Alum of the Month

Hotchkiss | Alum of the Month - Caroline Yi Ling Chen '08

As an investigative reporter, Caroline Yi Ling Chen '08 covered SARs, Ebola, and Zika before the arrival of COVID-19. "In January 2020, when my editor-in-chief first suggested that I take a look at this novel coronavirus coming out of China, I told him that there is a playbook for responding to these threats, and the question would be whether or not the U.S. was adequately prepared and could execute the playbook. As we then saw, a lot of things went off the rails. ..."

Chen is an investigative reporter who specializes in health-related coverage. She currently works at ProPublica and also serves as adjunct professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

She was born and raised in Hong Kong. She entered Hotchkiss in 2004 as a prep, following her sister Allie '06 to Lakeville. After considering a few other schools, she decided on Hotchkiss. "Given how far we were from our parents, it made sense for us to go to school together. My Dad grew up in New York, and both my parents went to college in the U.S. They had thought their children might go to the U.S. for university, but they were open to my either staying in Hong Kong for high school or opting to go to the U.S., like my sister. For me, the choice was clear. Hong Kong follows the UK system, which requires students to pick between arts and science tracks starting around 10th grade. I wasn't ready to commit and was attracted to America's more flexible education system, allowing me to explore my interests in both the humanities and sciences."

Her choice of schools was affirmed soon after her arrival at Hotchkiss. She enjoyed the academics and cultivated strong and rewarding relationships with several faculty members. "I had some fantastic English teachers who helped me to flourish, including Ms. Fliakos, who challenged me to be a better writer. Mr. Pressman's class on the Holocaust has had a lasting impression on me and changed how I think about the world. Ms. Letty Roberts was a most ardent teacher of BC Calculus, having more faith in us than we had in ourselves. I never took a class with Mrs. Vavpetic, but spent a lot of time with her through debate. She was always encouraging, enthusiastic, and caring.

"Debate took up a significant part of my time at Hotchkiss. It taught me to be a better public speaker and critical thinker and brought me opportunities to travel to Montreal and South Africa for competitions, where I made friends with people from around the world. I also loved the arts at Hotchkiss (I confess I did as few sports as possible, instead choosing arts-related activities whenever I could). Fabio Witkowski encouraged me and some friends to form a string quartet, and I fell in love with chamber music. To this day, it's still my favorite setting in which to play the viola. I learned how to stage-manage under Mr. Babcock's direction, something which I continued to do in college for the Stanford Shakespeare Company."

At Stanford, Chen majored in English and minored in mathematics. "I had not yet decided on journalism when I started college. But I wrote for the Stanford Daily, and throughout my time as an undergrad, I interned with various publications (Time Out Hong Kong, SF Weekly). I was drawn to reporting because I've always had an insatiable curiosity and, as a reporter, I had license to ask all the questions I wanted to ask. As I gained more experience, I also realized that I could use my work to expose abuses of power and tell the stories of people who don't have a big voice or platform. That mission continues today and motivates me as an investigative journalist." Chen was one of four students to be awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship by Stanford's Journalism School, and she graduated with her B.A. with Distinction in English and a minor in mathematics.

Her path had now taken shape, so she decided to pursue her master's at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. "I hadn't taken many journalism classes while at Stanford, and this gave me the opportunity to learn about investigative journalism in the Stabile program. It also allowed me to expand my skill set and to get much-needed clips in order to apply for jobs. I now teach at the J-School and am grateful for the opportunity to help the next generation of journalists."

After graduating, Chen landed a job at Bloomberg News, first as an intern in New York, and shortly thereafter, as a full-time reporter in San Francisco. "The health team happened to have an opening, and the team lead asked me to cover biotech. I said, 'Sounds good to me. Um, what's biotech?' It turns out that covering start-up drug makers was a great fit for me, since I love science. It's been a wonderful age for biotech innovation: we've seen the first gene therapies approved, and as genetic sequencing becomes cheaper, more people with very rare diseases have hope for treatment. In 2017, I wrote a story about a brash new biotech that was trying to use mRNA to develop vaccines. Now, Moderna is a household name. I also covered the collapse of Theranos."

