Welcome to Office Hours, a series brought to you by the Features Section! In these articles, Argus writers speak to faculty, staff, and members of the administration about their interests, classes, and lives on and off campus.
After graduating from Wesleyan with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies, Rajaa Elidrissi ’16 went on to work for ProPublica and NBCUniversal. Now she is back as a Koeppel Journalism Fellow teaching a class in the Center for the Study of Public Life entitled “Reporting on Global Issues: International Journalism in Action.” She graduated from Columbia Journalism School last year and now works as a full-time research producer at Vox, where she specializes in global issues and foreign affairs. The Argus spoke with Professor Elidrissi about growing up in New York City, the origins of her interest in journalism, and her experience being back at Wesleyan.
The Argus: Did experiences during your childhood inspire you to follow this specific career path?
Rajaa Elidrissi: Well, I grew up in New York City, and one of my earliest memories of a news moment was when 9/11 happened. I’m Muslim-American, and this meant that from a very early age I had to start watching the news with a certain kind of lens. For example, during the George Bush and Al Gore election when I was around eight years old, I remember drawing connections between the war on terror and 9/11. I also had a brother who was in the military when I was younger, who passed away, which forced me to engage personally with these global issues. My dad worked as a bellhop at a very famous hotel called the Waldorf Astoria where he was always welcoming world leaders, presidents, and prime ministers. Through all of these different circumstances, a lot of information about the world was thrown at me at a very young age, which improved my news literacy. I was also obsessed with “Gilmore Girls,” but as I got older, I realized that she was actually a really bad journalist, and I thought “Oh, if she can do this, I can definitely do this.”
In high school, I went to an academic enhancement program at Princeton that took 20 students from around the country. The first article I wrote was an opinion piece about a mosque called the Park51 project that people were trying to build right next to the site of the World Trade Center. There were a lot of protests against it. I wrote a piece arguing that the mosque should be built based on a constitutional premise. My childhood experiences inspired me to write this piece, and it was really the first time I got to write news that wasn’t about what was happening at my high school. From then on, I kept following the news to see what was going on in the Middle East, South Asia, and the majority of countries in Africa.
A: Did your perspective growing up make you approach media and news with a more critical lens?
RE: I think that critical lens happened as I got older. I saw news about Guantánamo Bay, about the invasion in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq. I started questioning why the United States was at war in these countries when I knew, and my parents knew, that the people who committed 9/11 weren’t actually from those same countries. A big news event that triggered a lot of criticism and questions for me was when the Bush administration caught Saddam Hussein and hanged him publicly. I remember my parents expressing that while he was a bad guy, he wasn’t actually involved with 9/11. I slowly began asking questions that my parents were also asking, even if the media was saying something different, and finding answers to those questions then influenced my criticism of American policies post-9/11.
A: What sparked your interest in reporting on specifically global issues?
RE: When you’re from New York, yes, you’re American, but you don’t really feel American because of all the ethnic enclaves there. My parents being Moroccan fed into that feeling for me. Everyone here is from a different country, even if they’re not from the Middle East. In Queens, I didn’t really feel like I was learning about the U.S. I learned more about Bangladesh and India. I learned “Why is there beef between India and Pakistan?” or “Why is there beef between Pakistan and Bangladesh? What’s happening in Colombia?” My surroundings, my upbringing, and what my parents consumed influenced my interest in reporting on global issues.
A: What was it like to enter the workforce after leaving the University? What were some of the jobs you had before getting your current position at Vox?
RE: After Wesleyan, I really wanted to move abroad and do foreign reporting, or move to Washington, D.C. But then I couldn’t go because my dad got very sick and I had to live with him. Then I found a video job at CNBC, which I had mixed feelings about. But I learned a lot of editing skills, and I had a really amazing boss that advocated for me for future jobs. It taught me how to multitask and work in high pressure environments, and how to work on topics that maybe I don’t want to report on. Then I worked at CNBC headquarters, and had a stint at MSNBC on The Rachel Maddow Show. Those jobs weren’t for me. I missed the creativity of being able to work on video projects. But I found ways to report on global issues, like how refugees in Jordan can use blockchain to buy groceries. I applied to Vox during my time at CNBC, when I was really down about my career trajectory. I was like, “I need to be in the foreign reporting space. Somehow, I need to do it.” I got a very nice rejection email, but then I kept bothering them every six months. Then I eventually got a job at Vox in 2018. Once I got the job, I jumped into doing research and associate producing. And that was amazing. I decided to apply to Columbia and stay at Vox at the same time to get a skill set around teaching. So a lot of post-grad experience was finding my way back to foreign reporting and kind of finding ways to stick with it, be more comfortable, and how to advance my knowledge of this space and medium.
A: Can you tell us about your decision to come back to the University and teach a class? Have you noticed substantial changes in the school since you were a student?
RE: Well, I was a guest speaker for the Koeppel Fellowship in Journalism program in 2019, so I already had a relationship with the fellowship program. I got my master’s in journalism recently, and the purpose of doing that was to teach. I was looking for teaching jobs when the Koeppel Fellowship was offered to me for this fall. It was a very easy decision for me to say yes. I was really happy to accept it.
It feels good being back. I’ve seen a lot more diverse faculty, and the students that I’m interacting with are really interested in journalism as a career. When I was at Wesleyan, the students around me didn’t think about it as a career option. I knew I wanted to be a journalist, but I wasn’t around that many people who engaged in it as seriously as I did. And from speaking to current students, I’m realizing that the students here do engage with the news. It’s nice to be in a space with such curious students, where I don’t have to explain the global issues that we’re talking about.
A: What advice would you give to college students who are interested in pursuing a career in journalism?
RE: If you think you’re going to be a journalist, even just a little bit, make sure that you have at least one journalism internship throughout your college career so that you have people to recommend you. And yes, being on your school paper is amazing, but it’s not required. It shines brighter to seek out fellowships and pitch to publications as an undergrad. I have a really great friend who’s at The New York Times now, who was published in The New York Times three times before she even finished undergrad. She didn’t need to go to graduate school in journalism. She was set. Just because you’re on a college campus doesn’t mean you can’t do great reporting from where you are.
Come listen to Professor Elidrissi share more about her life and career in journalism at The Wesleyan Argus Speaker Series on Oct. 17 at 4:30 p.m.!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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