How I Got Here: Episode #9
The Importance of Forging Your Own Path
with Audrey Valbuena, Medill ’19
News Designer @ The Washington Post
Audrey Valbuena, News Designer, The Washington Post. Although Audrey applied to ten colleges, she only applied to one journalism program, which she ended up getting into and attending. Originally, Audrey thought she would be a feature journalist after school, but after a few “happy accidents,” exposure to design-thinking, and experiences outside of the classroom, she decided to follow her curiosity of how news is presented and distributed. Audrey discusses the benefits of forging your own path, the value of extracurricular activities, and why it’s important to surround yourself with interesting people. This conversation is brought to you by The Garage at Northwestern.
“I definitely struggled to find clarity in the pathway that I was taking, but once I really dove in and had internships and was able to really hone my design skills, I didn’t look back.”
“I knew that this was something that was special to me and that I was very, very passionate about, rather than following what I’d seen or what had been portrayed for me. And so finding [a] pathway on my own, I still feel very proud of that and I’m glad that I did it.”
“…there’s this alternative way of following an education or following a path that we’re not always taught in the classroom. Seeing people be successful and be passionate about projects that aren’t in the traditional narrative was so important, especially as someone who didn’t have those opportunities growing up or never saw those types of things growing up.”
“It’s so important to know that while what you learned in the classroom is important, the things that will nourish you and that will lead you to what you want to do are going to happen outside of the classroom.”
“…my path doesn’t have a clear linear trajectory, other than I followed what was really interesting to me and it always incorporated some sort of storytelling. Even if it doesn’t make sense to anyone else.”
“Just follow what is really fascinating to you and as long as you’re doing a good job and you’re accumulating the skills you need along the way, it will all make sense in the end. You don’t need to worry about the specific narrative yet, but just following those instincts and gaining those skills and abilities that will set you apart from everyone else is what’s going to drive your career.”
Welcome to How I Got Here, a podcast from the Garage at Northwestern exploring interesting journeys of young professionals working at exciting companies and the role that entrepreneurship played in getting them there. My name is Mike [Rab 00:00:17] and I love dissecting nonlinear and nontraditional career paths and the lessons that we can all take away from those who forged them. In this episode I’m joined by Audrey Valbuena, a news designer at the Washington post. Although Audrey only applied to one journalism program out of the 10 colleges she applied to, she decided to attend Medill and pursue a career as a feature news journalist. After spending a quarter in San Francisco and getting exposure to design thinking Audrey became interested in the impact that design and distribution of news content has on society and shifted her focus towards this interest. In this conversation we discuss the benefits of forging your own path, quote unquote happy accidents, and why experiences outside of their classroom can be life changing. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Audrey Valbuena. Okay Audrey, thank you so much for being here with us today.
Thanks for having me. I’m excited about it.
Of course. So you are a news designer at the Washington Post, which sounds really interesting and I want to get into, but maybe we could take a few steps back and could you tell us what, when you were applying to college, what types of programs and majors you were applying for?
Sure. Yeah. So I actually had no real intention of going into journalism or media when I started applying to colleges. In high school I was really focused on a pre-med track or maybe looking into going economics or public policy. So I actually applied to I think like 10 schools, most of which were either through biology or an economics program, and Northwestern was the one school where I sort of took a chance and thought, well let me try this out and apply to this journalism program. We’ll see if I get in, we’ll see how it goes. I didn’t have my hopes up either way. And then sort of when all the acceptances started coming in and I saw that I’d gotten into Medill, it just opened up a pathway for me that I wasn’t thinking about or hadn’t expected. And so I sort of took it because why not take a chance?
That’s so interesting. It’s like tempting fate. But you were also the editor in chief of your high school newspaper, right?
Yes, that’s correct. Yeah. So I did that all through high school, mostly as an extracurricular, building up my resume and such. But I did find that I really loved it. So I thought to give myself a little bit of opportunity to explore that, but also keeping it safe with some of the other options.
Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. And so you kind of take this chance and say, well, we’ll see what happens if I get into this program and you ended up getting in, which is super exciting. At that point, when you are going to attend Medill, are you thinking you want to be kind of traditional journalist or what’s kind of your mindset for careers after school?
Yeah. I think I was so excited about the opportunity and just sort of absorbing everything that Medill had to offer. I definitely went in with the mindset of I want to be a traditional journalist, hard hitting news reporting, maybe international correspondence. Those are the things we see represented in television or in the media that we’re hearing about all the time. So I definitely sort of had that dream going into Medill, but I found different pathways for myself in the classes that I started taking and exploring the media landscape I started to see that it was so much bigger than just traditional reporting and writing. And though that is the backbone of it and it’s deeply important, I started to see that there was a lot to do with technology and a lot of ways that the industry was starting to innovate going into this new world of news that we live in.
