by Avery Ellfeldt
"At the age of four, Merdie Nzanga was already expressing interest – albeit subconscious – in journalism. Nzanga said she didn’t even understand what reporting was before she knew she had a deep affinity for storytelling.
“My mom has a video of me pretending to be a newscaster,” she said.
Nearly two decades later, as the 2017 awardee of the White House Correspondents’ Association scholarship, Nzanga sat in the crowd of the annual Correspondents’ dinner – also the first year in decades a United States president, the guest of honor, did not attend the event. Instead, President Donald Trump attended a rally in Harrisburg, Penn in commemoration of his 100th day in office.
At the April 29 dinner, Nzanga accepted her award on stage. A producer with NBC noticed her that evening, and in the coming months, she was offered an internship with the Today Show in Washington, D.C.
“I spent more time fact checking the president than anything else on my internship,” Nzanga said. “It was emotionally draining, but I did become a better fact checker.”
Nzanga attended Shoreline Community College in Seattle, her home town, before later transferring to American University in D.C. In 2016, she made a final move to Howard University, where she graduated just last month with a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a minor in French.
Nzanga left Howard with much more than a degree, however; she also landed four work opportunities with major publications and networks in the last several years. Whether at her internship with D.C. Witness, NBC, ABC or USA Today, most of Nzanga’s time in school was actually spent “out of school,” she said.
As a result, Nzanga tried her hand at social media, broadcast, print and web-based reporting all before graduating from Howard. Regardless of an impressive training repertoire, Nzanga said the most rewarding – and challenging – experience was when she traveled to Kenya as a Pulitzer Center grantee in December of 2018.
Fluent in French and passionate about both women’s rights and the African region, while in Kenya, Nzanga reported on the 2011 law that banned female genital mutilation (FGM). She described FGM as the cultural practice of removing the clitoris from a female’s vagina.
Howard Professor Mark Beckford, who met the 25-year-old reporter through the Pulitzer Center, described Nzanga as a “go-getter” who is not afraid to take on challenging subjects.
“Merdie's tenacity gives her the edge in this field,” Beckford said.
He wasn’t wrong. Reporting on FGM in Kenya was laden with challenges, Nzanga said, among them working with government sources and mastering the attendant medical terminology. She added that the complex relationship between western influence in the region, Kenyan law and the local culture surrounding the custom added a layer of complexity to the project. More than anything, however, the experience highlighted that “journalism is different everywhere,” she said.
Nzanga’s experience in Kenya, among her many others, led her to want to pursue international business reporting in the coming years. The “money angle” always sheds new and important light on difficult topics, she said, including when reporting on cross-border cultural practices like FGM.
A 2019 summer internship through the Dow Jones News Fund will initiate the first step of Nzanga’s post graduate professional career. The “money angle,” as she put it, will soon consume her work week as she reports on personal finance with the Wall Street Journal in New York City."