Growing up in Hong Kong during the SARS outbreak fueled Chen's interest in health-related issues. "That has been at the back of my mind throughout this pandemic. I have also covered Ebola and Zika outbreaks, and these experiences helped me understand the number of agencies that need to work in concert to respond to a zoonotic threat - the roles of the CDC, FDA, BARDA, and state and local health departments. I also realized how much we underfund public health."

Chen continues to cover the pandemic. Together with colleague Maryam Jameel, she has recently written two stories about how inequity can be designed into vaccination sites - whether intentionally or not - and the barriers to access experienced by those who are most vulnerable. "I'm now working on a story about breakthrough infections that can happen even when someone is fully vaccinated against COVID-19. My goals throughout the pandemic have been to bring clarity to confusing issues, raise awareness of the disparities in our healthcare system, and help readers understand the process of science."

Since 2019, Chen has served as co-chair of ProPublica's Diversity Committee, working to expand opportunities for students and young journalists from underrepresented communities to join the industry (especially in investigative reporting, which has long been a predominately white, male stronghold), as well as to improve hiring, retention, and inclusion practices at ProPublica. "2020 was a year of reckoning for racial injustice both across America and within many industries. The journalism industry has also had to do some self-reflection. It is vitally important for the media to be diverse, because we have so much influence on the narrative. How can we cover America if we do not look like America?"

ProPublica has a scholarship program to help students attend journalism conferences that might otherwise be unaffordable, and also sends its reporters to colleges around the country to introduce students to investigative reporting. "Within ProPublica, we've scrutinized our hiring process to make sure that we are reaching the best candidates - not just the easiest-to-reach candidates. I think that a diversity of backgrounds and skill sets help make media as a whole better. The traits of curiosity and open-mindedness are important, as are those of humility, empathy, and an obsession with accuracy.

"I think the pandemic has highlighted the importance of good reporting. There's the fundamental task of informing the public: helping people understand how to protect themselves, where to find vaccines, demystifying data, and combating misinformation. I also firmly believe that investigative reporting is a crucial element to any democracy. The stories I specialize in are often those which someone doesn't want to see exposed, because it involves an abuse of power. The freedom of the press is absolutely critical so that reporters can dig deep, reveal wrongdoings, and hold the powerful accountable."

Chen has received several honors, and her work has been recognized. She was a 2019 winner of the June L. Biedler Prize for Cancer Journalism and a SABEW (Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing) Honorable Mention for reporting that revealed stark underrepresentation of African Americans in clinical trials for cancer drugs, even for cancers that disproportionately affect them, and the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists in 2020 for local reporting for a series on Newark Beth Israel's transplant team, whose concern for survival rates led them to put metrics over patients. The series also won a Deadline Club Award and SABEW Honorable Mention. Most recently, Chen was selected as a 2021 Fellow at the Periplus Collective, which aims to democratize writing and support BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) emerging writers.

In reflecting on her time at Hotchkiss, Chen says, "I made so many lasting friendships. I credit my English classes for my love of words and writing. I spent hours in the Hotchkiss Ford Library just browsing, and deepened my love of poetry there, checking out everything from Lawrence Ferlinghetti to Anne Sexton.

"I recall so many little moments that speak to how wonderful many of the faculty members are - their kindness and their genuine excitement for learning. Whether in Julia Wu Trethaway's history class, when she told us that more important than what she was trying to teach us, was our learning how to think (all while she participated in a faculty step competition, speed-walking around the classroom!), or Fabio Witkowski going out of his way to find me a teacher when I expressed interest in learning how to play the Chapel organ, or Chris Burchfield halting our prep year English class on the day it first snowed, insisting we go outside because I and one other student had never seen snow before. I will always be grateful for the many opportunities and experiences I had at Hotchkiss."

Chen is happy to talk with any aspiring journalists at Hotchkiss. You may reach her at: cchen501@gmail.com


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