UChicago Alumna and Student Win Journalism Awards

UChicago alumna Sydney Combs, AB’15, and graduating fourth year Dake Kang, AB’16, have both won prestigious student journalism awards. Sydney received the Society of Professional Journalists Regional Mark of Excellence in the feature photography category and placed as a finalist in the National Mark of Excellence competition. Dake has won the 2016 Overseas Press Club Foundation Scholar Award.

Sydney Combs Wins the Society of Professional Journalists Regional Mark of Excellence Award

View Sydney’s project

When Sydney Combs entered her first year at UChicago, little did she know that an O-Week hunch would launch her on the career path of her dreams. Today, she is the winner of the Society of Professional Journalists Regional Mark of Excellence Award and placed as a finalist in the National Mark of Excellence competition. She is now more motivated than ever to tell the stories no one else is telling.

“I walked into the Chicago Maroon’s open house with a suspicion that I might enjoy journalism even though I had no previous experience,” Sydney remembers. “I joined as a news contributor, but after a couple of articles I noticed that my heart was in the photography.” Working on the Maroon gave Sydney critical experience as well as exposure to many other passionate people with whom she could discuss journalistic and photographic technique. Her growing passion for the craft, along with support from peers and mentors, prompted her to apply for her first photojournalism Metcalf. This went so well that the following year she applied for a second Metcalf, this time with Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. “Needless to say, if it hadn’t been for student publications and organizations like UChicago Careers in Journalism, Arts, and Media, the Institute of Politics, and the “The World: Beyond the Headlines” series at the Center for International Studies (where I met so many gracious journalists), I wouldn’t be doing journalism today.”

It was through Sydney’s fellowship with the Pulitzer Center that she was able to explore a subject near to her heart: entrepreneurialism among Maasai women in Tanzania. For Sydney, this topic combined her love of anthropology and her treasured study abroad experience from two years prior in Tanzania, where she first came across a community of local businesswomen selling their wares despite overwhelming opposition to women operating independently in the marketplace. “Two weeks after graduating from UChicago, I set off for Oltukai village in northern Tanzania. During study abroad, I had worked in the same village on an ethnographic project looking at Maasai perceptions on female entrepreneurship. At the time, most men disapproved of women selling anything more than milk at the market but yet there was a steady increase of Maasai businesswomen. For this trip, I returned as a journalist to note how Maasai women were supporting each other in order to overcome and change stigmas against businesswomen in their patriarchal society.” Her goal was to approach this topic in a multimedia report, combining video along with her normal photojournalistic approach.

The task in front of her was anything but simple. “Operating as a one-woman crew, in three different languages (English, Swahili, and Maa), in such a rural area proved rather difficult at times. Luckily, I was able to work with my translator from two years earlier, Sion Paul. With her help, I received a warm welcome into the community and made contact with the project’s featured family, the Kelele’s, in a matter of days. Between the power outages, daily five kilometer treks, and heckling from local men, the Kelele’s and Sion got me through it all.”

In addition to the satisfaction of winning an award for her project, Sydney has emerged from this experience with a newfound love of documentary filmmaking. “Capturing live footage up to photojournalistic standards combined my favorite parts of photography, film, and journalism,” shares Sydney. “In short, I fell in love with documentary filmmaking. After Tanzania, it’s hard to imagine going forward without including multimedia.” Sydney has found her favorite medium for telling stories, which, as she puts it, are best when they capture the voice of those who otherwise couldn’t tell their stories. “I tend to admire journalism that tells stories that otherwise wouldn’t have been told or heard. In my opinion, it is journalism’s duty to step in when individuals lack the resources and/or power to tell their own stories. Although not all journalists can (or arguably should) focus solely on these individuals, I have found the experience deeply rewarding.”

Dake Kang (AB '16) Wins the 2016 Overseas Press Club Foundation Scholar Award

“It started with a rumor, as most good stories do,” Dake Kang says, remembering the story behind the article that won him the 2016 Overseas Press Club Foundation Scholar Award.

