Making the dream happen

It was her first day of orientation at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) and Linh Ta ‘15 couldn’t help but roll her eyes. She had applied to UNI with the goal of becoming an English teacher, but after taking a teaching practicum in high school, she realized teaching was not for her. The good news? She found a potential career path in journalism. The bad news? At the time, UNI didn’t have a journalism major. 

UNI has offered a robust journalism minor since 1950, and students today can major in Digital Media with an emphasis in Digital Journalism. But at the time Ta was a student, the minor was the only option and, as strong as the program was, Ta had her heart set on majoring in journalism and UNI couldn’t meet that need.University of Northern Iowa alumna Linh Ta.

So Ta began her time at UNI fully planning to transfer to a university with a journalism school.

“I was so bratty during orientation,” said Ta. “I go in and I’m pretty incredulous about everything. I thought, ‘Why bother? I’m going to transfer out of UNI. If I really want to study journalism, there’s no way it’s going to happen here.”

Little did she know, she’d go on to find success at UNI — and beyond. Not only did she graduate having already secured her dream job as a reporter for the Des Moines Register, but more recently, she won the Iowa Newspaper Association’s Outstanding Young Iowa Journalist Award. And it all started with the self-described “bratty” freshman begrudgingly going through the motions.

Early in her first semester, she attended the student activities fair, where she sat in on an informational session about the Northern Iowan (NI), UNI’s student-produced newspaper. Initially, she wasn’t impressed — the NI is published twice a week, and Ta wanted experience working with a daily paper. But then the young man at the front of the room, the NI’s executive editor at the time, pointed at Ta and said, “Hey, you want a story to write?”

That’s when everything changed.

“I remember leaving [the presentation] and I panicked and I called my friends and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I don’t know how to write a story. I don’t know what I’m doing,’” Ta said. “I remember being so scared but … I turned it in and the editor was like, ‘This is really good. You’re good at this.’ And that’s when it hit me.”

From there, things started coming together. Ta became a staff writer for the NI, writing regular news stories as a freshman. At first, the job was just a way for Ta to gain the experience she’d need to be a competitive candidate for an internship with a major daily newspaper — Ta’s ultimate goal — but it quickly became a fulfilling job in itself.

Making an impact

Ta recalled a couple of her favorite stories from her early days at the NI. One was about a restaurant on College Hill that wasn’t paying its employees, and another about a student who had been stopped by UNI police for longboarding on campus. These stories stick out in Ta’s memory because they were some of the first times she realized her writing for the NI wasn’t just about getting experience to gain access to a bigger opportunity — her writing was already making a difference on campus and beyond.

“The restaurant closed two weeks after my story ran, and then NISG passed a bill to allow [longboarding],” Ta said. “I was like, 'oh my god, I’m a freshman and I’m making an impact.'”

And Ta wasn’t limited to on-campus or even just local issues. As a writer for the NI, Ta also reported on the Iowa caucuses, which gave her the chance to meet presidential candidates — and, incidentally, helped her decide on a major.

“I was writing real stories that the Courier was writing and I was doing it as a freshman. I was going out and meeting presidential candidates as a 19 year old,” she said. “It was so exciting to be a part of the caucuses in that way, I was like, ‘I have to do a politics major.’”

So Ta declared a political science major — and, more importantly, decided to stay at UNI.

“I thought, ‘Yeah, UNI doesn’t have a journalism major … but I am getting stories and talking to these really high-up people that no one is getting to do as a freshman at these other colleges,’” Ta said. “There’s absolutely no way, I think, that could have happened if I was at a bigger school. So I was like, ‘I’m gonna’ make it work here. I’m gonna’ do this.’”

Working hard

After deciding to stay at UNI, Ta stuck to her word and made it work — she worked her way up to news editor at the NI, before eventually becoming the executive editor; she secured a part-time job as a writer for IowaWatch, a regional nonprofit news agency, and an internship with the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier; she launched Panther., an e-magazine for student-produced writing and poetry; all while balancing the typical responsibilities of any student.

It was a lot of work.

“I think a low point was eating mac and cheese with a side of Sour Patch Kids for dinner,” Ta said. “I was that student in Maucker Union, drinking Monsters and Red Bull, bragging about how I was awake at 2 a.m. trying to get my homework done and, at the same time, I had a story to turn in the next day, too. I remember I slept in the Northern Iowan office multiple times. It was so hard. I can’t describe to you how hard it is. You are trying to balance going to class and then you’re trying to make the dream happen at the same time.”

Living the dream: ‘The most validating moment of my life’

Ultimately, it was a dream that had been driving Ta the entire time. Since deciding to study journalism, Ta wanted to be a reporter for the Des Moines Register — but she struggled to believe it was a possibility. 

“I was like, ‘There’s absolutely no way I’m ever going to get an internship at the Register,’ because I went and I looked at their internships and who had gotten them, and they were all Iowa State students,” said Ta. “I was like, ‘There’s no way. It’s not going to happen.’”

But the experiences she had at UNI — along with a strong work ethic — helped make her dream a reality. Over winter break during her junior year, Ta was offered an internship at the Register. It was a triumphant — and emotional — moment.

“Just after the phone call, I literally fell to my knees in my bedroom and just was screaming, ‘Yes! Yes!’ Tears were in my eyes,” Ta said. “I could not believe, at this point, I beat the students that I worked so hard to try to beat, that I was thinking were better than me, because they got to go to the renowned journalism school, they got to work at the student paper that won the national awards. And here's me just trying to hustle every single day … I finally made it. It was the most validating moment of my life, honestly.”

After impressing the Register with her work as a summer intern, she was offered a full-time job as she was headed into her last semester at UNI. And, unlike similar job offers, the job wasn’t being held for Ta when she graduated — she started immediately, and spent her last semester at UNI juggling classes, homework and a full-time job as a working reporter for a major daily newspaper. But Ta was already used to working hard to make things happen — and she knew her hard work would pay off. And, with her recent INA award, it seems like it has.

“I was very happy to graduate and have a job [but] I’m not gonna lie, it was really hard work. I haven’t worked that hard since then,” she said. “It is draining. It is exhausting. I don't wish it upon my worst enemy. But for me? I don't think I would be here where I am if I didn’t hustle like that. I think I'm a better journalist for it. The proof is in the pudding now. I’m here at the Register. I've been here for four years. And I'm doing what I want to do.”