Editor’s Note: In July 2022, Irungu was appointed the first official photo editor for the Office of the Vice President to the Biden-Harris Administration. To learn more about Irungu’s career since this profile was published, read this more recent profile published by the University of Oregon Alumni Association.
When multimedia journalist and digital editor Polly Irungu ’17 first started snapping photos with the camera she bought in high school, she never expected to one day find herself working for New York Public Radio.
Since childhood, her path has been full of twists and turns that led her from Nairobi to Kansas to Eugene and ultimately to New York City, where she now edits digital content for the radio show “The Takeaway” with Tanzina Vega and Amy Walter. Where she’ll go next is anyone’s guess — but she does hope to eventually work internationally.
When did you know you wanted to study journalism?
I was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and we moved to Kansas when I was around 3 years old. I grew up in a really, really traditional African home, so I was expected to pursue a career in medicine or engineering or academia. Journalism was not on the table.
After my freshman year of high school, we relocated to Portland. The move was really hard on me. The lack of diversity, the rain and being away from family put me in a dark place. A couple months later, my mom accepted a job at the University of Oregon, so we moved to Eugene. My high school advisers helped me cope with the transition and realize that I can’t be stuck in this rut forever, and I should start to see the city and state in a new way.
At the suggestion of one of my counselors, I got involved in yearbook as a creative outlet. I realized I really enjoyed storytelling and capturing the moment. During my first high school job cashiering at McDonalds, I purchased a camera, even though I had no idea what to do with it. Buying my first camera with my hard-earned dollars from McDonalds is what eventually led me to the path of journalism.
In high school, I went to different rallies and protests and captured them on my camera. I submitted some of my work to CNN iReports and started getting recognition in that way. Being out “in the field” before I even knew that was a journalism term is what helped me gain my love and appreciation for journalistic work. Convincing my parents ... well, that’s a story for another day. But, my parents, advisors and mentors really became my biggest cheerleaders.
It is hard to know what you want to study when you don’t have many examples around you. I went to my first National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) and Online New Association (ONA) conferences while at the UO, and those experiences gave me the affirmation I needed that I was on the right track and this was the field for me.
Was there a class, group, mentor or experience that cemented your interest in the field?
Oh, man … where to begin? In high school, to name a few: Kenya Luvert, Aura Solomon, Jose. In college, it was all of the Center for Multicultural Academic Excellence (CMAE) advisors, from Rosa Chavez to Lillie Parkers, as well as any classes Suzi Steffen, Damian Radcliffe or Lisa Heyamoto taught. Experiences such as ONA, NABJ and the inaugural Super-J trip to New York City made all the difference!
Did you have any career-shaping moments at the SOJC?
I loved every single one of my internships, from the SOJC Communication internship to TrackTown USA to NPR. Each internship experience played a pivotal role in shaping my career. Every year at the SOJC helped shape not only my career path, but my personal development. I really made the most of my time at the SOJC, from photographing sporting events to later becoming an intern and production assistant for the SOJC Communication Office, to meeting so many unique people and getting the chance to tell their stories, whether through my writing or my lens.
How did you get so many opportunities in your internships to try different kinds of media?
That’s the great thing about attending one of the best journalism schools in the country — UO has so many different opportunities! My mom (when she was working there), academic advisors within the SOJC and at the CMAE, and engaging with my professors outside of the classroom helped me learn about what the school had to offer. And, most importantly, I surrounded myself with some of the most talented and ambitious Ducks ever. We all wanted the best for each other and helped each other stay accountable.
I pursued internships that would allow me to flex my creative wings, try and fail with different media and have fun while doing it. I think it’s very important to know that, while it’s important to have allies and advocates in your corner, you have got to be your own advocate first and foremost. You should make it known as early as possible what you would like to do and get out of any internship and let your supervisors know some of your long-term career plans so they can help you get the most out of the internship and help with your career development.
Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
As much as I would love to have a solid five-year plan, if there is anything I’ve learned, it’s that you can make all the plans in the world, but it does not matter if you’re not willing to adapt. When I was growing up in Kansas, my five-year plan did not include Oregon. When I was in Oregon, my five-year plan did not include NPR or the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. When I was in Arkansas, my five-year plan did not include New York City. In the next five years, I continue to see myself shaping and producing content, telling stories for large platforms and for my own site. I would like to eventually work internationally, but if that doesn’t happen in the next five years, then I’m totally OK with that.
I cannot stress enough the importance of trusting your own journey. Every single person in my graduating class took different steps to make graduation happen for themselves, and that is totally OK! So every single step, like internships, freelance work and passion projects, etc., seemed small at the time. But looking back, all of these steps, no matter how small, were defining moments for me at the SOJC and beyond.
Do you have any advice for current SOJC students?
It sounds cliché, but taking care of yourself is the most important piece of advice I can give to any student at the UO. You can’t do great work — consistently — if you are not OK yourself. Saying no and being more intentional with your time and energy will do more than you can imagine. It will help with forming good habits like time management, it will help prevent burnout, it will help reduce stress and so on.
Another important piece of advice I learned while in school is don’t underestimate the power of social media. I learned through some of the professors I mentioned above that social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram are more than just a way to catch up with family, watch cute videos, post your breakfast and share memes. I used social media to connect with photo editors, hiring managers and like-minded peers from all across the country. It helped me build a network outside of the UO and made a big difference in my career journey.
Kristin Kessler is an SOJC senior majoring in journalism and minoring in environmental studies to prepare for a career as an environmental journalist.