Dake was interning abroad with the Times of India in New Delhi when he heard that there were North Korean students studying under the radar at a private American school. “In the process of reporting on another story,” remembers Dake, “I heard from someone that there was a North Korean embassy in New Delhi, and I thought, ‘Huh, that's interesting, I wonder what the North Koreans are doing here?’ So I trawled through the internet on a whim, and I discovered sporadic articles that talked about ties between India and North Korea back in the 1970s.”

Dake, with ample natural inquisitiveness and perseverance, decided to dig deeper. He uncovered an article alleging that there were dozens of North Korean students studying in India, but when he followed up with the author he was told not to waste his time. In spite of this apparent dead-end, the story idea stuck with him. “Weeks later,” he remembers, “I was interviewing a South Korean for a different story - and on a hunch, I asked him if he heard of these North Korean students. He hesitated, and I could see immediately there was something there. After reassuring him I'd keep him anonymous, he told me where to go, and there, in the lobby of the college he sent me to, were North Korean flags fluttering next to a dozen others. I was nervous, but I figured I didn't have anything to lose, so I walked in and asked to speak to the International Student's Office. To my utter surprise, not only did she agree to speak with me, she openly talked about the North Korean students there, and even arranged an interview!”

The resulting article proved a crowning achievement for Dake, on top of the many other accomplishments he has achieved in his early career as a journalist. Dake has completed three internships: one with CNN, another with the Times of India, and the last with Fox News. Upon graduation he will go on to work with the Associated Press out of Philadelphia and for Forbes from the Philippines.

Dake’s interest in journalism began, as he puts it, on a whim. Still not sure where his interests lay in his second year of school, he applied for his first internship with CNN and was surprised when he was offered the position. “I found myself in the control room of the CNN headquarters in Atlanta, watching the second Egyptian Revolution unfold live before my eyes. I was hooked instantly. I thought, ‘Whoa, this is what I should be doing.’”

This first burst of excitement continued to motivate Dake throughout his internship. “At CNN I was on a news producing team, which meant I spent most of my time cutting footage, writing TV script, and putting together show cues. It was great - I was learning tons about how the news business worked - but every time I saw a crew go out, or a reporter go live on air, or watched the latest coming in from China or Italy or wherever, I felt this itch. I just knew that I wasn't meant to be sitting in this office. I was meant to be out there, finding stories. Digging in. Illuminating what was going on. Chasing these bits of truths that were supposed to be told.”

To continue honing in on the aspects of journalism he most wanted to pursue, Dake took up his second internship with the Times of India. There he experienced unexpected freedom, and relished the opportunity to seek out his own story ideas. “The first day on the job, my editor took me aside to chat in his office. I asked him what kind of stories I should look for, and he said, ‘I don't know, just look for anything you might find interesting and come back to me.’ I walked out of the office and, with his prompt, the world opened up. Delhi suddenly appeared to me as this huge, crazy place with so much stuff going on that had to be told. That's how I got hooked again. I spent days chatting up everyone I knew, meeting hundreds of people from all walks of life. I spent nights tinkering with data sets and mining algorithms. I spent weekends going on trips into the countryside to chase stories about rural education, or hunting down professors and politicians to interview. The work was so compelling, it sucked me right in. And that's when I knew that this was what I had been looking for.”

As Dake recalls the story of his award winning article, he doesn’t overlook the difficulties involved. His biggest obstacle was the ethical challenges raised by reporting on a group of people who wanted to remain out of the public eye. He queried other journalists for advice and received mixed messages. “I went ahead with the interview anyways—and interviewed them rather clumsily. Being pretty new to the craft of journalism, I hadn't quite mastered the art of interviewing for a potentially sensitive story yet, another difficulty I encountered. But I managed to get some good quotes, and that was the story. I never published the piece because the ethical questions still nagged at me, but the whole project was a great experience and I'm much better prepared now to tackle complex, sensitive stories.”

As Dake continues his career after graduation, he looks forward to telling stories that exhibit the complexity of the subjects at hand. “I really love digging into deeply complex stories and illuminating all the different sides and perspectives of the people involved…At the end of the day, I seek to inform, to illuminate. I want to investigate the truth, and the truth is very complex and multifaceted, and it's deeply human and very broad and grand in scale at the same time. I don't want to push just one worldview or one narrative, but to capture and bring to my audience an appreciation of all that's going on in a compelling way.”