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Stories around a four-year-long campfire

senior column

Stories. The last four years of Duke and Zoom University can be summed up in this one word that always has and always will drive my love for people, places, the unpredictability of life and everything in between. 

Well, and summer camp. Because when I described my Duke experience to a prospective high school student, with starry eyes, she said, “It sounds like summer camp.”

I came into Duke absolutely knowing that I wanted to use my time as an undergrad to become a writer, storyteller and reporter in some way, shape or form. The first logical step to that plan was to enroll in two journalism courses and join The Chronicle right away in the fall of my first year. 

Nathan Luzum, who was the health/science editor at the time, welcomed me with open arms and got me started with a story on glioblastoma research in a neurosurgery lab. I remember doing way too much work and spending far too much time on what was probably intended to be a short explainer piece—and I loved it. 

The process of preparing for interviews, sitting down to listen to others’ stories and explanations, wrestling with the narrative arc, staying up late to get my article in, working the story with my editor, finally seeing the story published and getting feedback on it was addictive. I loved going a bit crazy over getting every detail right—learning about what drives each character and the actions they choose to take. 

Each story opened doors and eyes to worlds I never knew and never expected to have front-row access to. 

With a newswriting class and too much enthusiasm for picking up Chronicle stories, I spent that first year at Duke running around from story to story that took me all over campus and Durham—bringing me to learn about all kinds of issues in society from the most interesting of characters. 

Researchers trying to find therapies to improve brain cancer survival. A lesbian woman of color running for city council. An author whose book detailed the suffering of undocumented immigrants in Eloy, Arizona. A global health expert at the forefront of fighting the anti-vaccine movement. A Nobel laureate who doesn’t want to slow down and makes sure to ask all of his trainees, “Are you lucky?” Melinda Gates who insisted on workplace equality. The Stoneman Douglas students who mobilized in D.C., turning their traumas into a chance for social change. 

My mom pointed out that I was pouring so much time into telling and reporting these stories—my grades and social life both suffered—but there was nothing else I had rather been spending too much time on. Ever since I quit competitive figure skating in high school, I needed that non-stop high-energy chaos, and journalism was just the outlet. 

The spring of my first year, I somehow got to tag along at the SXSW journalism conference with the amazing, talented Elizabeth Anne Brown, who was a senior at the time. I still remember Bill Adair introducing me to his colleague: “This is Chen Chen. She’s a freshman who doesn’t have much journalism experience, but she does have enthusiasm.”

I definitely never was and never will be the most put together journalist. The Chronicle never was and never will be the ideal paper. Sure, I’ve had plenty of qualms with The Chronicle over the years (especially with the lack of diversity in the news department). But at the end of the day, it’s a fun training ground for budding writers, held together and propelled forward by the enthusiasm of the people who make up 301 Flowers. 

Somewhere in all of these reporting experiences, I also ended up with friends who I never would have met if it weren’t for my assignments and stories as a student journalist. 

The woman who I spoke to at that Durham Arts Council meeting my first-year fall? We remained close and we just attended an Easter service together. The insanely accomplished and larger than life scientist I profiled my first year? I wrote a follow up on his new book this year and have semi-regular meetings just to catch up on the new stories we’ve gotten up to in life. The woman from DKU who sent me one of the kindest messages about an article I wrote on Wuhan last year? We got boba together recently and she’s like my Durham mom. 

I wanted to make it through this article without having to mention the pandemic, but I’m going to have to. It’s a beat I can’t escape. 

The fellow editor who I bonded with over our shared experiences with liquid orange cheese and circular nachos in Ohio? I just ran into her today after not seeing each other since our last editing shift together, pre-pandemic. We were picking up our graduation gift boxes for our Policy, Journalism, Media Studies certificate and set a date for coffee next Thursday. 

It’s really ending. Even though Zoom might not make it seem so, graduation is real. 

Reflecting on my love for stories, I thought back to the beginning of my fascination with stories—how the first stories I remember were stories from my mom.

She occasionally hitchhiked to get to school and one time was clinging on to the floor of a bumpy truck ride. At an under five-foot-tall teenage frame, she stood up to a bus full of adults and loudly announced that the bus driver was refusing to give her change, bullying her for being young and small.

For every story I have written, I subconsciously made sure to write with such clarity that my immigrant mother—whose first language is not English—can easily read and understand. 

In a feature story for The Chronicle sophomore year, I included a bit about hitchhiking and catching a ride with a potato truck in Wrangell St. Elias National Park, Alaska. When the pandemic was unraveling in my mom’s hometown of Wuhan, I was that kid looking on to a bus full of adults. I called upon the strength that my mom had as a teenage girl in a crowded 1980s bus in China, and made my voice seen and heard. Throughout my Duke career, The Chronicle was a haven for me to write about basically anything I wanted to at fairly low stakes. Experimenting as a student journalist is the rule and not the exception. 

Free food at random events, stories around a theoretical campfire, lifelong friends, trips to new places, perspectives that I’ll take with me even as everything comes to an all too abrupt end—my time at Duke was defined by stories and my experiences as an editor and reporter for The Chronicle: summer camp

Yuexuan Chen (or Chen Chen) is a Trinity senior who really burnt out as a journalist in 2020, but catch her reporting in 2022 when she has her sanity back. She thanks all the people at Duke who have helped the little first-year writer in her gain the confidence and love for journalism that she has today. 

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