Many incredible people have passed through the VACorps internship program since we first started hosting interns in 2006. “Oh the places you’ll go” is a series where our alumni share updates about their careers and life accomplishments. In this latest post, Andrew Zaleski (’09) checks in from Washington, DC, where he currently works as a freelance journalist. Andrew’s writing has appeared in numerous national publications and you might already be familiar with his name because many of his articles have been shared on our media channels. He also wrote the “Why Cape Town” page on our website that has inspired countless interns to join the VACorps program. You can connect with Andrew HERE on LinkedIn or via his website, www.andrewzaleski.com. He is the epitome of a VACorps Legend so don’t hesitate to contact him!
Please give us a summary of your career to date. What have been doing and where do you see yourself heading?
I’ve bounced around the journalism field for the last five years, starting off as an editor for a small, monthly magazine in Baltimore, then spending two years as the lead reporter for Technical.ly Baltimore—a website focused on local technology news—and now I’m a full-time freelance reporter. Mostly I write magazine feature articles, and over the last year I’ve written long features for the Washington Post Magazine, Wired, Backchannel, Baltimore Magazine, and Curbed. I also write frequently about technology and business for CNBC.com.
I haven’t spent any time in New York City. Fellow media types or aspiring media types have probably heard from at least one person (I certainly did) that they might have to do their time in NYC. That’s debatable. I spent two years in Baltimore, two years in Philadelphia, and now I live in the suburbs of D.C. I think you can break into publications you want to break into with smart, focused pitches.
Hopefully, I can keep up this work going into 2017, and get more features published in even more magazines. That’s where I’d like to see myself head.
What were the highlights of your internship experience in Cape Town?
I’ll be general (and slightly platitudinous) and specific here. Specifically: the road trip I did with six of my close VAC friends along South Africa’s Garden Route. For a week we drove along the coast, eventually getting over to the Indian Ocean side. We stopped off at a number of towns—Oudtshoorn for the ostrich farms; Knysna for the private beach and Cuban cigars; Plettenberg Bay for the Indian Ocean views; and, finally, Storms River Village for the hiking through Tsitsikamma National Park, but not before jumping from the world’s tallest bungy at Bloukrans Bridge. Cape Town was wonderful, amazing, and an incredible place. It remains one of the fondest memories of my (still young) life. But the trip along the Garden Route was invigorating. Road-tripping in a country I barely knew, and seeing some of the most beautiful scenery I’ll probably ever see in my life. The words to truly describe it have yet to be invented.
Now, the general boilerplate. The internship experience I had in Cape Town was one of radical independence. I had never been far away from home like that for any extended period of time. I had never been out of the U.S. before going to Cape Town. So navigating a new city, new experiences, and new friends over three months was a rush. It was exciting. I still think back to the times I had in the summer of 2009. I don’t think I’ll ever forget them. If you’re someone reading this who hasn’t yet done a VAC internship and is on the fence about it, nothing I relate about what I did will convince you—you’ll just have to do it, and make your own way. But I’m willing to bet a not insignificant sum that you won’t be sorry for taking a chance.
Can you share an example of how your internship experience aided you with your career?
I did an internship at The Big Issue magazine, where the editor’s modus operandi was baptism by fire. He didn’t assign us stories; we had to find stories. If we didn’t find stories, we didn’t write in the magazine. It was scary, and frustrating, but it worked. I interned there with a good friend from my months in VAC, and he and I were forced to go out and actually do reporting in a new city because of how the editor worked. It’s how I stumbled upon a story about Stones, the pool bar, hosting a series of air guitar competitions, one that would send the winner to the world air guitar championships. It was a fun story with great photos, and it had good placement in the magazine. A year later, I showed that story to an oldhead, seasoned journalist I had the good fortune to have coffee with. This is a guy who has published numerous books and articles, and writes regularly for Vanity Fair and The Atlantic. He told me that if I were a stock, he’d invest in me—and all because he read that story about the air guitar competition.
I know, I know: That anecdote is more than a little self-aggrandizing. But none of that would have happened had I not worked for that magazine in Cape Town with a no-fucks editor who just said, do it. That’s paid off immeasurably in my current journalism career, where, as a freelancer, part of the battle is just getting up the inertia to do enough research on a potential story to have a workable pitch, and then pitching cold to editors you don’t even know, only to have those editors assign you a feature—and then, months later, see that multi-thousand-word feature come out in print.
What’s the single most important piece of advice you’d like to give to future VAC interns and/or those considering participation in the program?
Do every Friday activity, or as many as you possibly can. It’ll let you see plenty of Cape Town and the surrounding areas. That’s it. Boring and practical. And, if it’s still there, go to The Waiting Room on Long Street. Second-floor bar, but third-floor roof deck.
Any predictions for what we can expect from you in 10 year’s time?
If I knew, you would know. I just hope I’m still able to make a living as a journalist.
If any of you are journalists or aspiring journalists, feel free to contact me. You can find me at www.AndrewZaleski.com.