A Journalism Honours graduate from the University of Stellenbosch breaks down the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How you can be one of the 20 to 25 students to be selected for the sought-after BA Honours (Journalism) course.
Whatever goes on in the world, it exactly fits the number of pages they’re using in the newspaper that day. – Jerry Seinfeld
My life as a journalist started in my second year studying film and media production at UCT in 2008. I had originally planned to graduate from the film production stream before going off to a private film college like AFDA to direct my very own student budget Eraserhead.
When second year came along, one of my Media Studies tutors urged me to pursue my writing in the print production stream instead. And, for once, I listened to reason. I had always been focused on the story in the films I loved, so I took this as a good enough sign to pick up the pen rather than the camera.
Print Production at UCT
Besides writing more and more, the basic design and layout classes offered in the course armed me with just enough practical skills to weld to my own interest in art and graphic design. So I expanded my skillset by creating party flyers and rather tasteless band posters in the Beattie Building.
At the end of the year, I worked on the layout for the 2009 Sax Appeal…the one that got taken off the shelves at Pick ‘n Pay because of the ‘blasphemy’ controversy.
The enormous media storm that erupted over the RAG mag’s ‘young and naïve’ staff scared some, while the guilt by association hooked others to the thrill of publishing. I fell into the second group.
It was part of what lead me to apply for the Journalism Honours programme at Stellenbosch University.
Journalism Honours at Stellies – What to Know
This Journalism Honours course is extremely sought-after and many students apply each year. However, only 20-25 students get selected. If you want to be one of them, listen up.
WHO Can Take This Course?
Back in the old days of printed newspapers and indoor smoking, the news was all about the WHAT. People wanted to know what was happening.
There was an attack on Pearl Harbor. The Hindenburg went down in flames.
Nowadays, it’s all about the WHO.
There was an attack on Twitter. Kim Kardashian went down in flames.
The same goes for the people who select, compile, write and – on slow news days – regurgitate the news. It’s more about who you are than what you scored on your Grade 8 Maths test.
As long as you are on your way to completing your undergraduate degree, you are eligible.
In the class of 2010, among the expected English language and literature graduates, we had a lawyer, an accountant, a media graduate who fixed windmills for a living and also an astrophysicist. That’s right, an actual person who answered YES when I asked her,
“Can I call you a rocket scientist?”
There was also the Little Monster who could ruin your vintage 2010 mobile data plan with a single visit to his Lady Gaga -infested Twitter stream.
Then there was me: A kind of Jack of all trades committed to none. I was nearing the end of my third and final year at UCT when I was accepted to the Journalism Honours course at Stellenbosch University. And, to be honest, I didn’t know how I managed to pull it off.
WHY at Stellies?
Connections. Reputation. Demand.
It’s a poorly kept secret that the Stellenbosch University Department of Journalism has strong links with Media24 – the only one of South Africa’s major media corporations headquartered in Cape Town. The company offers attractive bursaries to Journalism Honours students every year in return for work at one of their many publications.
It is two-way traffic that sees some of the company’s experienced journalists return to the department as lecturers – some of whom later became my colleagues and even close friends while I worked and had a great time at 24.com (twice).
It is this culture of constantly keeping it street-level in the academy and keeping it literate on the street that makes Stellies journalism graduates sought-after.
After asking my cousin Emsie Ferreira – who is an accomplished journalist – for guidance on the matter, it became clear that Stellenbosch was the place for me to be.
HOW, WHEN & WHERE to Apply
STEP 1 – The Forms
If you are already a registered Stellenbosch University student:
Collect and submit an application form at Admin A, Office 3003.
If you are not a student of the university:
You need to apply online here.
Remember to sign the form, pay your application fee and attach all of your academic transcripts. There is no facility to upload one, but have a portfolio ready to take along should you be invited for the interview.
The deadline for all applications is 31 August every year.
STEP 2 – The Assessment Test
The test can be taken in Stellenbosch, Port Elizabeth, Pietermaritzburg, Johannesburg and Bloemfontein.
