Why the hell do you want to go to grad school?

August 3rd, 2012

I get emails and tweets like this on a fairly regular basis. People often ask how difficult it is to get into the Columbia J-School; what they never ask is how difficult it is during the school year, or how difficult things can be after.

My first question is always, “Why do you want to go?” I’ve heard a number of reasons from people: It’s the best J-School in the world (this is always a big debate, but at the very least, it’s the home of the Pulitzer Prize). “It was a childhood dream to go to Columbia.” To “improve my craft.”

I can’t blame them, having wanted to go to the Columbia J-School since 2008 — a year after I graduated from university. But I’ve been on multiple ups and downs in my journey to get to the school, to survive the school year, and to figure out what to do after graduation. Needless to say, I do not recommend it if you want to go to the J-School for the sake of putting that shiny Ivy League-decorated line on your resume. It is a waste of time and money.

Ah, money. First things first: It’s expensive. You’re paying more than $55,000 for 10 months of torture, and for most people, that’s a debt that will be paid over the course of 5-10 years. That does not include board and lodging, which can run up to about $25,000 more — and good luck finding an affordable place to live in New York. I cannot overstate the cost of studying here to potential international students, because salaries back home may not be good enough to pay off student loans acquired in the U.S.

So I got a scholarship. But that was after I deferred for a year and spent the time gathering more work experience and applying for scholarships. I spent even more money on association memberships (some scholarships require you to be part of their organization) and sending documents by FedEx. By some miracle, I got the Jack R. Howard fellowship from the Scripps foundation, which covered roughly 75 percent of the tuition. The rest of it was supplemented by my parents, and I used my savings to pay for food and rent (with generous help from family, again). I got the cheapest and most respectable apartment I could find on Craigslist — I found university housing a little steep — and hauled myself to New York City. The dean who was in charge of my scholarship told me that the J-School rarely gives out that much money to students, something that I heard from people who opted to go to NYU because Columbia didn’t give them substantial financial aid. So I was very, very lucky, and I will never forget that.

I do not recommend going to the J-School straight after university. I heard this echoed a lot around school, which is surprising because there were a lot of fresh grads. For one thing, you’ve barely recovered from four years of college — why dive into a very difficult, emotionally rough year of grad school? The Columbia J-School is on a pass/fail system, which has its pros and cons. It makes people focus on improving their work instead of improving their grades (you can make more mistakes and learn from them), but at the same time, it also makes it harder to stand out. Only a small handful of people can graduate with honors because of the more arbitrary grading system, although they do give out awards at the end of the year. I got a couple, but not without spending hours crying and questioning myself endlessly.

Some teachers will also tell you awards don’t mean anything. I believe that.

As if school weren’t difficult enough, you will also spend the year wondering what to do after graduation. You will be looking for jobs. You will be turned down or ignored many times. You will spend a lot of time licking your wounds, only to have your ego beaten raw repeatedly. If you’re an international student, a lot of your prior achievements will count for little to big news organizations in the U.S. You will start from scratch and be forced to swallow your pride.

Did I mention your performance in school probably won’t matter all that much to your employer, because all of it goes out the door the day you step into their newsroom and need to prove yourself?

The J-School is a foot in the door. I do not regret going to Columbia, and would do it all over again. But many starry-eyed reporter wannabes are blinded by illusion. If you have never worked in the media, don’t be fooled by TV shows. Life as a writer is nothing like Sex and the City. And life in New York isn’t going to be an episode of Girls, either. Or Gossip Girl.

I’m not going to tell you why you should go to the J-School. But I will tell you why I went all the way to New York, left a comfortable, high-profile job as a magazine editor, and put my relationship with my boyfriend on the line by going for long distance.

But maybe on another day.

The pros and cons of dating someone from Pisay

July 20th, 2012

J’s high school friend, Mark, sent me a Facebook message, urging me to write about my experience with dating a Pisay graduate (for anyone not in the know — that’s the Philippine Science High School). He requested it as a reply of sorts to another blog entry, “Date a Pisay girl.”

