I’m unconventional, at least by my neighborhood’s standards.
My tight-knit Yemeni community stresses the benefit of staying silent. You can’t get in trouble, I’m constantly told if you don’t speak up. Sometimes I think this stems from our deep roots in a homeland that lacks trust in authority. That was another lesson I grew up with; if you don’t expect much, you won’t be disappointed.
As a child, these warnings were drilled into my head. I, like all of the other boys and girls I grew up with, was expected to subconsciously nod and follow these standards in fear of being a social pariah. I don’t fault my community for believing what they do; it’s how they’ve survived in America for decades– and it’s all they know. But because of this, not many have ventured out of the community, so there’s been a lack of American-Yemeni representation throughout the media. Because our issues and concerns aren’t often voiced, they aren’t ever really solved.
I, on the other hand, was never any good at conforming and could see the long-standing implications of my community’s way of living. I decided to throw caution to the wind and follow my passion of becoming a journalist, a career that directly goes against all of my community’s preachings.
My community’s fear of change and ridicule has driven me to escape my given status quo and be determined to represent the community that has formed it. I spent my underclassmen years writing articles for my classmates, and the occasional blog, but I wanted to do more, not only for myself but for the community I was adamant to represent.
The opportunity presented itself last spring when I received the email that confirmed my acceptance into the Detroit Free Press’s Summer Apprentice Program. I took one look at the “Congratulations on being selected…” and was automatically swept over by euphoria. As an aspiring journalist, this was the opportunity of a lifetime. That night, I couldn’t sleep.
I hadn’t known that the night of my acceptance would be the first of many nights I’d stay up thinking about journalism. However, unlike the excitement-induced insomnia of that night, the rest was spent overcome with stress, isolation, and anxiety. Journalism is my passion and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my summer than at the Free Press. But stepping into that professional setting, with my only prior experience in journalism being writing blogs and samizdat styled articles on my bedroom floor, forced me to obsess over my inexperience.
The apprenticeship was really amazing. I had a great mentor who supported me through all my struggles, but unfortunately, I was grossly underprepared for what I would experience in the next six weeks.
It took weeks of doubting myself and my capabilities to realize that my inexperience wasn’t my fault. Anyone in that competitive setting would feel overwhelmed, and I was feeling so much more than that. The other interns, however, were used to the ins and outs of daily publications because they were exposed to it in their schools. All of the interns were members of their school’s newspapers, podcasts, yearbook committees, or literary magazines. My school didn’t have any of these things. Before interning at the Free Press, I worked on my own independent articles titled Eagles Uncensored and would pass them out to friends and classmates. It was self-driven as I was my own reporter, columnist, and copy editor. Doing this allowed me to write about things I cared for and thought were important. But it also put me at a disadvantage compared to the other interns; I wasn’t exposed to any of the terminology or technology behind creating an actual newspaper. The other interns explained to me that they also didn’t know what the difference was between an op-ed and column is, and what AP style stood for. They had their teachers to guide them through it. I was doing just that with my mentor, except in a more serious, and professional setting…a setting where knowing this information beforehand was vital. Because I didn’t have the basic journalistic knowledge that the other interns learned during high school, I was so far behind and blamed my own intellectual capacity because of it.
I’ve never felt as out of place as I did during the training week of my internship. When the program coordinator asked which of us were familiar with “AP style,” everyone in the room groaned and raised their hand. Except me. When this happened, I whispered to the girl next to me, “My school doesn’t offer any advanced placement English classes so that’s why.” She responded to me with a straight look and proceeded to explain that AP stood for Associated Press, and is the writing style all reporters should abide by. When she saw the surprise on my face, she began to reassure me that it’s complicated work and not a “big deal” and that was the end of our conversation. But for me, it was deeper than that. While I was struggling to understand the difference between an op-ed and a column – (To be honest I still don’t know the difference) – it seemed as if the other interns could recite all of the aspects of a newspaper religiously. By the time the weeklong training was over, I was physically and mentally exhausted. Simple journalism concepts were foreign to me. I began questioning how, and why I was even chosen for this internship, especially since I obviously paled in comparison to everyone else.
I spent my Sunday nights tossing in bed, worried about how I could possibly embarrass myself the next day. Mondays were our weekly meeting days since the rest of our week would be spent doing individual work. With each meeting, I began to feel less and less competent ‘Fake it until you make it’ became my motto as I realized that I was the least prepared in the room. My screw-ups were inevitable.
As the weeks progressed, so did my self-doubt.
I beat myself up for weeks, asking myself why I was so incapable of doing what the other apprentices were so easily thriving at. All my life, journalism was the one thing I was always good at, and suddenly, I wasn’t. I remembered the conversations I had with my brother. He constantly worried about the viability of this career, and after my first few weeks at the Free Press, I couldn’t blame him. In a way, he was right. I was so far behind all of the other interns and convinced myself that I’d never be able to catch up.
Their schools supplied them with the information and prepared them, at least in a small way, for the Free Press. Mine didn’t even provide me with a tenth grade English teacher, let alone the privilege, as I had once thought it to be, of a school publication. For them, their school newspaper was a safe space where they could chill and geek over the New York Times with other prospective journalists. My friends didn’t know what topics they wanted to explore, and those that did, myself included, didn’t have the necessary tools to do that. It’s extremely problematic that students in my school, compared to ones just a half-hour away in Ann Arbor and Troy, don’t have the option to explore their passions, let alone excel in them.
My case of imposter syndrome is not unique. Thousands of people experience it every day, and even though anyone regardless of race, gender, class, and ethnicity can go through this, there’s been a trend in low-income students attending top tier universities. Just like I walked into the Free Press blind, so do these students when their schools fail to supply them with the knowledge and resources granted to other students in middle and high-class settings. Often times, it’s not always the blame of the school as they don’t have the money to create these extracurriculars.
And it doesn’t help that I come from a community so disconnected from the media. When I told my family about my future career plans, my brother didn’t share the same excitement I had.
“Journalism is a rich kid job,” he told me.
In my brother’s eyes, journalism is too risky for someone like me. I won’t make enough money, he stressed, and I don’t have the financial, and professional backing other young, aspiring journalists from more affluent areas do. It hurt because I needed his approval. My brother sacrificed everything in his life to act as a father figure for my siblings and me. I wanted him to be excited about my goals, so I was determined to prove him wrong.
On the last day of my internship, the other interns and I were lined up in front of the newsroom and were told to say our names, the schools we went to, which section of the newsroom we worked in, and our favorite memory at the Free Press. I froze. In those six weeks, I cried myself to sleep while thinking I wasn’t good enough. I learned what AP style is, and how to conduct women-on-the-street interviews. I was cussed out by the mothers of teenage brides and wrote the draft of my article about young marriage in Detroit’s Yemeni community that was later published in September and went viral. I doubted myself and learned about the implications that the lack of extracurricular opportunities can have on a student’s self-confidence once they step into a professional setting. I learned how I could overcome the disadvantage my school has placed me in, and the importance of using my story to shed light onto the personal effects a lackluster education can have. But if I am being honest, I still don’t know the difference between an op-ed and a column.