Right. It was such an interesting time I think when you were in school and the disruption of media and journalism. What were some of the either classes or the experiences that you mentioned that kind of opened up your mind to these other roles or technology within the media industry and kind of exposed you to those ideas?
Sure. I think one of the very first things, which I’m sure a lot of other people felt as well, I started at Northwestern in 2016, in the fall of 2016, and obviously we experienced a very turbulent election cycle that year as an American population. And I think seeing how the media handled that and all of the conversations that were happening about what went wrong, what went right, and how we could have talked about this election a little bit differently, that really, it first off impacted how I started to feel about news. So having that experience of going through the election, first thing going into journalism school, and then from there sort of exploring what is fake news? How is it being distributed? These are new problems that I don’t think the media industry had ever had to deal with at this capacity and so as we’re seeing the rise of news on Facebook, on Twitter, on social media and how young people are consuming news differently, I started to see there was a lot of opportunity for media to evolve itself and to inform people more responsibly, more intelligently, and a lot more empathetically than I think we’ve traditionally seen with newspaper journalism that reach a very specific subscriber base.
Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. And I imagine there was a difference between what you were seeing and experiencing kind of out in the world as far as distribution and consumption of news and media, including social media, and maybe what you were learning in the classroom about kind of traditional journalism. Was that kind of a factor at all?
Definitely. Yeah. So to go back to some of the classes that I took, I took obviously all the traditional reporting and writing classes that you take as a first year and then I started to veer off and rather than take classes on like magazine writing or feature reporting I took a bunch of classes in the night lab, which is dedicated to exploring digital media and new ways of storytelling. So that was really informative for me. The classes are very open ended and you’re allowed to explore just how we’re talking about local news, how we’re talking about international news, and the media and technologies that go behind that. So those classes were incredibly informative to me and it aligned much more closely with what I personally was experiencing and how I consume my news. I never had a newspaper growing up. I read magazines when I was really little, the kids Highlights and Nat Geo Kids, but throughout the rest of my life I got my news from the radio on the way to school, then from a smartphone and a laptop, and I never had that traditional experience of picking up the newspaper and reading it. So going into the night lab and exploring design in college, it felt a lot closer to home and how I was experiencing media than what I was seeing in the traditional Medill classes.
Right. And it seems like design became a pretty big focus for you in school and you also had an experience visiting San Francisco. Was that for a quarter or what was that? What was that experience?
Yeah. So I did the Medill in San Francisco experience and that is a quarter long experience where you’re in the Bay Area, you’re taking two classes on design and design thinking, and then the rest of the course is working with a company. So I worked with Intuit when I was there. We worked on their Mint app for financial planning. And you sort of work with these companies to think how can we serve a specific problem and a specific consumer base. So it was super different from the media education I was receiving in Evanston, but I think it really opened my eyes to how when we hone in on a very specific and small problem, how then that leads to really creative thinking and ways of solving problems that maybe we’re not thinking about when we’re looking at the huge, big picture of an industry or how it works.
Right. It also seems like you were kind of optimizing for diversifying your experiences and the themes you were exposed to rather than, again, kind of specializing in traditional journalism. Was that intentional or a happy accident?
Yeah, I was just about to qualify what you were saying. I don’t think it was intentional in any way. I really just, I took hold of following what was interesting to me and because I was feeling a lot of dissonance in the classroom in between what I was experiencing in my own life surrounding how we consume media I was looking for any way to explore divergences from that or to explore thoughts around how we change media, how we change the ways we’re thinking about it. So I went to San Francisco because it sounded like a great opportunity to escape the Evanston winter and to be home in California and work with a real company and really fell in love with design there in a way that I completely was not expecting. So that was totally a happy accident that happened in my college career.
Happy accidents are great. What were some of the other internships or companies you worked with during your time as well?
Sure. So I didn’t have a ton of internships until my junior year, which is when I got really serious about it. So my sophomore year I went to Bolivia and I worked with the Foundation of Sustainable Development as a communications intern through Gessi, which is at the Buffett Institute at Northwestern. So that was a really great experience. I don’t know that it completely aligned with where I wanted to go in the future, but it just gave me a broader look at communications and the industry on an international level which I never would have gotten otherwise.
