[This is the 1000-word autobiographical note I sent in a few months ago as part of my application for admission to the journalism program at King's College, Halifax.]
Thank you very much for looking though my late application to the one-year Bachelor of Journalism program. This application is an attempt to convince you to look past the gloriously embarrassing numbers on my undergraduate transcript and consider the experience I gained during a four-month internship with This Magazine, my commitment to the survival of the independent and alternative media outlets which amplify the unique voices found across this impossibly large country, and my interest in helping to develop new business models which will keep these publications with us for the long run. This is how I plan to weasel my way into your very appealing (although probably full) program.
I am interested in magazine writing and other long-form journalism partly because writing is the only form of high-level expression available to me. I have a good friend who’s a great saxophone player, but we can’t have a conversation in his preferred language because I don’t speak jazz. I also don’t speak painting or sculpture or dance. Which means that if I want to express the nonsense in my head with any degree of complexity or coherence, it has to be with words on a page.
Not too many generations ago, my family were farmers in British Sri Lanka. They converted to Catholicism and attended Irish mission schools. Some won jobs in the colonial civil service. Some left Sri Lanka in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s to find work in British Malaya. A generation later, others left to go to school in North America. And the rest left in the 1980s to escape the civil war, ending up in Canada, Norway, Switzerland, England, and so on.
Around the time many relatives were leaving a declining Sri Lanka, I was born into the middle of Singapore’s economic miracle. The city-state has been called a sociologist’s dream because it serves as a counter-example to the Western notion that prosperity requires liberty. My parents decided that my sister and I were not suited to such a rigid system and gave up stable careers to move us to Toronto in 1999. Since then, I’ve been an immigrant, a citizen, a philosophy student, and a part-time member of a very troubled Tamil diaspora.
Family history aside, I recognize that there are lots of other stories which need telling. People who live comfortably often develop ways to filter out the distressing social realities which surround them. I want to help tell these stories in ways that are engaging and thought-provoking. Journalism is a public utility which has given me my share of role models. Veteran reporter David Simon intended the fictional television series The Wire as an uncomfortably close look at the dysfunctional institutions which operate in inner-city Baltimore. Slate senior editor Dahlia Lithwick gives non-specialist readers access to the highly technical world of the US Supreme Court, whose complex proceedings affect millions of lives. And Rick Salutin, now a columnist with the Toronto Star, is a professional outsider who unravels any idea that seems too tidy. I’d like to be like him one day.
It was by looking into Salutin’s past work that I found out about This Magazine, the 45-year-old alternative magazine which I later joined on a four-month internship. It is a small shop with high standards, and the internship was a crash course in fact-checking, print writing, blogging, and all the publishing heroics which keep the whole thing alive for another issue. I enjoyed fact-checking, both because the meticulousness appealed to some very nit-picky part of my soul and because it required me to re-trace the steps of a more experienced writer.
The internship also gave me my first look at the difference between small independent publications and publications which aspire to a greater respectability. I learnt that advertisements can say as much about a publication as editorials. This Magazine features ads from unions and small literary presses, while The Walrus features ads for prestigious private schools and high-status theatrical performances, with a luxury car fixed permanently to the back page. I still enjoy the quality of social commentary found in industry giants like The New Yorker and Harper’s, but I now remind myself that their target audience has a higher-than-average chance of owning an Audi or a BMW.
Why King’s College? It sounds like the low student-to-instructor ratio would do a lot to address the academic weaknesses which are obvious from my transcript. I learn best when I am able to form relationships and have conversations with instructors and peers. Finding this difficult in the University of Toronto’s faculty-based academic system, I focused instead on college-based extra-curriculars. I took on leadership roles and social justice causes which taught me at least as much as I was getting by sitting in the back of large lecture halls. I don’t regret that choice, but I do wish my transcript was less crappy.
I hope the program will lead me to greater familiarity with the journalistic landscape and connections with industry professionals. But more specifically, I hope to develop the ability to produce prose that is lean and focused. I have a tendency to use more words than I should to make a point. I would also like an introduction to research and investigation. I have a lot of experience with academic research but less with in-depth policy analysis and very little with the more human side of information-gathering. I got a taste of both at This, when sifting through years of policy reports for my own review of federal childcare policy, and when fact-checking a feature article which referred to one of the named characters as a “dirty cop.” We had to decide if we were justified in printing that phrase, and I ended up speaking to him long-distance on the phone to try to get him to confirm the allegations. We printed the phrase.
Thank you for reading. I hope you will look kindly on my application. After 11 years in Toronto, I’d like to see what Halifax is like.
Yours in perpetual hope,