As a budding research scientist, I have long been trained to question the premise of luck — any reasonable scientist surely knows that so-called “luck” is just the product of logic and causal relationships. Yet even now in retrospect, there doesn’t seem to be any rational explanation for the way in which I became a journalist other than pure, sheer luck.
It was with an apparent stroke of luck that I made my way through Sproul Plaza one afternoon, crossing paths with a few Arts and Entertainment reporters who, unbeknownst to me at the time, would go on to become my mentors, editors and fellow writers. I was just an overwhelmed freshman, struggling to stay afloat and stake my claim among a sea of premeds at UC Berkeley.
I knew that I enjoyed writing, but that seemed to be the extent of any applicable skills I had for The Daily Californian. But I applied to the Arts and Entertainment department on a whim with no previous journalism experience. With further fortuitous luck, I was hired as an arts writer and went on to become the lead video game reporter.
Becoming a writer on the Daily Cal staff was as unlikely as my path to UC Berkeley itself — surely nothing short of a miracle was needed for a woman of color from a low-income background to find herself in a male-dominated field at the heart of academia. Seated at the very front of Pimentel Hall for my first ever Chem 1A lecture, I remember feeling jittery from a combination of caffeine and nerves.
In my mind, I had made it. Here I was, claiming my seat at the metaphorical table and using my newfound luck to represent women of color, to give voice to the people who had long been systematically silenced in a field that largely ignored their mere existence.
Reality, however, proved to be a much more insidious flavor of so-called luck.
What began as a passionate foray into the biological sciences soon devolved into a lawless sea of unforgiving curves and ruthless competition — I found myself drowning, struggling to just barely breathe and continue treading the choppy waters. I had been pitted against my fellow peers, who were lucky enough to have the resources and connections that I so desperately needed, and I was rapidly losing air.
Just as soon as I had found a purpose for myself, I felt my voice being snatched out of my grasp — all that was left behind was a shell of the woman I was building myself up to be.
My personal struggle to maintain my voice intersected with a time of strife on campus, as a result of the free speech protests that began with the protest against Milo Yiannopoulos in early February 2017 and extended throughout the spring semester into the fall.
I couldn’t help but be amused at the irony presented in these apparent attempts to re-establish free speech during a time of political unrest — the targeted tactics of conservative thinkers appeared to silence the voices of people of color, of women, of members of the LGBTQ+ community and of other historically oppressed groups who had come to find a sense of belonging at UC Berkeley. I suddenly felt like an unwanted stranger on a campus I once considered my home.
I was drowning all over again, my voice being ripped away from me when I needed it the most. But this time, I fought back.
Suddenly, writing for a paper didn’t just mean writing for a paper. My work at the Daily Cal became my personal form of rebellion, an outlet through which I could put forth my perspectives and represent my intersectionalities despite attempts to stamp out the voices of women like me. All of a sudden, having the ability to voice my thoughts and experiences without fear as a young woman of color became a humbling privilege.
Weeks later, I still remember the initial shock I felt upon reading a news notification about the Capital Gazette shooting — my mouth went dry, my palms were sweaty, and my brain was silent for once as I stood in a lab coat, leaning against my desk between experiments at my lab.
Here were men and women not unlike myself who had been silenced for speaking their truths, for striving to practice good journalism as a form of clarity during a time of utter chaos. My distress soon transformed into fear and concern. Were we — a student publication that represents an overwhelmingly outspoken community — simply lucky enough to not have faced such repercussions for our own words?
There is an inherent risk that comes with using your words to give voice to people. As journalists, we walk this tightrope with a practiced precision, just barely keeping the balance between risk and reward as we project our voices above the constant din. We play a high-stakes gamble in folding our identities and our intersectionalities into our writing — we become an embodiment of the people we strive to represent.
It’s a heavy responsibility to carry forward, but it’s a privilege nonetheless — one that draws me back into writing my next piece despite the stress and the pressure and the drive needed to do the job justice. It’s what draws dedicated journalists and illustrators and web designers and businesspeople day in and day out back to publications like ours, despite the constant threat against the media that seems to be a trend amid the current political climate.
To me, being a journalist is a privilege and one of great honor. To be able to project my voice in the hopes that another young woman like myself hears me and projects her own? That’s all I’ve ever wanted.
As a journalist, I have long been trained to question the premise of luck — there is too much riding on the words I produce to chalk them up to something as malleable as luck.
Contact Manisha Ummadi at [email protected].