An Interview with Jessica Stahl of Voice of America

307933_693320373262_563685602_nI first “met” Jessica Stahl after I wrote about a post from The Student Union, a blog she edits for Voice of America. A native of Long Island, she now lives in Washington, D.C., where she works across the street from the Capitol building.

I’ve enjoyed reading Jessica’s blog and then chatting with her through email. I’m interested in the work she does at VOA (see the end of this post for more info about her employer), so I asked if I could interview her. She graciously agreed.

When I asked Jessica what she does at VOA, she told me she is “a producer for social media and special digital projects.” That led me to my first question:

What does “a producer for social media and special digital projects” do?

So, my actual title is “Audience Engagement Analyst,” which is one of those phrases that makes less sense the more you think about it. I call myself a social and digital media producer because that’s much more accurate to what I do. Basically, I manage VOA’s social media presences in English and advise our reporters and programs on how to use social media in their own work, and then I also put together projects and coverage that has a social media or user-generated component to it. Sometimes that’s an article that’s based on something that’s happening on social media (like when the Israelis and Palestinians were basically live tweeting the Gaza conflict a few weeks ago), and sometimes that’s a big project around an event like the presidential inauguration (which is what I’m working on at the moment).

You also edit The Student Union. How did you get started with that?

The Student Union came about a bit by accident. When I started in this job, I was looking around our website and familiarizing myself with what we had going on, looking for areas for improvement. One that jumped out at me immediately was our coverage of international-student issues. We would do these profiles of international students, which were fairly formulaic, and I immediately thought how much more interesting it would be to have international students telling their own stories. It was one of those things where I pitched the idea and was essentially told, “Great, go do it.” So I did. At the time I didn’t know anything about international-student issues, so that first year was a pretty big learning curve!

But I really love working on it. I love editing, and I like writing/reporting without the deadline pressure of breaking news, and I find working with the students so incredible. Their stories are fascinating, and they are so talented, and I love being in a position to help them mold that (not that they always need my input). If I’m honest, it makes me feel important and useful in a way that my regular job doesn’t always!

How did your life before VOA get you ready for what you do now?

That’s a tough one, because I fell into this a bit by accident. My degrees are both in international relations and economics—I did journalism as a hobby in college and grad school but never seriously considered pursuing it as a career. But I ended up at this job at VOA and I absolutely love what I do. I didn’t really have a lot of knowledge about social media when I started, but I’ve learned as I went and now I’d say (humbly, I hope) that I’m very good at my job.

I do think that the training I got in college as a print journalist has been absolutely vital though—that’s where I had the principles of journalism and of good writing drilled into me.

And my interest in/knowledge of international relations comes in handy pretty much every day, since I’m constantly dealing with world news and expected to have a really solid grasp on everything happening around the world.

Back to The Student Union: You have a great mix of students contributing to the blog. How did you meet them?

I find the writers in a whole bunch of different ways—a lot of it is actually dumb luck from students stumbling across the blog and then asking how they can get involved. That’s how I got matched up with two of my best writers: Anna Malinovskaya, from Russia, and Sarah Bosha, from Zimbabwe. I also do a lot of outreach towards the end of the summer with EducationUSA advisors around the world and with international student advisors at US universities, and they’ve been really helpful in spreading the word among their students and helping connect me with people who might be interested. And then, of course, I put it out there on our social media channels as well.

There is actually an application process, so I get to shape the group to make sure it’s pretty diverse in terms of country of origin, location in the US, major, and level of education. But most of that stuff sort of works itself out naturally, and the biggest things I look for are whether the student has ideas and is comfortable sharing things about their own life.

Can you give us examples of posts that give us a taste of how interesting/insightful The Student Union can be?

I’m personally interested in questions of identity and how that’s challenged in cross-cultural situations, and we’ve had some amazing posts on that topic, including from an African girl who had to confront her bias against gay people, “Just when I Learn the Answers, They Change the Questions: A Zimbabwean’s Journey“; from a Chinese girl who tried out several American personas, “What Does It Mean to ‘Be American’ as a Chinese Student“; and from an Afghan guy about the burden of showing American classmates that Afghans are normal people, “‘Who Are You?’ What It Means to Be an Afghan among Americans.”

But we also discuss quirks of American culture, like in this post about classroom discipline (by Anna), “Two Russians Discussing American Education,” or this one about the meaning of the phrase, “How are you?” “The ‘Wrong’ Way to Answer ‘How Are You?’” as well as more informational things like admissions procedures/requirements.

No matter what the topic is, it’s always from a first-person perspective, which I think is what makes it interesting. We’re not just telling people do this or do that (I have a serious pet peeve about “advice” articles that are so vague they can’t possibly be actionable or have no context to help you apply the advice to your own life); we’re sharing what we’ve done and what we learned from it, which someone can just read as a compelling story or can use as an input to make their own decisions.

The international students you work with, did they know about Voice of America before they met you? Did they listen to it in their home countries? What ideas/opinions did they have about VOA?

Depends. Some did, some didn’t. This year, I think, most didn’t. So I think for the most part they don’t really have a pre-existing opinion about VOA. During winter break a bunch will be traveling through D.C., and I’m really psyched to have them over to VOA and show them around so they can get a better sense of what they’re part of.