I had my reservations about writing an entry because it was written in the “Date a girl who reads” template, which in turn was a response to Thought Catalog’s “You should date an illiterate girl.“ Last year, exasperated by the spinoff blog posts, I wrote a spoof entry, “Date a girl who eats,” which became a lot more popular on Tumblr than I had wanted it to be because people didn’t know I wrote it as satire.

Plus, I initially thought our high school backgrounds were irrelevant; I met him at 22 — he was 25 — and we were both at the start of our careers as an editor and a pilot, respectively. I wondered, what would I have to say about being with from Pisay, the ivory tower of Philippine high school education, when I met him almost a decade after?

By the time I met him, he no longer wore thick glasses. He certainly didn’t look like a skinny nerd: he’s built like a jock, barrel-chested with muscular arms. There was little reason for him to show off his arithmetic skill, save for the times he helped out my siblings with their college homework at lightning speed. So what if he went to Pisay?

Then I realized that J’s educational background did matter. Here’s why:

The cons:

1. You’re dating a nerd

You need to accept that you’re seeing someone who is willing to debate — down to minute details — about the sustainability of life on earth after centuries of abandonment just because you watched ‘Wall-E’ together. Believe me, there will be some scientific trash-talking. It dooms you to a life of being kept on your toes during trivia night because his friends know the table of elements by heart. You will not always get their jokes.

2. You will be subjected to extreme scrutiny

You can bet your life that at one point or another, a high school buddy will scan through your Facebook page to pass judgment on your mental capabilities and pop culture references. So should you decide to date someone who attended Pisay at one point or another, you may want to consider deleting that “Math sux” update on your timeline.

3. You will hear about exes

I went to an all-girls Catholic school and dated guys from the all-boys Catholic school beside our campus. Pisay kids, to us, were altogether a different breed: non-secular (“What? You don’t carry a rosary in your pocket?”), overly immersed in math and science, and in their own special way, academically snotty. No one held soirees with Pisay students — they didn’t need soirees, it was a co-ed school. Consider this:

High school hormones + co-ed school = Checkered history of relationships long before you came into the picture.

So if you’re new to the group, be forewarned: There will be moments of awkwardness. Remember that every wedding you go to and every reunion you attend with your date will contain someone he/she’s locked lips with at one point or another.

4. Your future children could possibly be a mild disappointment if they don’t get in

I’m just hazarding a guess, because we’re not talking about children at this point. But if your future children aren’t academically inclined, old people will whisper and blame it on you — yes, you who didn’t go to the exclusive science high school.

The pros:

1. You’re dating a nerd

Even if you’re not mathematically savvy (I’m not — I graduated with two journalism degrees), your boyfriend/girlfriend will be used to being around smart people. I never felt small or stupid around my boyfriend, and even if we occupy entirely different spheres of intelligence, he always holds his own in a debate. Plus, he tolerates my own bouts of literary snootiness (“What, people really think Paolo Coehlo is a good writer?”)

I’ve met men who prefer dating vapid women who don’t challenge them. Chances of that happening with a Pisay grad aren’t impossible, but are considerably smaller.

2. They understand the importance of academic excellence

The academe isn’t everything. I’ve heard that often enough from flunkies who like thinking that schools held them back from reaching their potential. For some people, that’s true, but in many cases, it’s just an excuse. I once dated a musician who wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, and was constantly skipping classes or spelling “you’re” as “your.” I was too besotted to care at first, but I gradually couldn’t look past things as time went by. J wasn’t happy with the idea of a long-distance relationship, but knew why I badly wanted to go to Columbia. I spent his 28th birthday working on my J-School application. Not everyone would have been cool with that.

3. It’s easier to be yourself

In my experience, anyway. You don’t have to pretend to be cool and head out for a night on the town when you know your boyfriend/girlfriend is pals with people who enjoy a good night of playing “Magic: The Gathering” and marathon screenings of “Tron.” Chances are, they’ll be more understanding of your addiction to the Game of Thrones series and will not sneer when you turn up in khaleesi’s costume for Halloween.

If your idea of a good Friday night out is squeezing yourself into a dress two sizes too small for you, spending on overpriced drinks, and throwing up cheap vodka at the crack of dawn, run away. The Pisay graduate is not your demographic.

