UCI Alumna Traci Lee on Telling Stories and Building Confidence

At the University of California, Irvine (UCI), we are excited to share the stories of alumni to inspire the next generation of academics, professionals, and leaders. Recently, we invited Traci Lee, Growth & Insights Editor at Sony Pictures’ Creative Center and graduate of UCI’s class of 2011, to reflect on her time at UCI and how it helped jumpstart her journey to where she is today.

Q: At UCI, you double-majored in Literary Journalism and Global Cultures. Did you come in knowing that this was what you wanted to do?

A: I’ve always been passionate about storytelling—specifically, helping others tell their stories. There were times, growing up as a second-generation immigrant, where I would be a sort of “translator” for my family to help explain something or to help write letters or emails. I’ve always been aware of the power of helping others find their voices, and so when it came to choosing a major in college, the Literary Journalism program really spoke to me. I hadn’t really been aware of what literary journalism as a genre was, but once I began taking the classes, I realized how much more there was to journalism in general that I could pursue.

Q: What were some of the challenges you faced in college and how were you able to overcome them? 

A: I’m a fairly introverted person. So, going into UCI as a Literary Journalism major, one of my biggest concerns was that I was going to fail because I couldn’t see myself comfortably talking to strangers for a living. But one of the major benefits I quickly discovered about LJ and having smaller class sizes was that I was able to interact with my peers frequently and see that I wasn’t the only person who felt that way. There’s nowhere in any unofficial handbook on journalism that says you need to be an extrovert in order to be a successful journalist, nor is there anything that says identifying as an introverted person means you can’t be a confident leader. 

Along with gaining confidence in these smaller LJ classes and workshops, I began working part-time in the marketing department at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts during my first year and became really involved with the New University newspaper my second year.  All of those things really helped me get more comfortable with interacting with others, public speaking, and pitching or trying out new ideas.

Q: Speaking of your involvement with the New University, what was it like working on the school paper? Did your experience working on this newspaper influence your decision to pursue journalism after college?

A: I began working at the New U in my second year as a Layout Intern and then moved into a staff role doing Layout and also Features reporting. At the end of my third year, I took over as Managing Editor and continued doing that throughout my fourth year. It was a lot to juggle—doing the New U, working part-time on campus, packing my class schedule to graduate a quarter early—but the New U was such a formative experience for me, and I met some of my best friends through it.

Managing the paper gave me a crash course in how to not only report the news but “program” it for the audience. I had to take into account a reader’s experience as they flipped through the paper and also think about the content throughout those pages too. Were we accurately and actively covering all areas of UCI? Did the story selections reflect the diversity of the campus and student body?

Also, at the New U, I oversaw a special issue of the paper that focused on budget cuts at UCI, which began with a look at the history of the university and how its development played a role in the plan to expand California’s college system in the ‘60s. Each section of that special issue focused on how budget cuts affected the different schools on campus as well as examined the burden of rising tuition costs on students. Developing that concept, collaborating with my peers, and managing the content and overall layout and look of that special issue of the paper taught me a lot about how to break the mold of a traditional newspaper format and use journalism to spotlight and challenge specific issues in our community. 

That issue went on to win a first-place honor at the California College Media Awards the following year, and it really inspired me to look for more opportunities to do those types of projects professionally—from developing special projects highlighting historical contributions of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities to supervising digital documentaries that not only put AAPIs on screen, but also behind the camera.

Q: Earlier you mentioned how taking Literary Journalism courses helped you build confidence. Were there also individuals who you took confidence from during your time at UCI? 

A: Every professor or instructor I encountered in the Literary Journalism department was extraordinary when I was at UCI and has been an extraordinary influence since I graduated. Barry Siegel’s passion for introducing students to LJ inspired me to try and do the same during a journalism fellowship I did at USC, where I primarily worked with journalism students. 

Amy Wilentz gave me the confidence to tell my own stories when I had been so focused on how I can elevate others’ voices. Her Personal Essay workshop showed me I can still report while also using my own experiences to enrich my work, and every time I’ve published a personal essay in my professional career, I think about that workshop. 

Amy DePaul always pushed LJ students to step out of their comfort zones and had it not been for her, I would have never discovered a love of reporting on subcultures or other “niche” communities. Her unwavering support—both at UCI and since then—has been a true constant. 

Every time I misuse parallel construction or stumble on a grammatical mistake, I think about Jesse Katz’s patience during our Crossing Borders workshop and how he always encouraged us to not be afraid of “going back to the basics” and taking the time to hone our craft. It doesn’t matter how long I work in an industry or at a job; there’s always more to learn and to keep learning in order to do my best work. 

Q: What was your best memory at UCI?

A: I know I’ve talked about it already, but some of my favorite UCI memories came from working for the New University. One of my favorite moments was when our printer delivered the week’s issue late, and because of that, there was a domino effect and there was no way the paper could be distributed around campus that same day. So instead of waiting until the next day, the other editors and I grabbed a little red wagon and just went around campus and filled all the newspaper boxes by hand. It was cool because we got to visit parts of campus that we didn’t regularly get to see and it was just one of those fun bonding experiences that we still talk about sometimes. It recently came up during our New U 2010-2011 Editorial Board 10-year Zoom reunion!

Honestly, working for the New U just enriched my whole UCI experience. It helped me get really involved with all parts of campus life because when you’re overseeing news coverage of the campus, you need to experience it and see it and talk to people who are doing things that you might not have known about or even seen before. That’s really just one of my favorite things about journalism in general.

Q: What are you currently working on, and do you think your time at UCI influenced your current path at all?

A: After about 8 years in journalism, I took my editorial skills in a different direction and now work in entertainment doing digital content strategy. I’m still using a lot of the skills I gained as a journalist to help brands take control of their own stories. One of the best things about the evolution of digital channels and social platforms is that it allows people, groups, brands, etc. to own their own narratives. I love being able to help people do this because it also presents new opportunities for historically underrepresented communities to tell their stories. There’s so much innovative storytelling that can be done on these various platforms, and experimenting with that keeps me hooked because it never gets boring. 

I think my time at UCI definitely played a role in my career path because I first started exploring new forms of storytelling while in college. I worked on some of our alternative media publications at the time as well as the Literary Journalism department’s Kiosk publication. Those things added variety to the traditional format of the New University, which was a weekly newspaper. 

Q: If you could give current students a piece of advice, what would it be?

A: It’s okay to not have a “five-year plan.” So many of the things I thought I would do or be interested in when I first got to UCI ended up shifting in that first year, and then even as the years went on, my goals and aspirations changed. While it’s always good to have a general idea of what it is you want to do or what you hope to do, stay open to all of the possibilities of what is yet to come. 

When I first got to UCI, I never pictured myself designing newspaper ads or billboard art for the School of the Arts, but I did that for more than three years as part of my on-campus job. I never pictured myself pursuing a double major or managing the newspaper or having the confidence to speak at commencement, but all of those things ended up happening too. That’s not to say everything you try will yield success—I absolutely had my fair share of many, many failures—but the best part about college is all of the friends, peers, mentors, colleagues, etc. that can help you navigate those stumbles. 

For more information on Traci and her work, check out her website here

To read more UCI alumni stories, click here. To hear UCI students and alumni talk about their experiences and share their insights, check out the We Are UCI podcast here.