It can be quite daunting, but not to worry. It is less of a pass or fail test and more an assessment of your frame of reference.
As a social media hermit who could not distinguish our country’s leaders from its soap actors in a lineup of photographs, I thought it was over for me. I skipped over most of the current affairs questions (not advisable) and headed straight for the geography and maths sections.
I knew Reykjavík is the capital of Iceland and I knew what 30% of 200 was.
“Who was Zac Efron?”
Imagine my surprise when I called the department and found out I was invited for an interview.
Call them at +27 21 808-3488 no matter how poorly you think you did on the test.
STEP 3 – The Interview
I can only remember a few things about my interview at the department as nerves finally set in. I vaguely recall shaking hands and seeing three faces that I would see again in the next year:
- Professor Lizette Rabe, the head of department.
- Dr Gabriël J. Botma, a senior lecturer and the course coordinator.
- George Claassen, the brutally honest and brilliant veteran who, at the time, was the Science Journalism and Journalism Ethics professor.
My narrow-minded insights into the social media ‘fad’ surely did me no favours, but then George Claassen, a guy who wrote a book called Geloof, Bygeloof en Ander Wensdenkery: Perspektiewe op Ontdekkings en Irrasionaliteite*, asked about my involvement with Sax Appeal.
That was my reason for being there, I suddenly realised. It might not have been pretty, but it was real and it made waves.
*In English: Crushing your beliefs with hard facts and no adjectives.
WHAT can it teach you?
Since the knowledge and skills to be learned can vary depending on your interests, here’s my version on what to take away from the course.
1. Develop a Diverse Skillset
The Stellenbosch Department of Journalism picks a bunch of oddballs and then offers something for everyone with the aim of encouraging a cross-pollination of skills.
Don’t expect to beat the accountant in Financial Journalism when you can barely budget for your student night beer tab. Also don’t expect to beat the astrophysicist in Science Journalism.
Do offer to check their awful spelling though and make sure you learn something from what your classmates write while you spend hours doing their layout.
The same goes for the lawyer and their essays on media ethics, or the Little Monster and his intricate knowledge of the best times to tweet Lady Gaga pics during Internet Journalism classes.
Offer what you have and soak up what you don’t.
2. Benefit From a Constantly Evolving Approach
When I arrived at Stellenbosch in 2010, the world was a very different place. My cellphone had more than one button on it and President Zuma only had three wives.
The Journalism department was this little house on Crozier Street and it was a time when failing print publications thought it was a good idea to erect paywalls around their online content.
As journalism students, we saw the changes coming. By the second semester, there was scaffolding surrounding a massive new state of the art media centre where there once was a quaint backyard and park bench outside our lecture room.
It was being built for the new generation of tech-savvy multitaskers. Our juniors and hopefully you.
3. Develop a Work Ethic
Few undergraduate courses can prepare you for the enormous workload that gets dumped on you on the daily at Crozier Street. At first it is overwhelming to some and extremely stressful to all, but soon everyone learns to cope in their own way and the result is a softened transition into the real-life newsroom (or PR/advertising boardroom).
If it does get overwhelming, read this article for tips on how to deal with stress at varsity.
4. Toughen Up
From day one your copy will be trampled on and you will be told to ruthlessly apply Occam’s razor to everything you write.
Your adjectives will be crossed out and your flowery intro will be cut out for ‘layout reasons.’
You might even be told you have ‘the face for radio’ while doing your TV presenting work. It is a brutal and constant panel-beating of the chinks in your armour that will make you a lean, mean broadcasting machine.
My Final Advice
The best route to take, beyond filling out the right forms and doing the degree, is your own. The most important thing to know is your own strengths.
Think like a journalist when you apply for the Journalism Honours course. No one reads yesterday’s news. Not even this morning’s.
Keep writing and develop a voice – your own. If you applied once without success, try again. And again.
A great way to kick off your journalist career during your undergrad degree is by starting your own blog. The online world is there for you to use and gives you an amazing opportunity to find your voice as a writer. Have a look at some of these useful writing goals to set for yourself.