The awkward life roundup

July 18th, 2012

So I keep promising people (and myself, to be honest) that I’ll blog, and it never happens. I face WordPress every day now — and it’s not for my personal site, but for Mashable, where I’m currently working.

I’ve also been berated by my brother for not updating my blog because apparently, his friends read it. Yay, thanks. Also, I just renewed payment for the domain so I figure I’d better use it for real.

Last time I blogged, I was taking photos of Daniel Radcliffe in between editing breaks at school. Well, a lot’s happened since then. But for now, six things:

1. We finished shooting and editing ‘Making Faces.’

It was pretty much my entire life in the second semester of the J-School. It was hard. My working partner Jasmeet and I spent an average of at least 100 hours a week in school. Those were crazy times, but they were also the best of times. I now have a better idea of what I want to do in life — at 27, is that late? Maybe, maybe not. Some people go through life without knowing what their passion is.

Team BJ goes for B&J during a marathon editing session.

2. I graduated from the J-School.

Jasmeet and I also won Best in Multimedia Storytelling for our documentary, and for some reason, I picked up an award for investigative journalism/hard news. Don’t ask me; I can barely believe it myself. Columbia has done so much for me in ways I can’t even begin to express just yet.

My parents, who gave unconditional support. I was surprised; all the years of teenage angst vanished.

3. My parents visited me, we went to Texas, and I started recovering from the toxicity of the J-School.

Don’t get me wrong; I loved it and would have done it again, but damn, that year was toxic. I’m still recovering. But it was nice to sleep for as long as I wanted, and to eat the most ridiculous things, and to be outdoors. With nary a subway in sight.

Everything's bigger in Texas, doughnut edition.

4. James surprised me by coming to New York, and suddenly, everything was all right.

Long distance relationships. Don’t do it, kids!

I’m kidding, clearly. LDRs are no fun, but J and I decided to give it a try. And hey, we’re still together. No details because I realized writing about my relationships got more and more awkward as I grew older; until I was 23, my life was an open book. Everyone knew all the details about my ex-boyfriends, down to why we broke up. That particular phase is over now, but I’m still comfortable with letting the world know I’m crazy about this dorky dude.

Aww. How sappy.

5. I started work at Mashable.

I’m a community intern at Mashable, only the most awesome tech and social media news site in the world. I’ve no problem telling people I’m an intern — it’s on my Twitter bio page — but sometimes, the inevitable crab mentality of people back home (I know some people dismiss me as “just an intern”) can get tiring.

Yes, I used to be an editor. But I went to grad school to learn, and digital media is an entirely different game from what I used to do. And interning at Mashable is basically doing what regular employees do, minus health benefits, etc. For many people, the internship is a tryout (I’d estimate about a fourth of the current employees were former interns). I write articles, make videos, send social media blasts, etc. I’ve never had to fetch coffee for anyone.

And here’s the thing: I’m paid enough to live in NYC — considering how much rent costs, that’s saying something.

"You look like you'd seen The Beatles," the EIC told me. Well, yeah. That's a Retina MacBook I'm gaping at.

We also do Nerf wars.

6. I don’t know when I’m coming home.

My British classmate summed the situation up nicely for herself over a glass of wine one night. “I’m not quite done with New York,” she said. “I’m not ready to leave.”

Same for me. I know if I leave New York anytime soon, I may never forgive myself because I love the city. I’m deeply in love, and I’ve never felt so free and responsible and at peace with myself. This is not a permanent thing, but I know I have a lot to gain by sticking around for now. I know someday, I’ll be ready to leave. But not yet.


April 6th, 2012

Daniel Radcliffe taking a cigarette break in between scenes on the set of “Kill Your Darlings.” Radcliffe plays Allen Ginsberg in this film, set in 1944.

I took this photo after staking him out after a class. I’m not a huge Daniel Radcliffe fan, but I couldn’t resist snapping a photo, especially since he was on campus anyway!

