Alumni Profile • Chinelo Onwualu '03
Finding a place in her profession

Chinelo OnwualuChinelo Onwualu '03 describes herself as "one of those melancholy children who would rather curl up with a dictionary during recess than go out to play volleyball."

So at Calvin she began to prepare herself for a bookish career-a PhD in literature of some kind, a professorship somewhere. Then Onwualu discovered journalism. Describing her work at Chimes and in a journalism class, she said, "The whole environment was exhilarating, because it felt like I was actually doing something that could contribute to society and change public opinion."

Onwualu had the wind knocked out of her exhilaration the year after graduation. She returned to her native Nigeria to serve a year in the country's National Youth Service Corps and took an assignment at the Ministry of Information, where a new minister solicited proposals from the public for reforms in the country. Onwualu was part of a team charged with evaluating the incoming proposals and recommending those on which the government should act.

"I found that often recommendations had nothing to do with the merit of a proposal and everything to do with what kind of influence the proposer had with people inside the ministry," she said. "I ended up butting heads with people as I tried to change things. I didn't get very far."

At the same time Onwualu, as a freelancer, was writing a column for a local newspaper. She was given rein to "just vent" about her experiences inside government and out. The journalist in her seemed alive and well, and so Onwualu applied to graduate schools.

By the summer of 2005 she was back in the United States, studying for her master's in journalism at Syracuse University and working as an editorial intern at the Syracuse New Times.

Learning about and practicing the profession of a reporter, Onwualu said she discovered "a lot of things about journalism I hadn't realized, like the people skills a reporter has to have. I'm naturally shy and reticent in social situations, so it was really hard for me to be the dogged reporter who is persistent in the face of intractable authority. And there are ethical tensions I wasn't aware of, like the public's right to know versus the subject's right to privacy. I was always putting myself in the shoes of the person I was interviewing and thinking that I wouldn't want to have to answer that question for the public record!"

So in the summer of 2006, Onwualu found herself in another difficult transition. Credentialed with a master's in journalism, she wasn't sure she wanted to be a journalist at all. It was, she confessed, "a rough patch."

She's regained some momentum since then. After working for a time at a Target store in Virginia Beach, in March, Onwualu was offered the position of night Web editor for the Utica Observer Dispatch in upstate New York. There, during the night, she edits, paginates and uploads stories onto the newspaper's Web site.

The job keeps her in journalism without forcing her into roles in the profession she finds uncomfortable. And it gives her time and opportunity to explore the more reflective kinds of writing she most enjoys. "It feels like a patch of sunlight on a winter's day," Onwualu said a few days after she accepted the job. "A promise of things to come."