Journalism major Chyna Vargas spent the summer learning that good reporting is needed everywhere, even NASA.
Chyna Vargas was prepared.
She started applying for internships at the beginning of her third year at Texas Tech University. A journalism student in the College of Media & Communication, her program required an internship for graduation.
“I'm a planner, so I wasn't going to wait until the last minute to apply,” Vargas said.
She submitted a handful of applications in the fall, even more in the spring.
By the time March rolled around and she had nothing lined up, she started to worry.
“Someone told me that most summer internships are filled by spring break,” she said. “The fact I had no leads left me feeling defeated.”
Vargas really wanted to intern over the summer so she could dedicate her fourth year to classes, not having to juggle course work and a time-intensive internship. But by late spring, she'd resigned herself to the idea of interning in the fall.
Then an email came.
“I had applied with The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) earlier in the year but knew it was a long shot,” Vargas said.
The email invited Chyna to set up an interview if she was still interested in an internship.
Eight weeks later, she was at NASA.
Getting Her Hands Dirty
While many communication careers employ technical skills along with a sound understanding of theory and best practices, hiring decisions often come down to soft skills, and faculty want their graduates to stand out.
Journalism majors are required to complete internships. For those who cannot travel, the college has a strong network of local internships and on-campus opportunities such as MCTV, KTXT and The Daily Toreador. There also are experiential classroom learning opportunities such as campaigns courses and RaiderComm, a student-run agency where students complete campaign planning, copywriting, videography, event planning and many other projects for local and national clients.
In Vargas' case however, she received funding to take her internship to the next level.
“I wasn't sure the journalism chair would accept NASA as an internship site,” Vargas said. “It's obviously not a newspaper or broadcast company.”
But because of the size of NASA's operations, and thus, it's communication needs, the organization has in-house newsrooms with journalists, public relations practitioners and event planners in most locations.
When Robert Peaslee, associate professor and chair of journalism saw Vargas' request to complete an internship with NASA, the unorthodox choice didn't concern him – it excited him.
“Science communication is an increasingly urgent dimension of journalism training,” Peaslee said, “as any number of events have shown clearly, from COVID-19 to related vaccination efforts to climate-change solutions.
“Chyna's work with NASA will make her a more capable steward of the public interest, increasing her ability to communicate complex information to a variety of publics in language that is concise, accurate and delivered in a timely fashion.”
Chyna's focus is science communication. Her journalism degree has a concentration in health science and environmental journalism, and she is earning three minors: media strategies, creative media industries and plant and soil science.
“I took a horticulture class my second year at Texas Tech and fell in love with it,” Vargas said. “I enjoyed journalism, but I also liked following the data in that horticulture class and reporting what I found. So environmental journalism seemed perfect.”
Beyond the reporting, Chyna simply enjoyed being outdoors and getting her hands dirty, learning about plants and what they need to thrive. She says this fostered a love for planet Earth and motivated her to find ways to help it survive.
Vargas looked for internships with a bent on environmental journalism but was nevertheless shocked when NASA contacted her.
Vargas' internship was at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center located in Maryland. She worked full time from June through August of this summer.
“NASA has a few different locations,” Vargas said. “Each location works on missions but also has some differences.”
For example, Goddard was paramount to launching the James Webb Space Telescope in 2022. While Vargas was there, the site hosted it's one-year anniversary of receiving images from the telescope.
“I helped host a celebration for the anniversary and it was a really special experience,” Vargas recalled. “Documenting that moment in history was something I couldn't believe I was doing at 21 years-old.”
Most days however, Vargas worked in the newsroom creating content and reporting on new technology and discoveries and published her work on NASA's website. In addition to writing, she also disseminated information to appropriate social media channels and even dabbled in some graphic design.
When she had a moment between assignments, Vargas watched instrument testing and other projects the scientists were working on.
“I am a bit of a science nerd, so being able to walk across the street and watch the nation's best engineers solving problems was so cool,” she said. “It definitely confirmed my desire to work in science communication.”
And that's another element of an internship Vargas recognized as critical.
“I could have gotten to NASA and realized this wasn't the career for me,” she said. “I have friends whose internships were helpful for that exact reason. The experience can offer insight you just can't get in a classroom.”
Vargas is still assessing her options for next year.
“I may apply for graduate school, or I may just get out there and get experience,” she said. “I have a few more months to figure it out.”
Whatever she does, it will be centered on environmental journalism.
“For my generation, I think these are some of the topics we're really passionate about,” she said. “When you graduate from high school in the middle of a global pandemic, that shapes the way you look at the world.”
Vargas says the onslaught of contradictory information during the pandemic made her seek higher-quality news, but she couldn't always find it. When it comes to the environment and public health, misinformation is rampant. And when the stakes are so high, so is the cost.
“It seems really simple, distributing information about vaccines or recycling,” she said. “But when it's not done well, we all pay the consequence.”
Whatever she decides to do, Vargas knows she's well equipped thanks to Texas Tech.
“The College of Media & Communication helped me secure my internship at NASA and I'm not sure I would have thought to try something like that without their encouragement,” she said. “Texas Tech has offered me so many hands-on opportunities, through an internship, but also through writing for The Daily Toreador and being a student ambassador.”
Vargas knows it's experiences like these that will get her where she wants to go.
“When you apply for a job now, they want you to have the degree and the experience, even if you're young,” she said, which she notes as a bit ridiculous.
“That said, applicants from universities that require internships and strong portfolios are going to have a competitive advantage, which is what Texas Tech is doing.”