This week, we’re launching our Alumni Spotlight series, in which current Duke undergraduate students write profiles of university alumni who pursued careers in journalism. Below, junior Bill McCarthy writes about Isabella Kwai, Trinity ’16, who is currently an editorial assistant at the New York Times’ bureau in Sydney, Australia.
Her parents laughed when she first told them she wanted to be a journalist.
She was a child at the time, living in a small Chinese community in Australia, and her parents thought journalism meant war and danger. Their worries were enough to make her drop the idea, so she decided instead that she would be a fiction writer.
But Isabella Kwai, Trinity ’16, is now stationed at The New York Times’ brand-new Sydney bureau, where she covers culture and politics as an editorial assistant. She says it is exciting being back in Australia, especially after spending four years at Duke and a fifth in Washington, D.C., on fellowship at The Atlantic magazine.
The Sydney bureau, which just opened in May, is small – so small that Kwai says it sometimes feels “like a startup.” For several months, it consisted of three writers working out of a single room and shared office space. Now there are five writers, and the bureau has moved to its own formal office.
“We’re all doing different things, and nobody is exempt from carrying stuff up the stairs or going out and reporting,” Kwai says. “That’s been great, because for a young person just starting out on her journalism career, I get to do reporting on topics that I probably would not have had the opportunity to cover in other positions.”
The bureau is still trying to identify its role in the Australian media ecosystem. Kwai says locals often ask whether the Times plans to publish its own Australian paper. But that is not the intended design.
“We’re not really trying to replace other media coverage,” she explains. “What we’re trying to do is appeal to more readers, whether they’re Australian, or Americans in Australia, or just people who want to know more about Australia in the context of the world.”
For Kwai, this means writing stories that speak to Oceania’s relationship with race, culture and the environment. She does not have a specific beat, but several of her hard news and feature stories share a “cultural undertone.” She says this is among her favorite angles – one that “has a lot of richness to it” – and that writing for the Times has been a “dream position.”
“If you had told me I would be working for the Times back when I was in school, I would have definitely laughed and said you were crazy,” she says.
That’s because, in her time at Duke, she was slow to get into journalism. Kwai was a public policy and English major. She loved literature. She loved reading fiction, and she loved writing it. “Journalism is something that has come into my life every now and then,” she says, but creative writing was always a staple – ever since that laugh from her parents, at least.
Cathy Shuman, professor of English and Kwai’s senior thesis adviser, says Kwai was always seeking out new creative writing projects.
“She had this really rich, imagery-laden style with a dreamlike texture, which was really wonderful,” Shuman explains. “Obviously her journalistic style is much more straightforward and clean and to the point, but the precision and beauty of her metaphors and her details in her creative writing carries over.”
“If you had told me I would be working for the Times back when I was in school, I would have definitely laughed and said you were crazy.” — Isabella Kwai, Trinity ’16
Kwai came to Duke on a Karsh International Scholarship, a program for international students who qualify for financial aid. Lauren Lowman, a former graduate student adviser for the program, remembers meeting her.
“She would ask a million questions every minute,” Lowman says. “Sometimes I would feel like I couldn’t answer all of her questions because she would just ask me 10 in a row and they were all very different, but she just was excited to learn. She always wanted to learn new things, to meet new people.”
It seems, then, that Kwai had the makeup of a reporter. But it was not until the end of her junior year at Duke that Kwai says she redeveloped her interest in journalism. With her mind set on graduation, she began wondering “how to write in a way that made [her] feel like [she] was doing something good in the world.”
“The thing about journalism is that it is more immediate and it is about real life, which is often stranger than fiction,” she says. “When you read a really great piece of journalism, it hits you in the gut. It’s just as emotional as a really good book.”
At the time, Kwai had been writing a weekly column for The Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper, but she switched over to reporting and wrote several stories. She also sought out Bill Adair,, director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, which houses Duke’s undergraduate journalism program. She audited his class and accompanied him at events with journalists. Adair even assigned her projects for the Reporters’ Lab, the student research hub within the DeWitt Wallace Center.
Kwai says her time working for The Chronicle and Adair helped her grow confident that she could survive in journalism, but she could not shake the thought that she started too late. By the fall of her senior year, several of her friends already knew where they were going and what they would be doing after graduation. She still had questions.
But Shuman says Kwai eventually learned to wear her predicament like a badge: “She had that ultimate faith in herself to feel uncertain and unsure.”
As always, Kwai found an outlet for this feeling in her writing. At the time, she was preparing her senior thesis – a series of vignettes taking place in different cities around the world. The theme was what Kwai calls “the push,” which Shuman says meant “the push to move beyond a boundary and make connections outside of herself.”
“This is a motivation for her and a recurring theme in her life, ” Shuman says. “That’s what got her where she is: this willingness to say, ‘I am going to do something beyond the norm here.’ She’s been pushing herself all along.”
This push – this will to stray from traditional career frameworks and experiment with new paths and activities – factored in throughout Kwai’s time at Duke. It factored in when she joined both a sorority and a selective living group. It factored in when she ran for and was elected sophomore class president. It factored in when she opted to spend her summers at Oxford and in India. And it factored in shortly before graduation, when she received word that she had been accepted to a one-year fellowship at The Atlantic magazine.
By then, Kwai had already readied herself for a masters program in creative writing at Oxford. But the Atlantic opportunity excited her. She thought it might provide a true gateway into journalism, so she took the risk. She made the push.
“She didn’t go to journalism school,” Shuman says. “She didn’t spend years figuring it out. She just did it, which is very like Bella. She doesn’t feel like she has to have a lot of preparation to just do something.”
Now in her fifth month at the Times, Kwai says it is strange being home again.
“I feel like I understood the country but I also had some distance from it,” she says. “I had this idea of what Australia was like in my head, but I don’t think that necessarily matched reality. Everything with a veil of nostalgia seems different.”
“It strikes me how many different communities there are in Australia, but also the different ways they do or don’t intersect,” she adds. “I didn’t pick up on those nuances before, but I am noticing them now as a reporter.”
With so much around her to observe, Kwai says she does not regret pushing herself into journalism. She still has plans to someday publish a work in creative fiction, but for now she is content.
“It’s great to be a part of a very exciting new project and get better every day at being a reporter,” she says. “I am rediscovering the place I grew up in.”
And that place is rediscovering her.