Journalist Sabīne Bērziņa: RSU Prepared me for Studying in Denmark, the Netherlands and the USA
Sabīne Bērziņa (pictured) is an alumni from the Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU) Faculty of Communication. She is a Re:Baltica / Re: Check journalist and approached the interview as befitting her profession, making it clear that she will speak plainly and not shy away from also speaking about things that she didn’t like during her studies.
Despite the bold start, the conversation turns out to be very positive. We talk about the first steps she took in her profession by participating in student television, how she was fed up by the infamous summaries that all RSU students have to write and the experience she gained in Denmark, the Netherlands and the USA after graduating.
Already from around the time when her classmates dreamed of becoming ballet dancers or police officers, Sabīne told her family that she was interested in journalism. ‘I don't really understand where this inner drive came from, but it had never went away. I started buying newspapers on a regular basis when I was in high school. Mostly the newspaper Diena, which later became my first workplace,’ says Sabīne, revealing that her parents were at first not happy about the direction she had chosen for herself. ‘They even tried to persuade me to quit using arguments that are well-known to everyone interested in social sciences and humanities.’ Despite this, Sabīne had already set her goal and the only question left was about which of two universities to choose. ‘I know that my decision was not a based in facts, but I associated RSU with a strong academic environment and with taking a more exacting approach. I felt like I would have to do and learn more’.
A training ground for freshmen
Sabīne does not regret choosing the Journalism study programme at the RSU Faculty of Communication. In her three years there, she learned all she needed and took her first unsteady steps on the professional training ground by working at the RSU TV station, and for the student media network Skaļāk. She also completed an internship at the weekly news magazine IR, which later served as a bridge to the labour market. ‘If I have one piece of advice for anyone studying today, then then it definitely would be to recommend them to apply for all the opportunities they can in order to be able to put the skills you’ve learned to practice. It is important to let students practice and make mistakes, whether it is their first clumsy interview, gripping their questions with sweaty palms and not even looking at the interviewee, or their first unsuccessful article,’ says Sabīne.
While she was studying there, her faculty also started publishing an investigative journalism magazine Inquisitio created by the students themselves. Every opportunity like this provides prospective professionals with great experience and prepares them for placements, which are an obligatory element of the study programme. ‘My experience shows that placement supervisors can be very demanding. Placements can lead to a first job if the student has honed their professional skills beforehand,’ says Sabīne, referring to her placement in the editorial office of IR magazine. During her time there, Sabīne managed to prove her abilities and skills well enough to continue working for the magazine after her placement was over as a freelance journalist and earn her first money in the profession.
Stuck in the phone
Regarding the academic part of the study process, Sabīne most clearly remembers the infamous summaries that every RSU social science student knows well. Students grew impatient with them, especially in their final semesters, because it felt like they could have been replaced by more analytical tasks. However, Sabīne admits that writing all these countless summaries has given her a stable foundation for being able to extract concise summaries from complex texts, which is important in every field, but especially in journalism.
In her opinion, the courses on journalism as a profession and on the ethics of journalism are the strongest in the programme. She praises the Dean of the Faculty of Communication, Prof. Anda Rožukalne, for clearly being an expert in herfield. This is crucial because journalists’ comprehensive knowledge, critical thinking and communication skills and stress resilience must be placed within a strict framework of professional ethics. Sabīne was already interested in the ethical aspects of journalism during her studies, and her bachelor's thesis focused on propaganda and misleading information.
When asked about whether this naturally led her to the Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism Re:Baltica, she laughs and says, ‘It was more of a coincidence. Many of the choices we make are actually less conscious than we might think.’ At the beginning of her career, Sabīne had already tried working in news production and realised that she wanted to develop stories that ‘dug deeper’ than was possible in daily news. Currently, her everyday life is mostly spent on Re:Check projects, finding experts, statistical sources, scientific articles and research to disprove the most popular misconceptions that are spread on social networks.
A shot in the arm
The Erasmus programme made it possible for Sabīne to study in Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and the USA. She spent a semester at Jönköping University in Sweden during her time at RSU. This was such a positive experience that Sabīne applied for the Erasmus Mundus Journalism master’s programme through which she could study journalism for two years in at least in two different countries. ‘In the first year, I went to Aarhus University in Denmark and the University of California, Berkeley, and in my second year I attended the University of Amsterdam. It was a fantastic time and I could focus all my attention on my studies, because the scholarship not only covered my tuition fees, but also my living expenses,’ she recalls.
Sabīne concedes that the Erasmus Mundus Journalism programme was a real challenge. ‘The students in this programme are extremely motivated, which gave me a real shot in the arm. It took a lot of effort for me to feel like I was on the same level sitting in the same auditorium with so many experienced young journalists, including war correspondents from BBC and CNN. The academic language training I received during my bachelor's studies, as well as my skills for obtaining and selecting information was a real help to me.’
Looking back now, Sabīne says that she is immensely satisfied with the years she spent in these three countries. ‘Getting the chance to spend a longer period of time living in Western Europe is a valuable experience for anyone from a post-Soviet country as it dispels any hang-ups and strengthens your self-confidence,’ concludes Sabīne.