a shelter-in-place order. I haven’t seen the inside of a classroom since March 9. Lately, I wake up every morning, click on Zoom links and spend my days navigating this new way of learning. It felt weird to the point that I even drove up to the “J-school” to see if this was really happening. 

The campus was gray, Northgate Hall dim and gloomy. Gone were the cheery, student-filled benches. Doors were locked. The idea of walking the halls or shuffling between classes is becoming a distant memory as I begin my second and final fall semester this week — remotely.

I still have some concerns. How will I access reporting equipment? Will there be in-person opportunities for reporting? How will remote learning go? Many questions remain unanswered, but I decided to go with the flow and push myself to return despite many classmates who are taking a year off. 

One classmate, Michaela Vatcheva, decided taking a “gap year” was the best. Vatcheva is on the documentary filmmaking track at the J-school and says, when remote learning happened back in the spring, the shift of the track was more writing intensive, which made it difficult for her to do visual work and accomplish the goals of an aspiring filmmaker. 

“So, I jumped on the opportunity to practice my writing,” Vatcheva said. “But I noticed quickly that, if I stayed in school, I was going to end up pivoting and becoming a writer rather than finishing what I came for, which was to deepen my visual skills.”

Vatcheva left mid-career from PBS Wisconsin to return to grad school in 2019. She was looking forward to finishing J-school in two years; however, with the pandemic, it’s forced her to re-evaluate her goals. She’s also pregnant, and her husband has a chronic illness, which puts him at higher risk for the virus and limits her ability to do reporting.

She says many of her classmates were willing to take a chance, thinking that they were “a frontline worker,” and that reporting involves an element of risk.

“People like us can’t even be brave if we’re trying to be,” Vatcheva said of her situation. “I have sworn to uphold the ethics of journalism and tell these stories as they happen, and to witness these stories. And they [the classmates] were able to go to the front lines and do that, and I noticed that this was not gonna be my fight. This was not going to be my war.”

Most J-school attendees did not expect grad school to be like this, but students like Ande Richards decided to still give it a go.

An incoming first-year student into the J-School, Richards is focusing on the documentary track after years of hoping to return to school. The pandemic hit just as she got the news she was accepted, but it’s affected her in numerous ways. 

One way being remote has been advantageous: saving money. Richards is currently in Southern California and says she didn’t have to stress about the cost of moving to the Bay Area, and has been able to easily cover the cost of attendance without loans.

“The downside, I don’t get to meet people like you,” she told me. “I have to do it over Zoom call, which is not the same thing at all.

“I was, I’m looking forward to meeting my classmates. I know from experience at other things that I’ve done that those are the most valuable connections.”

Richards has already had to cancel her thesis project idea, due to the difficulty of traveling due to COVID-19. She also believes some reporting shouldn’t be done remotely.

“It’s not good for a journalist to be comfortable, first of all, or to not engage,” Richards said. 

You also never know who you’ll bump into. 

She shared a story of before the pandemic, when she was shooting an assignment at the Los Angeles Opera. “I was talking to people in the orchestra pit. They were rehearsing,” Richards recalled. “ I turn around. … It’s Placido, Domingo. Like, a world-renowned opera star, you know, and I got a couple of words with him … for me that was gold.”

Despite the downside of being remote, Richards is still looking forward to beginning grad school and hopes staff will be there to support students during this very different learning opportunity.

Before classes began on Wednesday, the J-school had its orientation for first-year students, and welcome-back sessions for returnees, and a J-school mixer where all students will get to virtually connect and mingle. Many things will look different this fall, but the J-school and the UC Berkeley campus has and still is working on ways to help students.

Dr. Tracy Pascua Dea, the senior director of student services at the J-school, says she has worked through the summer to prepare for remote learning.

“In some ways, it’s kind of like building a piece of artwork or something. So, you spend this whole summer cultivating the relationships with the incoming students and making sure that you all as second years are connected, and then you do it and you implement it,” Dea said.

She and other faculty held weekly office hours this summer to offer an ear to students. Since June, there have been bi-weekly meetings, called “What’s Up Wednesdays,” which allowed students and alumni to connect. 

Dea says one upside of virtual Zooms has been able to connect with people all over the world.

“Somebody was calling in from Greece. … They were calling in from Mexico, New York. You couldn’t have that kind of panel,” said Dea, who added that most panels in the past have involved journalists from the Bay Area.

She realizes, however, student concerns about not being able to get human interaction or hands-on training, as well as the flood of emails, Zooms and meetings, which can feel overwhelming.

I definitely felt overwhelmed when remote learning began in the spring and am beginning to get those same jitters again now. It’s been a flood of emails and information, and it’s easy to miss something. I think when I get in the groove of things, I will feel comfortable. 

I already got an email last week for a class asking for students to come prepared with two pitches for a final project of up to 4,000 words, and that’s when it hit me: “Wow, this is really happening, I need to get my mind back on school. Just because it’s remote doesn’t mean the work stops.”

Unlike many of my cohort members, I am one of few students who are young and came right out of undergrad. I have no real professional experience in journalism. I worried during this whole pandemic if I decided not to return to school: “Do I have enough on my resume to feel confident enough to get hired somewhere?” My answer was no.  

My experience lies within a summer internship at a small newspaper back in my hometown, working editorial positions for my undergraduate college newspaper and now wrapping up a summer internship at NPR member station CapRadio in Sacramento. I felt I needed more of a reporting foundation to tell compelling stories. I wanted to be in J-school and learn from others. I am hoping to still gain a full educational experience even if it’s behind a screen.

There have been amazing reporting opportunities, including with the UC Berkeley Investigative Reporting Program and The New York Times. This past March, David Barstow of the IRP and others developed an idea for students to report on this historic moment, and 80 classmates and I started collecting data and reporting stories on different counties throughout California. This is when I realized what it is to be a journalist. 

Professors and students jumped on the opportunity, and we committed full schedules to the project. Some classes even wrapped up so we could do this reporting. That was an overwhelming time for me, because I had no clue what to do, but it was also great because it taught me that anything is possible. It felt like a real job: I’d wake up, start making calls to hospitals, officials and health experts within my county; take a quick lunch break; and then continue calling and Googling. 

Yes, that first year at Berkeley was chaotic. But it was also exciting. And I made it through. But now, I have hopes the school will be able to learn from the trial and test era of this pandemic this past March, and create a better space for this remote learning this coming year.


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