My journey: Three graduating seniors describe lessons learned at FIU

As the fall semester at Florida International University comes to an end, scores of seniors graduate and prepare to move on to a professional world that’s likely to produce myriad challenges. 

Three members of the class of December ’23, looked back on their time surviving the pandemic, then dealing with the transition that followed it – as well as the future after matriculation. 

Their thoughts are both illuminating and moving.

“With hardship comes ease” 

When I entered journalism school, I didn’t expect to learn more than just how to become a good writer. However, the journey unfolded unexpectedly, leading me to one of my most profound life lessons.

As I navigated through my courses, I found myself fighting inner conflicts and obstacles that challenged my career aspirations. The process of composing articles resembled waging a war, where I found myself in ceaseless struggles with my uncertainties, the expectations of my parents and professors, and my own ambivalence about my future.

However, by confronting these conflicts – what I now recognize as my hardships – I learned that consolation can be found in the most trying times.

If I had to describe this lesson in one statement, I would quote the Quranic verse, “So, surely with hardship comes ease.”

While I wouldn’t describe myself as religious, my journey towards becoming the writer I always wanted to be brought upon a spiritual awakening. Before this lesson, I saw my hardships as transient, mere ephemeral struggles that would dissipate with time.

However, after going through four years of arguing with my parents about my major, deliberating with myself about whether I was a good enough writer to pursue a career as one, and watching my professors rip my words apart to show me that being a journalist requires more than just being a good writer; I came to realize that there was something very divine in all the troubles I faced.

Every critique from my professors, self-doubt about my work, and argument with my parents made me strive even harder. I often ponder whether I would have grown into the self-conscious yet ambitious writer I am today if I hadn’t gone through the self-doubts, the arguments, and the criticism.

The answer would probably be no, so I acknowledge the divinity in all the hard times I faced throughout my journey. I noticed that the self-doubts humbled me as a writer, the critiques pushed me to improve, and the arguments reminded me of my dream to write for the publications I grew up reading.

My four-year voyage from FIU to the real world taught me to see the ease in every hardship I face while navigating it as a writer. One day, I hope to write for Teen Vogue and Billboard, and while I am unaware of whether the journey to my goals will be long or short, I know it will have hardships along with ease.

-Fatima Belagam

The edge of the cliff

As I stare into the abyss, I can’t help but feel unsure. What if it doesn’t work out? What if I was wrong? What if this is not my purpose? I look at other students and most seem to have it all mapped out. There’s no fear of the abyss because their wings are spread, and they are ready to soar. Others have wings but aren’t sure they will function. Then there’s me. No wings sprouted. I feel them there, but they’ve yet to emerge. It’s not the fall that scares me, it’s the thought that they may never come out. So how do I know if I’m ready? Sometimes, you have to take a leap of faith.

Sometimes, you have to jump and grow your wings on the way down.

My journey through FIU has not been what I envisioned when I was accepted into this fine institution. When I arrived, we were in the middle of a global pandemic that kept us from having the true college experience. Even when students were allowed back in class, normalcy seemed so far away – we had to abide by social distancing guidelines and mask up. 

I arrived at FIU after graduating from Miami Dade College without having written any articles or even joining the school newspaper. As I transitioned to FIU, I was quickly thrust into the program and told to come up with article ideas, interview people, and get published on the school news site. I felt like a caterpillar in its cocoon, not yet ready to break free. But whether I was ready or not, it was time to face the music.

From articles talking about Manuel Oliver’s mission to avenge his son’s murder at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high shooting to an award-winning investigative article about a man wrongly convicted of murder. Long story short, I did an okay job. Yet, the biggest lesson this institution taught me was not in the curriculum but rather in the FIU community.

As Professor Charles Strouse and I went back and forth regarding corrections, we managed to toe the line between being professional and making childish comments to each other that violated every rule in the book about how to act with a superior. Our unique relationship made what was a stressful, anxiety-filled chapter in my life feel manageable.

Without Chuck, I may have never emerged from my cocoon and found out what I was capable of. He gave me the opportunity to show everyone what I can do. More importantly, he showed me that I can be good enough. 

In between the lesson plans are when some of the best lessons are taught. That is where Professor Allan Richards excelled. His stories about his upbringing and the lessons he learned throughout his life provided me with much-needed wisdom as someone who is finding his way. The biggest lesson I learned from Professor Richards was that in the end, it usually works out. Even if it isn’t the way you thought it would. 

Life has a way of getting you exactly where you need to go. Life brought some of us to our major because it is our purpose. But for others, life brought us here as a stepping stone to get to where we are meant to be. Some of us will go on to do something that is not what we envisioned for ourselves. But we all have a purpose. Some of us will find it sooner than others, but we will find it.

I’m not the same person I was at 18, and I won’t be the same person at 28 that I am at 22. We are constantly evolving and that probably means that some of our dreams won’t stay the same, just as they are different from when we were kids, teenagers, and young adults. And that is okay.

When we started our college journey, we had a specific vision of what we were going to do and who we were going to become, and I bet today, your experience is very different from what you had initially imagined. Yet, through the good and the bad, the person you are now is likely someone you never thought you would become when you began your journey. 