That sounds like a great time, for them and for you. I’d enjoy seeing DC through their eyes (I hope they get to blog about it). I’d also like to see DC through the eyes of an “insider.” So one last question: If I were to bring some international students to visit DC, after going to all the standard must-see sights—and VOA, of course—what would be a place off the beaten path that you think we should experience? What is a place that you’ve discovered because you’ve made D.C. your home?

One of our bloggers who spent a semester in D.C. did a nice insider’s look at some of the things she discovered, so you can check that out: “A Shifting Identity in Photos: Jihve’s Story.” For me, one of the things I love about D.C. is just the feeling of gravitas you get walking past the US Capitol and the White House. I still always get chills going past the White House. So I recommend walking the National Mall and seeing those sights, both during the day and at night when they’re all lit up. There’s an amazing spot on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial where you can look across the Tidal Basin and see the Capitol on your right, the White House through the trees straight ahead and the Lincoln Memorial on your left, and it’s just gorgeous.The other thing that people probably don’t know about D.C. is how many different neighborhoods we have. It’s not just downtown that’s interesting. I love to walk (probably obvious from my previous suggestion), so I’ve really enjoyed just wandering through the neighborhoods and absorbing their different characters. I recommend Capitol Hill, particularly Eastern Market (which is a giant open-air food/crafts market), U Street (for something that is more authentic to DC’s homegrown culture), and Georgetown.


Voice of America began broadcasting in 1942 and in the 70 years since has grown to reach a television and radio (including shortwave) audience of 141 million each week, in 43 languages. Begun “as a response to the need of peoples in closed and war-torn societies for reliable news,” VOA is under the direction of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent agency of the US government. The BBG’s mission is “to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”

(“VOA Fast Facts,” Voice of America)


Can’t We Just Be Friends? Bridging the Cultural Divide on Campus

 In my last post, on friendships between international and American students, I pulled some statistics from Voice of America’s “Student Union” blog. Actually, rather than a lot of numbers, much of what you’ll find at “Student Union” are first-hand accounts of what it’s like to study in American colleges and universities, while facing the challenges of a new culture.

There’s a lot of insight and candor there, on a great variety of topics. Take, for example, these posts:

But back to the topic of friendships. In my post I cited a recent study that says over half of students from China and other East Asian countries have no close American friends. Under the title “Whose Fault Is It when American and International Students Don’t Mix?” Jessica Stahl discusses a video from the Office for International Students and Scholars at Michigan State University, in which students from China and the US talk about the ins and outs of cross-cultural friendships. Part of what makes the video especially interesting is that the group of four female Chinese students and the group of three male Americans are not interviewed at the same time. While this means they don’t respond directly to what their counterparts are saying, it does give them a greater opportunity for honesty and frankness.

After the introduction, the video opens with a segment called “Forming Friendships: Finding Common Ground.” One of the Chinese students begins by saying, “Finding something in common is really hard, because you don’t make friends with someone without having something in common with them.” I think she makes a good point.

When we meet people, we usually start with questions that will reveal what we have in common. And when we find that we share something—place of origin, interests, likes, beliefs, friends, experiences—we pursue it in conversation to see how good a fit we are. It takes time and patience to get past the superficials to track down deeper commonalities, and people from different cultures often don’t get past the opening conversation . . . or they don’t even begin the conversation in the first place.

On the other hand, just looking like you’re from “someplace else” is enough to draw attention from others with significant cross-cultural experience. So Third Culture Kids often seek out international students, and international students find community among each other, regardless of how far apart their home countries are. But while this can lead to some wonderful opportunities for friendship, it is often a small pool to draw from, and it can further limit one’s feeling of fitting in to the general population.

To pique your curiosity, I’ve transcribed below more of the students’ comments on this topic of making friends. But really, if you’re interested in any aspect of cross-cultural interactions, watch the whole video. It’s 17 minutes long but well worth your time.

FYI: The video description at YouTube states that the panelists are all undergraduate students at Michigan State, and the American students “have all spent time in China and have meaningful Chinese friendships.”

Here are some of the comments made by the Chinese students.

Students’ get-togethers start off by talking about high school life. When they came from the same area, well they have some kind of similar backgrounds and experiences that we don’t really have.

Some Chinese students, when they talk with an American, when they cannot find anything in common, they’ll just keep quiet. So they just ignore you. . . .

They care about their baseball game, football game, everything else, instead of this bunch of Chinese people just arrived.

If you make friends . . . you want to get involved in the American community, they will treat you as either a joke or just ignore you.

I’d rather just be with my Chinese friends.

I’ve met a lot of great American friends who are willing to sit down and listen to you and also share their story.

And by the American students:

For someone who hasn’t been to China before or who doesn’t know the culture, I think it’s going to be difficult for them to kickstart a conversation.

The closest relationships that I’ve had with Chinese students are the ones where the Chinese students make it an effort to also start a relationship as well.

My feeling, from my experience of why Chinese students don’t necessarily form close relationships with Americans and why Americans don’t form necessarily close relationships with  Chinese is more so the flaw of the Chinese students.

Man, all the Asians are always together. You’ll never see one by themselves. They’re always in a group.

Besides those certain things that do make an impact, we’re all very similar, and you don’t need to stress the differences too much, because those are easily overlooked. . . . Differences aren’t a problem. Differences are what make life.

[photo: “When Chopstick Meet Fork & Spoon,” by Lohb, used under a Creative Commons license]