The University of Iowa

In the news: I thought studying journalism outside of China would open doors. Now I’m not so sure.

April 20th, 2018

Journalists have to stand outside the crowded press conference room for the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 2, 2013.


By Shen Lu, China File

Six years ago as I was about to begin my undergraduate career at The University of Iowa majoring in journalism, a fellow Chinese student who’d switched her major from communications studies to business ruthlessly doubted my choice.

“How on earth will you be able to compete against your American classmates?” she asked. “You probably won’t even find a job back home.”

Harsh as she sounded, she had a point.

For two months last summer, I lived in a state of constant worry and stress. I was on a full-time internship in New York while completing my Master’s in journalism at Northwestern University. I spent nearly all my spare time applying for jobs, networking—something I had to force myself to do—and going on job interviews.

It was profoundly depressing. I felt up in the air while the time ticked away. At night, I’d dream of job offers—strangely, not rejection letters—and even more strangely, the Federal Reserve short-term interest rates. On weekends when I was too antsy to stay in my Harlem sublet, I’d flee to my neighborhood bakery and devour their massive dark chocolate chip cookies; and I don’t even like cookies.

I had studied journalism as an undergraduate at the University of Iowa. I’d heard of its prestigious Writer’s Workshop, but I didn’t know much about the school when I applied. I didn’t care that it was surrounded by cornfields; I just hoped I would save my parents tuition money by avoiding private schools on the coasts. Journalism was an unpopular major among Chinese students (and among all international students). I chose it because I was curious about American society and culture and hoped it would help improve my English.

Shortly after I graduated, I returned to China to work for an international news organization’s Beijing bureau. I started out as a news assistant, a common job title for Chinese nationals working for foreign news outlets, often dubbed “Chinese secretaries,” or “zhongmi” in Chinese. I didn’t just do secretarial work; I was able to report, write, and produce with colleagues whom I enjoyed working with and respected. I loved the job and worked hard at it, but it also frustrated me profoundly. I faced pressure, hassle, disappointment, and sometimes fear because of my citizenship.

Eventually, there was basically no room for me to grow past the “assistant” role in the foreign media system. I also worried the job would become even riskier as civil society continued to deteriorate in China. Even though I knew at the time my foreign status would largely exclude me from employment at American media outlets, I decided to return to the U.S. to study journalism as a graduate student.