As young college graduates, we often dwell on the pressure to see immediate success in our chosen career. Unfortunately, it is almost guaranteed that our success will not be immediate, and that we will experience countless failures before we even fractionally succeed. Yet, it is important to remember that the mistakes we’re going to make are what will shape us to be who we need to be. 

As we head towards the edge of the cliff and take our leap of faith, it is okay to be scared. There is no such thing as courage without fear. That being said, if we let that fear control us, we will stand at the edge of the cliff waiting for it to subside – but the uncomfortable truth is that it never will. Life will cut us, bruise us, maybe even break us. But even broken crayons can still color. 

It is how we handle our failures that will define us. We can let it keep us down or make it a catalyst for profound reinvention. Confucius once said that everyone has two lives, and the second starts when we realize we have just one. 

So here’s to the first day of the rest of our lives. 

Ivan Espinoza

College means family 

I always dreamt that college would be the place where I would find my people, but it took a while to achieve it. 

I barely remember my first year at FIU because of the pandemic. Not only was I robbed of a high school graduation and prom, but also my memories of the beginning of my college career. Classes on Zoom consisted of an endless sea of silent black screens, and WhatsApp group chats with classmates weren’t enough to form friendships beyond a semester or two. I joined a sorority, but even then, I only had a handful of sisters I actually hung out with before I decided to put that chapter behind me. 

Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that the Biscayne Bay Campus would be the place where I would meet the exceptional group of people I see as family today. 

It was January 2021. COVID restrictions were finally released, and slowly but surely, in-person classes were returning. I was rushing to a classroom with barely any reception and a very loud A.C. unit, when my professor introduced himself. I knew I was in for one hell of a ride: 

“There’s no hierarchy in journalism,” he said. “So, call me Chuck.” 

Suddenly, I was plunged through a world where I had to interview and write stories right away! I didn’t expect to learn by doing, but there was no going back. I had to take a moldy bus to Biscayne for nearly 6 hours a week and go to a campus with only three food options and barely any people! Initially, I thought BBC was a barren piece of land out in North Miami — but now I realize I struck gold. 

BBC is a very small and isolated campus. But, the only people who go there are typically communication and hospitality majors. So, when you see the same people every day both in and out of class, that campus becomes the bar from Cheers — a place where everybody knows your name. 

I didn’t just have classmates, I had comrades. We were always there for each other at a minute’s notice. I’ll never forget how I ran into my high school friend Megan on the BBC shuttle — we hadn’t seen each other in two years! Since then, we’ve vented about our article deadlines, and chatted about SFMN and news break. If it wasn’t for BBC, we would’ve never got back in touch, and we still hang out even as she works all the way in West Palm Beach for a local news station. 

When my initial idea for an article did not pan out the way I had hoped, I knew I could count on my boy Ivan. It was two days before the deadline of our first draft, and I had nothing. So, I went out on a limb and I texted him, saying: “hey, my piece didn’t work out, need a partner?” And he responded with “To be honest, same. Let’s do it!” 

Or most recently, when my computer shut down during my first attempt at the LSAT and I felt the true meaning of hysteria, Alba was my shoulder to cry on as we got margaritas to still celebrate my attempt at conquering that beast of an exam. Truly, I have been blessed. 

And these are just a few highlights! Every time I go to BBC, I run into someone I know from Lee Caplin or from the shuttle. Hell, I’ve had some of the best conversations of my life while en route to BBC! Sure, it’s a pain to get to, and the campus is very quiet, but every memory I have is filled with laughter from a bit that’s gone on for more than 10 minutes, or goofing off and playing pool after class. 

Everyone can agree that BBC is a hassle. But I never expected that it would turn into a home for me. Because this is the place where I have found a group of people who have gone beyond mere friendship — these people are my family.

No words can truly capture the way I feel about the friends I made in my journalism classes. I know they will go on to do many wonderful things, perhaps even move away from Miami. People of different ages, backgrounds, and values who come together under the common goal of being journalists. People who, if we saw each other years in the future with zero contact, we would immediately sit down for a coffee and chat as if no time had passed. 

In many ways, I have grown into the person I am because of the people from FIU’s school of journalism. I learned how to be more confident and bold, but also how to live. My worldview has changed with every interaction with strangers on that bus to BBC. My life has been made richer and more vibrant by all of my friends in the school of journalism. 

And as I finally walk across that stage and move on to the next adventure, I know that a corner of my heart will be occupied by the family I found here through journalism at FIU’s Biscayne Bay Campus.

Rachel Rodriguez

Fatima Belagam is a junior majoring in digital journalism. She is interested in music and film journalism and plans to work as a freelance journalist after graduation.
Ivan Espinoza is a junior majoring in digital journalism. Ivan is interested in a career in sports journalism with an end goal of becoming a basketball analyst.

Rachel Rodriguez is a senior majoring in digital journalism at Florida International University. She is interested in analyzing media trends and film. After graduation, she aspires to attend law school and become an attorney focusing on media law.