If you were to go back and ask a young, somewhat misdirected undergraduate student at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, what he wanted to accomplish in the years ahead of him, he might have said something along the lines of this: “join the Peace Corps, travel the world, and tell some great stories along the way.”

Dedicating myself toward a graduate degree, much less a career in journalism, however, seemed a bit unattainable after college, even though the idea vaguely existed somewhere in the back of my head. I faced some deep struggles that many college students go through at some point in their academic career—anxiety, a lack of focus, and uncertainty about what I wanted to do. After I graduated I opted to approach my life as a way to gain experiences and followed a non-traditional career path.

I had some success along the way. I joined the Peace Corps and served two years as a health volunteer in Uzbekistan. I landed a job at MTV Networks and got within just an arm’s length of the newsroom during my lunch breaks. I also experienced my fair share of setbacks: I had a miserable stint as a copywriter in advertising. I was fired from what I thought at the time could be a dream job as a travel writer at a San Francisco start-up, and was later laid off from a gig as a writer at another start-up where I blogged about current events.

In an effort to reset myself, I went back overseas and taught English in Saudi Arabia. I created the space to write about my experiences, took a ton of photos, and started to get some great feedback about what I was doing. “Zain, why don’t you do more of this?” was often the refrain. 

I decided to make my past experiences and my ability to adapt to any given situation pay off for me. I landed a job at CU Boulder. I applied to the graduate journalism program and was accepted. I started to focus on that idea that had lingered in the back of my mind as an undergraduate; that I could find success on this path. Then, the Next Generation Radio Project appeared like magic on my radar; it also felt like the next, logical step. I applied, and this week is now history. 

So, as we conclude this project I can safely say that this felt like the enriching and humbling educational experience that I wanted it to be. I wanted a deep dive into a journalism project with experienced professionals. I wanted to report on an issue that I believe is important. I wanted to work with smart, engaging people. I wanted an awesome mentor (Mariana, you are awesome!) Finally, I wanted to participate in a program that gave me the confidence and skills to level up and finally shift into a career that I wanted to pursue for a long time. Better late than never, right?

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