And then my junior year, I started getting really serious about going into journalism and following that digital media pathways. So after my junior year of college I got an internship at Quartz, which the Garage helped me to achieve. So very grateful to them for that. And I was able to work with their bot studio at Quartz while they were going through a transition period being bought by a new company. And so I was working with their team sort of in a product role about how to engage new subscribers, how to build a digital brand for Quartz, and how to communicate that to their readership and in their promotion. So that was a great experience in exploring how new technologies intersect with branding, marketing, and editorial tone, which gave me a much broader view of the journalism industry than I was ever expecting.
And prior to that experience I had actually done my journalism residency at the Washington Post. So I worked as a news designer there. And I think even having that experience in a very traditional newsroom, but in a role that is nontraditional, working with more innovative technologies and how we’re presenting stories in new ways, both of those experiences gave me a range of what journalism actually is rather than just the traditional view. And so both of those internships worked in tandem I think to give me a much broader understanding of what media contains.
And it seems like by this time, but also because of those experiences, you have kind of veered off the path of wanting to be a traditional journalist that when you entered school you had. Did letting go of that and seeing that there were broader opportunities, was there any hesitation with that? Was it a difficult thing to accept or were you excited about it?
Yeah, I’m glad you asked that because I think throughout college I definitely always had a sort of cognitive dissonance with this decision to pursue alternative pathways in media. I would see my friends and my fellow classmates going out to report big stories and sitting down and writing for hours at a time and I would always feel a little bit of sadness of like should I be doing that? This is what the journalism dream is. I should be sitting here writing these long essays, these long feature stories. But I had to follow what was interesting to me and what made me really excited to be in the industry. So I think I definitely struggled to find that clarity in the pathway that I was taking, but once I really dove in and had those internships and was able to really hone my design skills I didn’t look back just because I knew that this was something that was special to me and that I was very, very passionate about rather than following what I’d seen or what had been portrayed for me. And so finding that pathway on my own, I still feel very proud of that and I’m glad that I did it.
Yeah. I think that’s a really important point and forging your own path is much more rewarding than just doing what others are doing or what you think you should be doing because others are doing it. And speaking of, you also worked on something in school called the Resistance Collective. Could you describe a little bit about what that was and what your involvement with it was?
Sure. So the Resistance Collective was a project in the Garage that was a community of women and femmes trying to find safety and confidence in their bodies and then projecting that into the rest of their lives. So it consisted of workshops, of community workouts, followed by mental health and sort of not therapy, but group wellness sessions to sort of give that community wellness space that maybe we don’t always have in college. And so I was helping them to define their purpose and messaging around that purpose to be inclusive and open to all types of bodies and minds.
Sounds really important, but it also highlights that it feels like you had so many kind of diverse and different experiences throughout school. I think sometimes students can kind of stay in their groups, whether that’s their majors or their clubs or that type of stuff. And you’ve mentioned the Garage a few times. Can you just talk a little bit about the advantage of being around students working on different types of themes with different majors and exposure to that stuff that you saw as a student at the Garage?
Yeah, definitely. I think that seeing people who were really invested and interested in their specific projects or specific topics and just being around that sort of passion all the time, it helped me one, explore other people’s passions as well. They getting involved in things like the Resistance Collective or just talking through a project with someone. But it also allowed me to see that there’s this alternative way of following an education or following a path that we’re not always taught in the classroom. And so I think seeing people be successful and be passionate about projects that aren’t in the traditional narrative was so important, especially as someone who didn’t maybe have those opportunities growing up or never saw those types of things growing up. I knew that being a CEO was a thing, but I didn’t consciously understand that that was a job that someone had. So I think seeing people my age doing that type of work and being unabashed and just following what they’re interested in was so important for me in being able to follow a divergent path in media and make that space for myself.
Yeah. I think that’s an important point that that exposure and as we like to say, if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. Great. And so you’ve had these couple of internships at Quartz and you’re JR at the Washington Post. You ended up graduating a couple of quarters early. What led to that decision?
Sure. So I graduated in December of 2019 with my graduating class being in June of 2020, which worked out for me in many of ways because of the pandemic and everything that followed. But for me the decision to graduate early was just that I had enough credits to do so and it helped save a little bit of money and it helps me get out into the workforce without feeling the immediate pressure that I think graduates feel to get a job in the summer to start in the fall and then just start going. I sort of had that buffer time of six months that maybe my classmates didn’t have to, if I didn’t have a job in December when I graduated, I could take that time to make money on the side, figure out what came next, and apply to jobs and be really intentional about that process rather than feeling obligated to take the first thing that came my way.
That’s really smart. You gave yourself a little kind of runway so you didn’t have that panic of I need to find a job immediately. What did your job search look like? How did you go about it?
