Rebecca Gibian

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, the remarkable Rebecca Gibian (Journalism Internship, 2015), checks in from Brooklyn, New York, where she works as a freelance international journalist.  Her work has been published by The Associated Press, VICE, The Atlantic, and others, and she has recently published her first book: THE RBG WAY: The Secrets of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Success. VACorps is exceptionally proud to have played an instrumental part in her inspiring journey, and we will continue to watch and cheer for her in the years to come! 

Read her interview below:

Please give us a summary of your career to date. What have you been doing and where do you see yourself heading?

I am currently a freelance international journalist based in Brooklyn, New York, and my reporting focuses on women’s stories around the globe. I have reported from countries including Iraq, South Africa, Indonesia, and Costa Rica on issues such as reproductive rights, education, and what it takes to rebuild, both psychologically and physically, after a war. As a freelancer, I get to work with a lot of media organizations, and my work has been published by The Associated Press, VICE, The Atlantic, and others. I also just published my first book, THE RBG WAY: The Secrets of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Success. It looks at tangible lessons we can all learn from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second female Supreme Court justice in the U.S., and apply to our own lives to become a little more notorious either personally and professionally.

I plan to continue to report on women’s stories worldwide. I am interested in reporting from post-conflict zones, as I think the news cycle often moves too quickly, and we do not get a chance to hear the stories of those who are rebuilding their lives following extreme trauma. While breaking news is incredibly important and necessary to cover, I want to focus on the aftermath of war and trauma, and what it takes to revive a community, place, or city.

Please describe some of your greatest and most memorable professional achievements.

I definitely have a few of these! I am very lucky to have the job I have — it allows me to meet people all over the world and listen to their stories.

One of my most memorable professional achievements comes right after my time at VAC. Following our time in South Africa, my colleague and fellow VAC alum Diana Crandall and I went on a reporting trip to Costa Rica thanks to funding from the Pulitzer Center, an organization that gives grants to journalists to report on overlooked issues. We applied for the grant to report on deforestation, an issue that multiple sources had confirmed was a major problem within indigenous communities, including one called the BriBri. We did interviews and research while in San Jose, then traveled across the country to stay with the BriBri community. But after we had taken a car, two buses, and a canoe to get to the community, we learned that the deforestation was actually happening over the border in Panama, despite our sources having told us otherwise. So there, in the middle of the jungle, our entire reporting trip imploded in on us. We had to make a very sudden decision on what to do. We had no internet, no cell phone service, no editor to turn to and ask advice from. We decided to ask the BriBri what they would like us to report on instead, and they said education. We ended up doing about 15 interviews over the course of two days before we had to return to San Jose. Ultimately, we wrote a story on the intersection between education, technology, and poverty in the BriBri community. The piece was published by The Atlantic and that year, it won the Society of Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence Award. I will never forget that trip — nothing went as planned and we were fully alone, no professors, editors, guides, for the first time in our careers. But we figured it out and wrote a story that we were both very proud of.

One of the things I am most proud of is my self-funded reporting trip to Iraq last year. I wanted to see how the rebuilding of Mosul was going one year after the city was liberated from ISIS. I did everything on my own, including finding a hotel, interviewing and hiring a translator, buying flights and insurance, and successfully reporting out multiple stories. Among other things, I interviewed General Najim al-Jubouri, the man responsible for liberating Mosul from ISIS, at his headquarters; spoke to refugees at multiple camps; interviewed Baba Chawish, a Yezidi spiritual leader at Lalish temple; and traveled around Kurdistan and Northern Iraq. After this trip I wrote a story published by VICE, “Inside the Dangerous Life of a Female ‘Fixer’ in Iraq,” profiling my female fixer, one of very few in the region (a fixer is a journalist’s most important person, they translate, transport, help find sources, keep you alive, etc). I also spent the nine months after my trip following a story about Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who are left behind after their service to the U.S. military, despite legislation that is supposed to grant them

visas for their work, which oftentimes puts them in immense danger. That piece was published by PRI’s The World just a few months ago. The whole trip was an unforgettable experience and a reminder that you should always take the leap, even if it scares you (but do it safely! I am trained in hostile environments and first aid, and I had insurance, people to vouch for my hotel and translator, etc).

Writing my book is also a very memorable experience. I had reported on talk between Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg in December of 2018 for the Associated Press. About a month later, an editor from Skyhorse Publishing reached out to me and said she had seen my article and wanted to know if I had any interest in writing a book about Justice Ginsburg. I thought it was spam or that my email had been hacked, but I learned that no, Skyhorse was a real publishing house in Manhattan and they really were offering me the opportunity to write a book about one of my heroes. I ultimately had to write the book in four months, and it was a total whirlwind. I conducted nearly 20 interviews and read or watched every single thing on or by the Notorious RBG that I could. I honestly still can’t believe that the book is now out in the world. I am very grateful for the opportunity, and though I am sure the book is not perfect and would’ve loved just one more month (or seven), I learned so much and took so much away from the experience.

