Degree: English Language & Literature and Music Performance (Viola)
Current location: Brooklyn, NY
Year graduated: 2004
Student Organization Involvement: Lots of music (string quartets, orchestras, etc.); SERVE, a community service and social action leadership group
Other jobs held or graduate programs attended since graduation: Syracuse University, MA Arts Journalism; Editorial Fashion Intern at Surface Magazine; Assistant News Editor at Forbes.com; Assistant Opinions Editor at Forbes Magazine; Managing Editor at Architizer LLC; Staff Writer (Brand Experiences) at Refinery 29, Inc.; Features Editor at Metro US; Freelance Writer and Editor
RL: I'm a features reporter at the New York Post focusing on culture and fashion, which means I spend a lot of my time talking with and interviewing people, trying to chase interesting stories and, well, writing (or staring at a blank Google doc on my computer!). Some of my most interesting assignments have been a story about the forgotten black fashion designer who made Jackie Kennedy's wedding dress; a history of salsa music (which was actually founded on the streets on NYC!); and a series of interviews with immigrant grandmothers who cook their favorite home dishes at a Staten Island restaurant (one woman was a recent Syrian refugee, and her daughter-in-law was there as a translator. Her story was so moving, that all three of us were in tears and hugging each other by the end --- it was very profound).
KC: When did your interest in journalism start, and how did your experience with music performance influence your career?
RL: I took an essay writing seminar my senior year at Michigan, and my professor encouraged me, saying that I was a good writer. That gave me the courage to go to go to the Michigan Daily with my friend and ask for a job. I started writing for the arts section, mainly about film and fashion, but music has definitely had a profound influence on my writing. In music, you are always thinking about --- or sometimes just feeling --- the phrasing, dynamics, and shape of the thing. Well, it's the same with writing, but instead of notes you are dealing with words. The best writing has a sense of musicality to it. And I've gotten to write about music a few times! I interviewed the Kronos Quartet for the Daily Beast, and I wrote about Bjork's music for the New York Times.
KC: What has your career timeline been like since you graduated from U-M?
RL: Well, unfortunately, I didn't realize I wanted to be a journalist until my second semester of my senior year! That summer, I interned at Pittsburgh Magazine (which is where I grew up), and then worked there as a part-time fact-checker and at a bookstore while applying to grad school for journalism. I ended up going to Syracuse University's arts journalism program, with a concentration in fashion writing. I had an occasional fashion column at U-M, and it got enough attention that I was interviewed at Women's Wear Daily for their annual college issue my senior year. This was despite knowing next to nothing about fashion, just really liking vintage clothes, so I thought if I were to write about it, then I should probably learn a thing or two about it. After school, I ended up getting a copyediting job at Forbes.com and basically wrote every chance I got --- fashion and lifestyle stories as well as book reviews --- and eventually got hired on the Opinions team, where I served as an editor.
It was a volatile time for journalism (I moved to NYC in 2008, right as the economy was about to collapse!), and I was at Forbes for four years before I got laid off. Fortunately, many other people had been let go or had jumped ship during that time, and so I had lots of colleagues who had landed at other publications helping me out. One of the writers there recommended me as an arts writer for ELLE's website, and a former boss of mine hired me to do some contract editing at Newsweek. It wasn't easy — and I tried a couple things that didn’t sit, like being managing editor at a startup architecture company, a job that I was hopelessly ill-suited for (I am not a manager!). But eventually I had built enough goodwill with coworkers and editors and people in the industry who would get me culture assignments at the Daily Beast, the New York Times and Time, while working contract or part-time editing and writing jobs.
It was when I was working as a part-time writer for the local paper Metro New York that one of my former Forbes colleagues asked me if I would be interested in writing some freelance pieces for the New York Post's luxury supplement, Alexa. I did that, and so when the paper was hiring a features writer, they already knew me!
KC: What did you gain from your LSA degree that has influenced your career path as well?
RL: Oh gosh. So. Much. First of all, my essay writing professor, John Rubadeau, was the one who encouraged me to pursue a career in writing. He really encouraged us to find our writing voices, and to have fun with language, while drumming good grammar into us, so I am completely indebted to him. Tish O'Dowd, my creative writing professor, was also so important in getting me to write in a more clear, naturalistic style, and not to obfuscate my ideas in obtuse, academic language. Taking creative writing with her made my nonfiction so much better.
Having a well-rounded liberal arts education has been invaluable. I have drawn on my international relations and political science classes when editing stories at Forbes — and writing about the politics of, say, what Michelle Obama wore in the Middle East (which I did for Time!). One time, when fact-checking an op-ed by ... let's say a prominent politician ... I used my math training to find a major calculation error in the piece, rendering the whole argument moot and thus having to have the politician (or more likely his team) rewrite the whole thing. But most of all, my literature classes really made me understand the power of words, the power of stories, and that has most certainly influenced what I do. Though I write about fashion and art, I do try to pitch stories about concerns that are close to my heart: trying to spotlight immigrant and refugee and minority stories as much as I can. This is especially important to me, as the daughter of a Cuban refugee and a formerly undocumented Chilean-Italian immigrant, who himself came from a family including political dissidents.
KC: What is the best career advice you've ever received?
RL: Well, it's not necessarily career advice, but I remember reading, a long time ago, an interview with Yo-Yo Ma where he said he practiced every day. This is the greatest cellist in the world, and he said that he could never just relax and rest on his laurels, that there are always new ways to push himself, more ways to deepen his understanding of a particular piece of music. He can always get some musical phrasing better, or have better bow control, or something! Anyway, knowing that even Yo-Yo Ma thinks he can always do better was a complete revelation and inspiration to me.
KC: What advice would you give to current students interested in pursuing a similar career path?
RL: Write for your college newspaper! Read A LOT. And don't be afraid to reach out to writers you admire via email or through Twitter — but make sure that what you say to them is smart and thoughtful.