By George W. Russell
With bookshelves, balconies and tropical vegetation in the background, 89 undergraduate and postgraduate students joined faculty and support staff for the annual orientations for incoming classes.
The Bachelor of Journalism (BJ) intake this year is the largest ever recorded, at 34 students. HKU Journalism director Keith Richburg said there was no better time to be studying journalism. “Welcoming the biggest class ever at HKU is exciting,” he said at the BJ orientation on August 28.
“We will be learning fact-based, accurate journalism, and training you to do your best,” adding that the triple challenges in Hong Kong of continuing pro-democracy protests, the coronavirus pandemic and the new National Security Law (NSL) would not change the contents of the course.
“We are not planning to do anything different here,” he added.
Jeffrey Timmermans, Associate Professor of Practice and director of the undergraduate programme, said students should devote themselves to finding the truth about matters society cares about. “Finding truth requires curiosity, empathy, scepticism and tenacity,” he said. “We will be learning journalism by doing it.”
The challenges facing the students are considerable. First year student Alexandra Stepanova from Siberian Russia, said deciding to study in Hong Kong instead of the US due to the coronavirus pandemic was a “drastic mental shift” but, she added, “I cannot express how happy I am with the new route that I have chosen.”
Dr Timmermans gave the incoming Class of 2024 an outline of the course requirements, stressing the importance of core subjects such as News Reporting and Writing, Data Journalism and Principles of Journalism.
The second year would see more news reporting and writing, which would involve a journalistic project. The third year includes a global citizen requirement, usually attending a university overseas or completing an overseas internship. “I think working overseas would help me develop more,” said Hong Kong-born Harmanjit Singh (BJ 2024).
The culmination—in the fourth year of study—would be a capstone project in which students would be “bringing everything together in a major piece of writing or a short documentary video or a research paper”.
The new crop of students were looking forward to the academic year, despite the challenges. “I like Hong Kong and the media industry is relatively developed, which makes it an ideal place for me to pursue my study,” said Janice Gong (BJ 2024), who hails from Shanghai.
Instructors exhorted the students to check their Moodle courses every day and monitor HKU email constantly for important information.
Senior students chimed in, with Delia von Pflug (BJ 2021) urging, “Do not be afraid to ask questions. It is always better to clear up your doubts so you can focus on doing, maybe failing sometimes, but always learning.”
Cheryl Ho (BJ 2022) praised the internship programme. “I would encourage incoming freshmen to seek out internship opportunities and try as many new activities as they can.”
While the programme is tough, there is a massive support network available for students. “If you have a problem there is always people around who can help,” said Associate Professor King-wa Fu.
“Self-discipline is key,” said Mr Walsh. “Students should be sure to attend all online classes, whether they are live-streamed or recorded.”
The incoming class comprised 46 full-time and nine part-time students. There were 43 female and 13 male students. In terms of nationality, 46 students came from China, including 15 from Hong Kong, while four hailed from India and one each from France, South Korea, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Will Langley of the UK had been working as a freelance journalist but chose HKU Journalism as a way to hone his skills. “I realised that to be a real journalist—as opposed to a blogger and occasional magazine writer—there are certain skills that I just can’t teach myself.”
Mr Walsh reminded students that some in-person instruction was expected to restart in the second half of September. “I encourage you to come to Hong Kong and be part of our face-to-face classes. That’s where the value is.”
He encouraged students to read and watch all study materials made available. “Establish routines to follow and create a comfortable and consistent environment in which to attend online classes,” Mr Walsh recommended. “Engage with your instructors and classmates as much as possible.”
Professor Richburg told the incoming MJ group that while the NSL could have a “chilling effect” on press freedom in Hong Kong, “instead of circling the wagons we’ll be pushing out, giving a voice to the voiceless”.
Recent alumni offered tips on the best way to tackle the challenging course. “Don’t procrastinate,” urged Chloe Feng (MJ 2020) from China Daily. Jack Lau (MJ 2020) of the South China Morning Post reminded students that the faculty did not offer only academic assistance. “They’re here to take care of you.”
George W. Russell (MJ 2016) is editor-at-large at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre and works as an editor in the Financial Times Hong Kong bureau.