From culture shock to shocking the world

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Min Xian came to Penn State four years ago from China, she had to learn how to order a burrito at Chipotle. This May she will graduate as one of the most gifted storytellers in her class.

Xian, a journalism major, describes her path to Penn State as the “ultimate underdog story.” She was a top student in high school and had her eyes set on a prestigious college in her home city of Guangzhou, China. However, there was a problem with her college entrance exam, a one-time test that decides where Chinese students will attend college.

“I bombed it,” Xian said with a laugh. “I don’t know how it happened.”

It turns out that hiccup in her career opened the door to unexpected opportunities. After taking classes at another Chinese university, she revived her college search. She took the SATs three times and the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) with her sights set on U.S. universities. Unable to attend campus tours, the decision came down to internet research — and Penn State caught Xian’s eye.

“I wanted to do magazine writing and I went online and saw really good things about Penn State’s communications program,” she said. “I read about Happy Valley and thought it would be new and fresh for me coming from a city … I took a leap of faith.”

Xian arrived in the United States just one week before classes started at Penn State. She braced herself for the move from her massive home city of 14 million people to the rural setting of the University Park campus. But after years of English classes in high school, she was surprised to hear unfamiliar lingo and daily jargon among her American classmates. For someone dreaming of telling stories for a living, it was intimidating.

“I read about Happy Valley and thought it would be new and fresh for me coming from a city … I took a leap of faith.”

—Min Xian, Penn State journalism student

“It was just different. I had to learn how to order food and how to talk to people,” Xian said. “People interact and make friends in different ways here, but everyone is friendly and it helped me transition smoothly.”

Xian cannot pinpoint the exact moment, but after a few awkward months of shyness, she found the confidence to speak up in class and talk to classmates. Given her chatty demeanor, she said it was only a matter of time before she began making friends and getting involved — in just about everything she could.

Xian participated as a peer mentor her freshman year. She worked in the residential dining halls. She interns for the local public radio station and freelances at the local newspaper. She is a video intern for the College of Engineering. For classes, she has traveled to Baltimore to report on gentrification and to Greece to report on the refugee crisis. She produced a spotlight video on Mike the Mailman’s final shift in the University Park campus post office and a wonderful video on a family raising a child with down syndrome.

Journalism senior lecturer Curt Chandler said Xian understands good storytelling and is a “sponge of information.” He said she is not afraid to approach people and ask good questions. In fact, after a particularly stressful class, Xian approached Chandler and asked, “How can I help?”

Chandler assigned her a project that would beam professional multimedia journalists into the classroom from all over the country. Xian set up the meetings, organized the sessions and asked the questions. Via Skype, classmates got to meet independent multimedia journalist Carrie Ching, New York Times visual journalist Alexandra Garcia and several other reporters with multimedia expertise.

“She did all the heavy-lifting in bringing about a half-dozen people in that semester,” Chandler said. “It vastly improved the experience.”

Showing up to Penn State with dreams of being a magazine writer, Xian will graduate with a portfolio of top-quality photographs, video features, news articles and other samples that make her resume stand out in today’s media market. One particular course that expanded Xian’s professional horizon was Chandler’s Comm 271: Principles of Multimedia Journalism.

Min Xian

Penn State journalism student Min Xian reporting on the scene.

Image: Alex Yuan

“Curt introduced me to multimedia in that class,” she said. “I couldn’t thank him enough for that. The thing about him is that every student is his favorite. He always knows more than I do, and he is patient and caring to all of his students.”

Xian took International Reporting and Urban Reporting courses, which sent her to Greece and Baltimore respectively, and an independent study with Chandler. She got to meet practicing journalists and be a part of practical multimedia journalism projects.

Xian took home 130 gigabytes of footage from her “alternate spring break” in Baltimore, a project she is especially proud of. Eight Penn State student reporters worked with five students from Morgan State University and covered gentrification initiatives and socioeconomic issues in the most urban parts of the city. Xian focused on food access for people living in these areas.

“It was a similar format to our international reporting class when we went to Greece, and in many ways Baltimore was equally exotic for me,” Xian said. “It’s obviously way different than State College, which is the one town I am familiar with in the U.S.”

Min Xian and Elizabeth Goreham

Penn State journalism student Min Xian adjusts the microphone for State College mayor Elizabeth Goreham during a shoot. 

Image: Will Yurman

Back in Happy Valley, Xian freelances for the Centre Daily Times and interns at WPSU. She says both positions introduce her to working in newsrooms and living in an American town. She has covered local rallies, community sustainability issues and performances and events.

“Min doesn’t shy away from tougher stories,” WPSU news director Emily Reddy said. “A lot of students may wait for me to assign them a story, but Min comes up with interesting ideas and she is excited to cover them.”

Xian’s current project for WPSU is a story on how the recent U.S. immigration ban is affecting students and faculty at Penn State. Reddy said Xian has been hounding people for interviews, even showing up to their offices when they don’t reply to emails.

“She has tenacity,” said Reddy. “She has been here for about a year … and I trust her more to work on her own now, even on the harder stories.”

In a clever video about gerrymandering in Pennsylvania for WPSU, Xian took outlines of the state’s congressional districts and asked people if they knew what they were. The responses were both enlightening and humorous.

"... if you want a tenacious, sharp-as-a-tack photographer, videographer, producer, reporter and writer, you should hire Min."

— Emily Reddy, WPSU news director

This May at commencement, 8,000 miles away from home, Xian will lead her classmates down the Bryce Jordan Center aisle as the student marshal of the journalism department. It’s an honor that she says is a “little sprinkle” on top of the great experience she has had at Penn State.

Xian says she has been “building a racecar” the past four years, and she can’t wait to find a job and put what she has learned on the racetrack.

“To employers out there, if you want a tenacious, sharp-as-a-tack photographer, videographer, producer, reporter and writer, you should hire Min,” Reddy said. “She is as good a writer as any native English speaker.”

Not bad for a student who, just a few years ago, was learning how to order a burrito at Chipotle.

Media Contacts: 
Last Updated April 07, 2017