What were the highlights of your internship experience in Cape Town?
I really enjoyed my internship at Bush Radio, Africa’s oldest community radio station. My co-workers were incredibly talented, smart, and kind. They took me out in the field, they taught me what community-focused reporting means to them, they showed me how to use the soundboard and helped me learn more audio skills, they filled a white board with words to teach me some Xhosa, and they made me laugh every day. I learned so much from everyone at Bush, and it was an honor to work with each of them. I also really appreciated the conversations that we had — it was important to all of us that we did not gloss over the fact that I was a white American coming into the oldest radio station in Africa. I am incredibly thankful for the work they did in teaching me about Cape Town and Bush, as well as for their openness, honesty, and support.

During my time at the station, I co-hosted the morning show, “The Morning Rush,” and then worked as a news intern in the afternoon. But I was also given the incredible gift of my own one-hour show every Saturday evening. This meant that I really got to be creative. Each week, I did two podcasts, one that looked at the etymologies of Cape Townian words and compared them to their American counterparts; and the other that explored the “must do activities” of Cape Town (such as a sunrise hike up Lion’s Head). I am so appreciative of all that Bush gave me — I feel far more comfortable telling stories through audio formats thanks to my time with them. I am very thankful VAC got me an internship with the station.

Can you share an example of how your internship experience aided you with your career?
When I first came to Cape Town, I considered myself mainly a print journalist — I had just graduated from the University of Southern California with my Masters of Science in Journalism, and though I had been a producer at the student-run radio station, I was still wary of whether I had the skills to hold my own outside of school. Getting assigned to Bush meant that I was challenged everyday and forced to quickly learn new skills and solidify ones from grad school. Even more than that, the staff at Bush trusted me with my own show, which gave me a bigger opportunity than I had ever had to be creative and experiment with audio storytelling. But having my own show was also like being thrown into the deep end of a pool and not knowing how to swim. My first solo show, I messed something up on the soundboard and there was dead air (a huge no-no in the radio world) for at least five seconds. It was mortifying. However, I never made that mistake again, and feel more comfortable producing and running shows than I did before.
Since leaving Cape Town, I have worked on maintaining and growing those audio skills — when Diana and I got back from Costa Rica, I produced a nearly six-minute podcast to go with our written piece on education. I am not sure I would have been able to do that without my time at Bush. My internship also helped me get better at recording sound in the field, something I have utilized on every trip I have been on since. Working for such a well-established community station also reminded me of the importance of local reporting and really learning about the area you are reporting from, which I think can sometimes be overlooked by journalists as we strive for the next big byline.In short, my time at Bush helped me be a better journalist. I was forced into situations that were new and overwhelming, but I had supportive coworkers to see me through it and teach me how to fix things that went wrong. I learned new skills, sharpened the ones I had, and had many opportunities to be creative and learn. On a broader level, the internship helped open my eyes to the type of work that I am drawn to. It helped me learn more about myself and what I need in order to feel engaged, excited and fulfilled in a professional setting.

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?

If you’re considering VAC, do it. Right now. Sign up. Cape Town is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been and an amazing city to immerse yourself in. VAC staff members are kind, generous, and supportive. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to get out of your comfort zone, whether that’s within your chosen field or just personally, while still having a safety net like VAC. If you’ve never traveled abroad, they are there to hold your hand while you need it and let go when you’re ready. If you have traveled before, they are ready to give you the freedom you want while knowing they’re a phone call away (or at the bar next door) just in case. Sidenote: They are also just super fun. They truly know how to have a good time and want everyone within VAC to have one too. But they also care about teaching VACers to understand and appreciate Cape Town.

My biggest piece of advice, besides signing up for VAC, is really utilizing all that they have to offer. Take advantage of the Vactivities (a term I want to still claim credit for) that the staff offers on Fridays. Not only are they a blast, but more importantly, they are informative and meaningful. The activities are planned so you can really learn about the city and country you are living in, which is an incredibly important aspect of VAC, and a valuable lesson to remember for future travels. Do as much as you can during the months you are there — learning how to travel or live abroad well with their support will help you continue to travel in a fun, exciting, and safe ways in the future. I highly recommend learning to scuba dive and going to Mozambique. A lot of my favorite memories and some once-in-a-lifetime experiences from my time with VAC come down to those decisions.

I am very grateful to all that VAC gave me. I think frequently of heading back to Cape Town with the goal of just reliving it all. My internship helped me grow so much, but so did the overall experience, and I am so thankful.

Any predictions for what we can expect from you in 10 year’s time?

With any luck, I will have many more adopted dogs (right now there’s just one, his name is Oats, since Brooklyn apartments are small) and will still be working as a journalist. I actually recently looked at my high school yearbook from senior year (2008-2009), and they asked all the seniors this same question. My answer was something along the lines of “chasing down hard-hitting stories around the world.” While I hope I sound much less pretentious these days, I do hope I am still a journalist and writer in 10 years, because I feel incredibly lucky to have the job I do.