About a month ago, I asked people on my Facebook page if they want some help with going abroad to study for their higher education. I got an overwhelming response, far greater than I expected, in which literally dozens of people posted questions they had about courses, Visa applications, job interviews and more. So I decided to start an interview series called পড়াশোনা করে যে (Those Who Study). It is an attempt to connect people I know who are studying abroad with people who want to go and are looking for help. This is the first of this series.
Our first connector is Debanjali Bose, my friend, philosopher and guide. A journalist and documentary filmmaker based in New York, she is a recent graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and a Video Fellow with Buzzfeed News in New York. She has covered criminal justice, gun violence, women veterans and media literacy, as well as (if less importantly) The Oscars. She can be found on Twitter.
Q. Why did you decide to go abroad?
I decided pretty early on that I’d like to go abroad to study at some point, whether it is for undergrad or postgrad because the exposure that it would bring mattered to me a lot.
Q. Why did you choose to go for post-grad and not under-grad?
Initially, I wanted to go for UG but it was too expensive and I couldn’t afford to so I decided to wait it out for three years and then apply for PG instead.
Q. How did you choose your colleges?
Google is your best friend. I studied journalism so that was what I was researching. If you hit the right keywords like ‘best’ ‘college’ ‘university’ and your stream, you’re going to get more links than you can count. Of course, you should only go for the ones that look legitimate. I depended heavily on USA Today College. There are a few names that will be there in multiple lists and those are the ones you should pay attention to. For me, it was Northwestern University, UC Berkeley and Columbia University (which I ultimately ended up attending).
Q. How long was the application process?
I started my application within a week of them opening it. I highly recommend signing up for email updates from the university regarding their application procedure. That way, you stay up-to-date. The essays take a while so you need to plan accordingly. For me, the whole process took a little over two months because I also had to juggle college exams in India while I was applying here in the US. You want to give yourself as much time as possible and not be hasty.
Q. What were the documents required?
You need a certificate of English proficiency (IELTS/TOEFL), official transcripts (sometime, you can send in an unofficial transcript and then send in the official one once you’ve been accepted, which is what I did with Northwestern but that depends from university-to-university), letters of recommendation from teachers and/or employers.
Q. What were the exams you had to take? Are these exams compulsory for everyone applying from India?
You have to take one exam to prove your English proficiency. It is usually TOEFL but it can also be IELTS (it depends from university-to-university). This is compulsory, in my experience. You also have to take GRE for most universities. I only applied to Northwestern University and Columbia University. It was required for the former and not for the latter. If you’re applying for undergrad, you need SAT. Apart from exams and scores, extra-curricular activities matter a lot too. You need something that sets you apart from the thousands of other applications they’re receiving. What makes you unique?
Q. What kind of visa did you have to go for? Can one work with this visa?
The visa application was fairly smooth for me. It is that way for most people as long as you have all your papers and I-20 from school in order. An I-20 is a document that your school gives you that you use to apply for the visa with. Getting the I-20 is kind of a tortuous process because in order to get the document, you need to prove that you have the funds in the bank to be able to finance the course. This means whatever amount you’re responsible for after the scholarship. I had a substantial scholarship from the university but I was still responsible for a portion of the tuition and I had to prove that I was financially stable enough to pay for that. Once you get the I-20, it’s pretty easy. I am currently on an F1 visa. After your course is over, you can apply for an OPT (Optional Period of Training) which is valid for a year, or 3 years if you’re a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) student, and you can use that to work and get internships.
Q. What scholarships are available for your course? Is one’s visa affected by scholarships and vice versa?
Usually there is a scholarship application that you can open and work on at the same time as the main application. The university itself might have lots of scholarships and sometimes they have foundations that make generous donations. I had a university scholarship from Columbia. I also highly recommend looking at scholarships from your home country. India has scholarships like Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation, JN Tata Trust and Aga Khan Foundation that are pretty good. You can combine a number of different scholarships to finance your education.
Q. What is the job market like for journalism in the United States? How does your visa affect your job search?
A. Journalism is tough anywhere. Don’t go into journalism expecting to make a lot of money, do it because that’s what you’re passionate about. As for scope, it depends on what kind of journalism you’re involved in. It’s not monolithic as most people seem to think. Before I came to the US, I had many people telling me it’s been voted the ‘second worst occupation’ in the country. What they mean is a newspaper reporter but not all journalists are newspaper reporters. Print is on the decline, but there is a lot of scope for video and data. Getting a work visa is tough, especially with all the sanctions that the current government is imposing on H1B visa for skilled workers. If you’re willing to and can afford your own immigration lawyer, things might be a little easier. Nothing is guaranteed, of course.
Q. Tell us about your course. Which were your favourite parts?
I studied Journalism with a concentration in Video Journalism and Documentary Filmmaking. I loved how hands-on it was. It felt less like school and more like a job. I didn’t have professors, I had editors.
Q. What are the kinds of opportunities you have received through your course?
I went in knowing I wanted to become a visual storyteller and I received just the right training for that. I was able to work in the areas that I have vested interest in with the best kind of resources like top-notch cameras, 24-hour access to computers and editing software, and, best of all, being able to practice journalism in a city as dynamic as New York.
Q. What kind of work have you done through these opportunities?
I have co-produced two documentaries. The first one was on gun violence, and the second on homeless women veterans. In school, you wear many hats. I have been the reporter, the shooter, the editor, a little bit of everything. Of course, I had an amazing team every both times. So, you learn how to be involved in every part of the production process and do everything, which an invaluable skill once you enter the job market.
Q. Where do you plan to go from here?
I definitely want to continue working with documentaries and/or video storytelling but I am leaning more towards producing documentaries for digital platforms than making feature-length films. Since graduation, I had been working with an NGO based in New York that works with media literacy amongst high-school and middle-school kids which is so important in the current political climate with all this discussion about ‘fake news’. I had been producing videos for their web-platform. I just formally accepted an offer from Buzzfeed News to join their team as a Video Fellow so that’s what I am going to be doing for the next couple of months. I have also been entering For Her Service, the documentary about homeless women veterans that I co-produced, in film festivals. Fingers crossed!
Q. What were the Oscars like?
I was covering Buzzfeed’s Oscar Watch Party. It was my first time doing a LIVE shoot for any event, so I was a little bit nervous throughout. Shooting for a documentary is difficult and takes skill because you have to capture something in the moment and don’t get many takes. But there is some space for a do-over. With live shows, if you mess up, it lives that way on the internet forever. I also had to stand on a small box the whole time because somehow, as the shortest person on the team, I had ended up with the tallest camera. And when that stuff (with Moonlight being announced as the winner) happened, I just didn’t even care that we were live on my camera and straight up LEFT MY POST because I needed to go scream and react with everyone else!
Q. Tell us about your experience of studying in the United States. Would you recommend it to others?
I would highly recommend it to other people. The last two years have been transformational for me because I had only lived at home and studied in Kolkata. The amount of exposure I’ve received has been incredible. For example, my reporting professor (Betsy West) had 6-7 Emmy awards just laying around in her office. I interned with an Oscar-award winning filmmaker (Alex Gibney). It’s been amazing. Scary, but amazing.
I hope this helps at least some of you! The interview took place over nearly two months via Skype, emails and Facebook, and we worked very hard to make it as comprehensive as possible. Please leave any question you have in the comments here, or email me at email@example.com. Just put ‘Porashuna Korey Jey Media’ in the subject line.
Would you like to see more in this series? Go to Spiktinot’s Facebook page and tell me!