Q&A: Lydia Tomkiw, MIA’15

Lydia TomkiwStudent discusses upcoming Google Journalism Fellowship, press freedom, and her work in Ukraine and elsewhere

California native Lydia Tomkiw MIA’15, who is concentrating in Economic and Political Development, was recently awarded a Google Journalism Fellowship for 2015. One of 11 recipients nationwide, she’ll spend 10 weeks this summer working with the Committee to Protect Journalists to consider the use of technology in journalism and in protecting press freedom and journalists.

Tomkiw sat down with SIPA News to discuss her fellowship, her previous work in Ukraine and elsewhere, and more.

Congratulations on receiving a Google Journalism Fellowship. What does the program entail?
The Google Journalism Fellowship is in its third year now. It provides support for journalistic organizations and nonprofits that work in the journalism world to have fellows over the summer.

We also get a four-day orientation at Google headquarters in California. We get to meet and speak with different people who work at Google, in departments ranging from Google Ideas to Google News to Analytics.

The Google fellows work with different organizations—I understand you’re going to be at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Yes, I’m going to be working with CPJ here in New York. I applied there specifically because I care deeply about press freedom, and I’ve been really appalled by what’s been happening over the last year—including the beheadings of journalists and the deterioration of conditions for local journalists in many places around the world.

I’m looking forward to doing work on Eastern Europe, which is my region of interest. I’ll be conducting research for their Europe and Central Asia team—talking [by telephone] with people on the ground in Ukraine and maybe other countries. Speaking Ukrainian is helpful.

Where does your interest in Ukraine come from?
I grew up speaking Ukrainian at home with my parents and went to Saturday school to learn how to read and write in Ukrainian. I was born a couple of years before the Soviet Union collapsed, so there was an influx of people coming over after 1991. I grew up surrounded by people who had lived under the Soviet regime, and I was just fascinated by it.

Several journalists have been killed in Ukraine since the conflict started there. There had not been many deaths in the years before, and then all of a sudden it spiked after the conflict began.

Have you been to Ukraine before?
Yes, three times. I went most recently in March, thanks to a Harriman Institute grant. I had also visited last summer with support from a previous Harriman grant. This time around I focused my reporting on the humanitarian crisis. There are 1.2 million internally displaced people. I looked at how those people are coping, resettling, finding jobs, and starting their lives from scratch. And how the country is also dealing with war-related issues like trauma.

What did you learn from your experience going to Ukraine?
The consensus from people I spoke with, from young people to old people from different regions of the country, is that the war will keep going for another two to three years. The outcome depends on Putin. Whether or not there is a turning point depends on Putin, in the view of all Ukrainians I spoke with. Ukrainians are resilient, and it’s a fight for their country and their territory.

What’s your previous experience in journalism?
I was a Princeton and Asia journalism fellow before coming to SIPA. I worked at a local Indonesian newspaper in Jakarta. I spent a little bit over a year as a web editor and a journalist. It’s a wonderful experience seeing how local reporters work. Indonesia is one of the largest and, I think, most underreported countries, and it made me very passionate about finding ways to support local journalists. It was a great experience. I was placed there, so I dropped in not knowing very much about Indonesia. I learned a lot from the local journalists I worked with.

Did you study journalism as an undergraduate?
I was a government major—political science—and a College of Letters major. College of Letters is a unique program at my school, Wesleyan [University] in Connecticut. We study the literature, history, and philosophy of Europe. You read all the history, literature, and philosophy of a certain period and each semester is based on a different period. It’s a really reading intensive way to learn about European history, mainly Western Europe.

Where does your interest in journalism come from? Why did you decide to come to SIPA instead of pursing a master’s in journalism—at Columbia or elsewhere?
It started in high school. I was editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper and college newspaper. And right after college I went to Indonesia.

While I was there, I realized I had a huge gap in my knowledge of economics and statistics, especially when it came to market and commodities reporting. And I met some great SIPA alumni in Indonesia. I always knew I wanted to come back and get a master’s. [SIPA] is a great program, and I knew I could go over to the Journalism School if I wanted, and I could also dip into the Harriman Institute.

— Interview by Tamara El Waylly, MIA ’15