Leaving the newsroom for the classroom
To the typical pragmatic Singaporean, the notion of leaving a stable job and going to school on your own dime is probably ill-conceived. Call me an idealist, or a brat, but that was what I did. After working for five years, four of which were as a reporter at TODAY, I left my job two months ago to pursue a masters in documentary journalism in New York City.
To the typical pragmatic Singaporean, the notion of leaving a stable job and going to school on your own dime is probably ill-conceived.
Call me an idealist, or a brat, but that was what I did. After working for five years, four of which were as a reporter at TODAY, I left my job two months ago to pursue a masters in documentary journalism in New York City.
I was at a point in my career where my legs were shuffling. And I wanted to enhance my versatility as a reporter, such as by equipping myself with audio-visual skills and cutting my teeth in data journalism — a field American media outlets are known for.
To be sure, returning to school as a relatively “mature” student was not a clear-cut decision for me.
The hefty six-figure tuition cost weighed on me. It does not help that I would be based in one of the most expensive cities in the world — home to US$15 (S$20.60) sandwiches and with rents for apartments starting at US$3,200.
Journalism is not a high-paying field and I could not have saved much over the years. Furthermore, I am not allowed to work here because of stringent restrictions the United States authorities impose on international students.
One acquaintance, a Singaporean who graduated from this same programme a decade ago, even advised against the move “unless you have a trust fund in your name”.
Also, as someone pushing 30, I did briefly wonder if I am too old for school and whether this year-long course will help me fulfil my dream of working as a journalist outside Singapore.
Then I realised that age is actually an argument for going back to class.
Having worked in journalism for a while, I have a better idea of my strengths, as well as the gaps I want plugged so that I can be better at what I do.
I believe this can help me set more specific and realistic goals in the year ahead.
For instance, the school offers a dizzying array of classes, and the 23-year-old me might have wanted to take them all.
Now, however, my choices are geared towards acquiring new skills — I'd passed on most classes centered on writing breaking news or for print, which I am relatively familiar with.
Instead, I am enrolled in a documentary specialisation, which I believe will challenge me to tell stories in a different way.
I believe my work experience will help me navigate my coursework and learn to deal with challenges common to this profession better.
While I deliberately chose a programme with a strong practical component (no textbooks, phew), returning to the classroom can make for a fruitful sabbatical.
After all, the school offers a relatively "safe environment" to experiment with ideas and projects that will not make or break careers.
Being among younger people — I was surprised that a significant proportion of coursemates are fresh out of undergraduate education — also makes life a little more vibrant.
Apart from the draws of pursuing a journalism education in the US, I wanted to experience life abroad for a while before I get too "comfortable", personally and professionally.
Being in a familiar environment for too long sometimes prevents us from growing.
Thus far, being thrust into a city so different from Singapore has been quite exhilarating.
Being exposed to different political norms in one of the country's "bluest" cities — New York City is dominated by political liberals and a Democrat leadership — and extensive socioeconomic disparities may require me to "un-learn" some tricks of the journalism trade back home.
The country’s current political climate clearly makes now a great time to study journalism in the US, where media outlets are waking up to their role as watchdogs of the authorities.
This will make a valuable experience for me, coming from a different media environment in Singapore.
I am already excited about making requests under the federal Freedom of Information Act, which gives access to all records of federal agencies in the executive branch, except when those records fall within one of nine categories of exemption.
In a programme with a highly international candidature, I have also been forced to socialise with people who do not look like me, who have challenged my preconceived notions and inspired me to consider different angles for journalism.
I hope the reverse is true too.
Over the past month here as a minority student, for instance, I have found myself constantly correcting peers' and instructors' assumption that English is not my first language, just because I do not speak with Yankee or British accents.
I hope these experiences will build up my confidence of being in my own skin, as well as make me more sensitive and respectful toward minority groups when I eventually return.
While I will not graduate until next year, I hope to work as a journalist outside Singapore for a while, and perhaps the degree will give me a leg up on that.
Eventually, I still plan to go home — hopefully by then I will be able to share some of the good practices from reporting abroad with colleagues in Singapore.
And as I constantly stress out over when, or whether, I will ever be able to repay the loans I had taken out for school, some experiences simply cannot be measured in dollars and cents.
To quote the parting words a former editor left for me: "The only way to make the costs less of a concern, is to ensure that the rewards are worth far more."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Kelly Ng is a former TODAY reporter.