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10 Things SRL Alum Zhenwei Gao Learned as a Youth Journalist

Zhenwei Gao stands in front of a broadcast camera with a green screen behind her. The shot is replicated on a screen to the right of the image.
Student Reporting Labs program alum Zhenwei Gao in the broadcast studio at KQED Studios in San Francisco, CA. Gao has been a youth journalist for the past three years and will be attending Stanford University in the fall. | Courtesy of Zhenwei Gao
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Watch Zhenwei’s most recent story here, which was featured as part of the Student Reporting Labs special "Disrupted: How COVID-19 Changed Education."


In the blink of an eye, I am a high school graduate. Amongst the wonderful memories of high school are the lessons I learned working as a youth journalist with PBS NewsHour's Student Reporting Labs. Here are my 10 reflections from my own experiences and growth.

1. Sometimes what you love in the end is not what you expected in the beginning. Try everything and anything that interests you!

English is my second language. I joined journalism wanting to do editorials — to write — because I thought I was horrible at writing and that I was behind academically in comparison to students who are native English speakers.

The reality of journalism class was much different from my expectation: the class was digital journalism. I did not have to write as much as I wanted to. Instead I, for the first time, picked up a camera, a tripod, and an H4n recorder to record videos and voice overs. I also learned how to edit digitally through Adobe softwares. I had my hesitations at first; after all, I was hoping to do print journalism in order to improve my writing.

But, that was a misunderstanding I am forever grateful for. The digital journalism program and our partnership with PBS NewsHour allowed me to grow, experiment and create through the various projects I've worked on. Journalism, particularly digital journalism, is what I enjoy and love.

2. Bite down on your idea… Don't let go of what you want to do.

The first major project I ever worked on was a youth focused piece "Are School Dress Codes Racist?", collaborating with KQED's digital series "Above the Noise" (ATN). ATN videos pursue a unique style that first begins by posing a central question — like the title of the story — and requires the balance of at least two different perspectives on the subject matter. While critiques against the established dress code were easily found, finding defenses for dress code policy was, to say the least, arduous. Our initial attempts to contact our school district's discipline office led nowhere. After at least 20 phone calls and indefinite wait times for responses, we were forced to return to where we first began.

No one wanted to do the interview. Production of the video was paused.

At this point, there was no point in even finishing this video… until we managed to talk our Assistant Principal of Discipline, Mr. Aikens, into participating in an interview. Mr. Aikens admitted that he was touched by our dedication and perseverance to pursue this video, and that was ultimately the deciding factor that led him to agreeing to our interview.

With #dresscoded and #Imnotadistraction, school dress codes are coming under fire from students who say these policies can be sexist and racist. But many argue strict dress codes are necessary for a safe learning environment. So, how should schools decide on dress code policies?
Are School Dress Codes Sexist and Racist?

3. Being able to listen, understand and communicate helps your voice be heard.

Through my conversation with Mr. Aikens, I came to understand his frustration as an administrator who believed moderate dress codes were necessary to improve the learning environment. In turn, I shared the emotional impact of being dress-coded and discussed their unfair, sexist double standards.

After the publication of our video, I learned that, inspired by our report, Mr. Aikens reviewed our school's dress code and determined that it was, indeed, outdated. Though the process was lengthy — requiring a dress code review committee, principal approval of the plan and district-wide meetings — our dress code was ultimately revised in a unanimous vote.

Never before had I so directly seen that my voice matters, bringing a small but powerful change to my community.
Zhenwei Gao, Student Reporting Labs program alum

4. "Don't be so hard on yourself."

As a typical overachiever who used to only care about results or the final product, I learned from PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs' 2019 Summer Academy and as a student correspondent the following summer, that the enjoyment and growth during the process is more important than anything.

To my fellow overachievers out there: let yourself know that it is okay to make mistakes, to not be perfect and to "not be so hard on yourself" because you are worth more than you think.

5. It's okay to cry. You are not weak for showing weakness.

I became the editor-in-chief for my journalism class in 11th grade and was in charge of the monthly news show at my high school.

I pursued perfectionism. I had zero tolerance for mistakes. I was stressed out. My breaking point was when a classmate hammered insults and criticism at me over a decision I made.

While putting together the first show of the school year, the audio of this classmate’s video was unintelligible. After double checking with my teacher, we decided to delete his video from the show. Obviously upset, my classmate poured all of his anger on me. I cried over my anxiety to perfect the show and to not make mistakes.

I could not stop my tears as I briefed the class on our first show. I feared being viewed as incompetent and incapable. But contrary to what I thought, I allowed the class to understand my difficulties and showed that, I too, am human.

I'm not weak for showing weakness.

A group of students gather around a wall covered in sticky notes.
Zhenwei Gao (right) collaborates with her broadcast journalism peers with guidance from NewsHour correspondent William Brangham during the 2019 SRL Summer Academy in Washington D.C | Courtesy of Zhenwei Gao | Courtesy of Zhenwei Gao

6. Ask the same question 3 times.

This is the most useful method I learned to conduct a successful interview.

Ask the question first when you first begin with your interviewee. Ask the question again, phrasing it differently, when you are in the midst of a deep discussion. Ask the question for the third time, different wording, for the optimal response at the end of the interview when your interviewee is the most comfortable.

7. Your peers are who you learn the most from.

I learned to be patient from David, to be passionate from Sesha, to be creative from Taylor, to be carefree from Alex, to be outspoken from Sinaiah, to be understanding from Lara, to be dedicated from Kiera, to be technical from Reed, to be creative from Trevor, to be collaborative from Chloe, to be confident from Hannah…

I also learned to not be bossy, to not be irresponsible, to not be selfish, to not be disrespectful, to not be sneaky, to not be egotistical… and I will not tell you who I learned from.

8. Being a leader is about having spirit.

If you, the leader, do not have even a bit of excitement for upcoming projects, then how will your team work energetically and effectively?

9. Echo chambers skew opinions.

The "echo chamber" phenomenon created by social media simultaneously fascinates and horrifies me. Social media programs shape our thoughts and opinions, turning slight preferences into a polarized environment in which only the loudest voices and most extreme opinions on either side can break through the noise.

We need to do something about it.

Zhenwei Gao (center, gray sweater) poses for a group selfie with her journalism class at Etiwanda High School in Rancho Cucamonga, CA. The group is in a broadcast studio space with a green screen behind them.
Zhenwei Gao (center, gray sweater) poses for a group selfie with her Etiwanda High School journalism class and the production team of “Above the Noise” at KQED’s studio in San Francisco. | Courtesy of Zhenwei Gao

10. My journalism class has become my family

My broadcast journalism class has become the space where I learned how to resolve conflict and clashes, to trust in teamwork and have faith in my team's strengths, and to explore my own strengths in interacting with those I lead.

My broadcast journalism peers are my inspiration and my family.

Zhenwei Gao is a graduate of Etiwanda High School in Rancho Cucamonga, CA and alum of the Student Reporting Labs program. She will be attending Stanford University in the fall.

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