Yeah. So I started actually that fall right when we got back to school, just reaching out to connections I had, checking the job posting boards, making sure I was in communication with professors who had worked at publications to see if they knew of any openings or there was anyone who could help me in that job search process. So I think something that I started doing really early on was being really open about it with the people in my networks. Just talk to them, see what the vibe was, and see if they had any connections I could reach out to. But what ended up happening for me, which was so serendipitous and I feel so lucky and grateful to have had this opportunity, but my old boss from the Post who was my JR advisor saw that I was graduating early, reached out to me and said, we have a position opening up, would you like to apply? So I didn’t know if it was going to be a for sure thing, I didn’t know how I felt about moving to DC, but I followed that opportunity. I knew it was going to be a really great opportunity for me right after graduating so I applied to that position. It was a contractor position on the news design team. Ended up receiving it and so moved to DC and the rest is history.
That’s amazing. It kind of came to you because of your great work at your internship. Could you tell us a little bit about what your job entails working in news design?
Sure. So I get this question a lot. I think news design is a really unclear term for people outside of the industry. But basically what I do is I take stories and I take their text, videos, photos, all the assets involved, and I help to craft it into a really seamless experience and narrative for our readers. So I work on building both web pages and also the print design for these stories and sometimes even the social cars or the social presentation of the stories that I’m working on. So it’s really just taking a story, taking the meat and bones of it, and making it into something really beautiful and engaging for our readers.
I love that. It seems like a increasingly important type of role that probably hasn’t been emphasized or focused on for the vast majority of the history of journalism. So it’s kind of like a new space, right?
Yeah, definitely new. And I think I didn’t realize that when I entered it, but it is interesting to hear some of the editors and reporters who have been around for a lot longer than I have talk about the dot com boom and moving over to digital and what it felt like to see their words online, even if it was just in a plain text HTML piece rather than in print. So definitely a new industry. I didn’t realize that, but it’s interesting to think about the legacy that follows it.
That leads right into my next question, which was, and maybe you just answered it, but what excites you about the future of media and journalism?
There’s a lot that excites me. I think particularly in the news design space I’m really excited to see how people start taking on AR and VR technologies and incorporating that into storytelling to make it really, really immersive and give viewers that very empathetic viewpoint of a story. So I’m excited to see how that space evolves. And like I said, I’m really excited to see how people who are entering this industry or coming to the industry from different spaces, whether it’s product or tech or wherever else they may be coming from, how they start to think about and evolve our understandings of subscribers and readers and our customer base because I think that’s the business side of journalism. We don’t always think about it a lot, but it’s so, so important. So I’m really excited to see how people sort of transition that model of we’ll write stories and people will find them to what stories do people want and how can we provide that for them.
Yeah. I think that’s really important. So looking back over your journey over the past few years, as you applied to 10 schools, only one of them with a journalism program, you want to be kind of a feature journalist, you get exposed to design in San Francisco and all these other types of experiences. Looking back, what advice would you give a student, let’s say a freshman, who’s thinking about their career after school?
Sure. I think for someone who’s just starting their college career it’s so important to know that while what you learned in the classroom is important, the things that will nourish you and that will lead you to what you want to do are going to happen outside of the classroom. So whether that’s in extracurriculars, you’re just learning things on the side for yourself, or even engaging in conversations with your peers and classmates about what excites you, I think those are the things that you should follow to really, really find the career path that’s going to sustain you for the longterm. So I think looking outside the classroom is the first advice I would give. And then also, as you can see, my path doesn’t have a clear linear trajectory other than I followed what was really interesting to me and it always incorporated some sort of storytelling. So I think even if it doesn’t make sense to anyone else, just follow what is really fascinating to you and as long as you’re doing a good job and you’re accumulating the skills you need along the way it will all make sense in the end. You don’t need to worry about the specific narrative yet, but just following those instincts and gaining those skills and abilities that will set you apart from everyone else is what’s going to drive your career.
I think that’s great advice and a perfect place to end. So Audrey, thank you so much for being with us.
If there’s one lesson I would take away from Audrey it’s that she was comfortable shifting her career aspirations based on her exposure to new ideas and experiences. Although she originally wanted to be a feature news journalist, after being exposed to design and technology companies Audrey took the leap to pursue a different, less travel path, a decision she was ultimately glad that she made. I encourage you to remember that it’s okay to change your mind and choose a different path at any point in your career, but especially as a college student. Careers are long and winding and you owe it to yourself to spend your time working on things that you’re interested in and excited about. How I Got Here as a podcast from the Garage at Northwestern and is produced by Melissa Kaufman, Ben Williams, and Elisabeth Wright. If you enjoyed this episode, please rate and review us on your favorite podcast platform.