Good Friday

April 6th, 2012

It’s finally almost the end of Lent. The struggle of not eating meat and dessert (in the middle of thesis season and job applications!) was a lot to handle for 40 days, but I’ve managed to be good about not eating meat. Dessert, on the other hand, had a lot of gray areas. I ate a lot of Greek yogurt with honey and granola just to have something sweet, and caved and ate three pieces of chocolate on one particularly difficult day.

I wouldn’t call myself particularly religious or fanatical about Lent, although I did have that wonderful Holy Week I spent in Rome some time ago. I started abstinence a couple of years ago. The first time I gave up meat and sweets for the season was last year, although it ended with the news that I got a scholarship for the J-School (it made the sacrificing worth it, for sure). But being alone and sometimes lonely in New York City has made me a little more consistent with hearing mass. Being pitted against so many brilliant people in school has made me feel inadequate at times, but I’ve been learning so much, the person I was eight months ago is just so different from who I am now.

Graduation’s in five weeks. I’ve almost given up on this blog, but once in a while, I get messages from people who urge me to go on. I’ve gotten a lot less comfortable about writing about myself online, especially since I know that employers Google potential employees, but at the end of the day, I don’t have anything to hide.

I do miss Holy Week in the Philippines, though. Today was the first time I’ve ever had to go to work or school on a Good Friday, and it felt strange. But I didn’t want to ignore it completely; at the stroke of three, just as my classmate asked me to look over a note, I fell silent and said a whispered prayer.


December 3rd, 2011

The past three days have been a rush, not just because of the amount of schoolwork (the semester’s coming to an end, finally!) but because a video I made over a month ago for a project somehow went viral. It went on New York magazine, the Gothamist (twice, even), Buzzfeed, and the front page of AOL, among others. I’m amazed by how much buzz it got; New York Post did a follow-up article on Tracks, the 25-year-old candy seller who was the subject of the video, and did a short interview with me in the video that accompanied their article.

It’s interesting to be on the other side of the fence in terms of press coverage; I’ve seen bad examples of aggregation on sites that failed to credit me for the video and simply put screen shots, such as The Daily Mail. But then again, I’m not surprised. I also saw how the press tends to milk the most they could out of a story like that. I also encountered journalists who put extreme pressure on me to give them the number of my source so they could meet a deadline, and got very sulky when I couldn’t respond right away or gave it to their competitors first. I couldn’t exactly explain to an impatient journalist that no, I couldn’t get out of my media law class to talk. I hope to not repeat their mistakes when I’m working again.

At the same time, I couldn’t help but hope that my video could help me score a good internship (or job, why not) after grad school. I’m really excited to dive into more multimedia storytelling next semester; that video I did with Tracks was actually the first one I produced on my own, so I got very, very lucky. Being in the J-School is such a rich learning experience, I’m almost afraid for it to end.

Fire in my belly

October 25th, 2011

The last time I found myself crying inside a bus in the line of work was on a rainy night in the summer of 2004, when I was working as an intern for Seventeen magazine. I wasn’t doing it for school (I just wanted work experience), but I was coming home late every night, and struggling to maintain an honors standing in school. That summer was also the time I learned how to commute on my own, and having been brought up in a private subdivision and driven to school every day, the experience proved to be a huge culture shock that overwhelmed me at times.

Looking back, those were some of the most character-building times of my life, and proved to be more useful for my career than my college degree in journalism probably did (don’t get me wrong; I learned a lot from school, but the years I spent as an informal intern did a lot more in introducing me to the industry). I pulled out clothes from stores and styled shoots, checked pages, went to events, met people, and most importantly, got articles published on a regular basis. I wrote my first magazine cover story that year. Sure, I wasn’t getting paid for most of my first year in the industry, but I skipped the entry-level positions when I graduated from school and worked for a magazine back home. I enjoyed it, but after a few years, restlessness and disillusionment with fashion magazines set in, and I hied off to grad school.

This was me at 19. I did a fashion ed for YStyle which featured me as a journalism student from UP, back in ye olden days when I thought I wanted to model. I feel old now.

Now, I’m 27 years old and not as energetic as I was when I started working at 19, but certainly in the same position as I was in on that rainy evening seven years ago. I had spent several hours running around in the Bronx, was late for a meeting, and frustrated by my inability to produce stories for my reporting and writing class for the J-School. Then I realized that I had missed my stop, and the express bus was coasting down a dark highway. So right there, in the middle of a bus bathed in fluorescent light, I burst into tears.

I was still puffy-eyed when I arrived at the meeting, but the attendees graciously ignored my “allergies” while I took notes. In the middle of the discussion, my reporting and writing class professor emailed me her midterm evaluation, which turned out to be a lot better than I hoped. She called me out on spending too much time on certain stories and getting discouraged when they didn’t pan out (guilty as charged), and that I needed to discipline myself in writing news stories, but tucked in between the stern lectures were glimmers of praise and hope. At the end of the 700-word evaluation, she said: “Bianca has all the raw talent, and the desire to do this well.”

At that point, my pretend allergies were at a fever pitch, and I batted my eyes repeatedly to prevent the tears from falling and embarrassing me further. Never mind that at 27, with a few years of editorial work under my belt, I’m still considered a “raw talent” in this part of the world. That professor’s assessment of my skills was honest, a little brutal, encouraging, and at the end of the day, hopeful. She was rooting for me, and I never needed someone to believe in me so badly.

Absorbed in my thoughts on the train ride back home, I initially didn’t pay attention to the subway musician strumming on a guitar and singing in Spanish. It took a minute or two for me to realize he was a possible source for a story I wanted to work on; had I seen him three hours earlier, while I was drowning in self-pity, I might not have noticed him at all. But bolstered by hope, I went up to him, smiled, and introduced myself as a journalist.


First quarter report

October 16th, 2011

I’ve been in NYC for almost three months now, and the summer-green leaves are just starting to turn yellow around the edges. The city feels like home now, but I still find myself staring at people and places with wide-eyed wonder. I haven’t been taking the city (or even the school, for that matter) by storm, so I’m trying to figure out what I can do to change that. It’s a Sunday night, but I’ve been in the school for the past eight hours, writing articles and editing videos.

Last week, I turned 27. I didn’t celebrate with a bang; I visited the MoMa and had some birthday cake and Korean chicken. The lack of fanfare (didn’t even get to talk to James, he was off on a flight) made me realize just how much I’ve grown up, maybe in ways I don’t always welcome. Being in the J-School has been nothing but an extremely humbling experience so far, with my years of work experience proving to be more of a liability than an asset in a city full of young, hungry upstarts. Many of the people in school are younger than 25, unsure of themselves, dipping their toes in professional journalism for the first time in their lives. The late Steve Jobs said that the key to success was to stay hungry, and to stay foolish. I’ve been a little too cautious and wary, and that’s something I’ll need to shed.

For some reason, luck hasn’t been on my side lately. I’ve been heading to my beat, looking for stories, with little to show for it so far. Yesterday, a long visit to the Bronx (one that involved going from house to house, talking to locals) got me one precious bit of wisdom that I’m not quite sure what to do with: prostitutes and raccoons are some of the biggest problems in Fordham. Some batch mates have been covering the Occupy Wall Street protests and gaining hundreds of followers in the process; I’ve gained some too, but I’ve also lost a lot for tweeting stuff irrelevant to Philippine followers. I’m caught between two places, and belong to neither.

I feel a little cheated that I’m limited to a certain neighborhood in the Bronx. I know, I know—I can always head out and do my own coverage, even if it weren’t for class. And I’ve tried my best; when Steve Jobs died, I went to the Apple flagship store to take photos and videos.  But then I get home and look at the stack of work I still have to do for other classes, and the meager handful of Bronx-related news I’ve covered so far, and die a little every day.

I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t discovered the kind of journalist that I want to be just yet. When I encounter fellow students in the corridors, I wonder if they’ve got it all figured out. At 21, I thought I knew who I was, and who I wanted to be. At 27, I’m a lot less self-assured, but I’ve also learned to be patient, especially in the last couple of years. Three months is a huge chunk of a 10-month grad school program, but again, it’s also just three months. I know that somewhere in there, I have a lot more to give than what I’ve shown so far, and I’m not going to let that remain buried deep.