Growing up in the Republic of Congo, Julia Mouketo ’23 didn’t have to look far to find a role model for discovering her career path. “My mom works in institutional communications, but because of her studies and training, she has always told me that at heart, she is a journalist,” the senior communication studies major recalled. “I remember even when I was very young, probably no more than three or four, I was saying, ‘I want to be a journalist like my mom!’”
With her internship this summer at The Roanoke Times, Mouketo has taken the next important step toward realizing that dream. Beginning in June and concluding this week, she has undertaken reporting assignments that have given her significant experience in her chosen field.
Mouketo embarked on a unique, often challenging, but ultimately rewarding journey to arrive at this point. In 2016, she was a high school junior in her home country when her mom announced that she had been offered the opportunity to advance her own career with her employer, the World Bank – but it would require relocating the family to Washington, D.C.
“I did not want to move, but obviously I didn’t really have an option,” Mouketo said. Her reluctance was understandable: She spoke no English and would encounter a completely different educational system in her new home. “My courses didn’t translate, so I had to repeat 11th grade twice – once from January to June and again for another full year.” College preparation is a priority for high school juniors, but Mouketo said she was skeptical about her chances of being accepted at an American college or university. “I thought, ‘There is no way I’m going to get into those schools.’ I had no GPA, and as much as I was trying to make good grades, it was very, very difficult. I told my mom that it would be easier for me to just go to university in France. We even paid the deposit to go to business school.”
Mouketo’s pessimism about her access to American higher education began to ease, however, when she took a college prep class during her senior year. Part of her grade depended on applying to schools and going to college fairs. “That’s when I first met Hollins people. I had never heard of it and had no idea where Roanoke was, but they gave me a whole lot of information and I just thought it was nice.” She decided to apply to Hollins and to several other schools. She was accepted at all of them, but to her what made the difference in choosing Hollins was the university’s generous offer of financial assistance. “My mom literally fainted when she learned how much Hollins was willing to work with us on what we could afford,” she noted. Visiting the campus on Admitted Student Day confirmed her decision. “The people were so amazing. Today I believe that Hollins is really the only place that took a chance on me.”
Mouketo entered Hollins intending to major in business, but because of her writing and photography interests, she decided communication studies would be a better fit. With her mom’s example as her guide, her interest in journalism began to coalesce during the 2020 January Short Term.
“I grew up in a household where we watched and talked about the news every night and I was always aware of what was going on in the world. There was a lot happening that month with Brexit and the emergence of COVID, so I got the idea to start writing and sharing news summaries on WhatsApp. I did it every morning, I enjoyed it, and a lot of people encouraged me to keep doing it.”
Being Mary Jane, a BET series starring Gabrielle Union as a cable television news anchor, and the support of a relative who was attending law school at Washington and Lee University, were also inspirations. “When I decided what I was going to do, the first person I told was my cousin. I said, ‘I want to be a journalist.’ She replied, ‘You know what? That makes sense.’”
In the midst of a pandemic, Mouketo struggled to get jobs and internships for experience. Her breakthrough came last fall while studying abroad in London. She connected with Made in Shoreditch, “a sort of hip, cultural magazine about one of the city’s artsy areas. I had the opportunity to do so many things,” including covering nightclubs, restaurants, and concerts. For Mouketo, it was confirmation that “This is the life I want!”
After returning to Hollins, Mouketo was more determined than ever to enhance her resume. She pursued opportunities with Lee Enterprises, a media company that owns several daily newspapers throughout Virginia. The Roanoke Times offered her a summer internship and gave her the chance to immerse herself immediately in news gathering and reporting.
“My first week I was given the assignment of covering the Miss Virginia competition in Roanoke, beginning with interviewing the reigning Miss Virginia. I shared the interview transcript with my editor, who in turn gave me another assignment: ‘I want you to find three themes in what she said and explore one of those themes.’” Mouketo focused on “sisterhood,” and the resulting article, “A Forever Sisterhood: Miss Virginia 2021’s Advice to Successor Is to Stay Authentic and Show People Your Unique Self,” became a front-page story. Covering the competition itself gave Mouketo an idea of the stamina – and late hours – that are sometimes required of a journalist. “The competition ran on a Saturday for eight hours until 11 p.m. and then I had to write and file my story that night.” The article, “Ashburn Woman Wins Miss Virginia Title,” earned Mouketo another front-page placement.
Throughout her internship, Mouketo also gained valuable research skills. With a staff reporter’s help, she learned everything from how to look up public courthouse records to using a geographic information system (GIS) to identify property via Google Maps.
“It was a very enriching experience,” Mouketo said. “I was able to use all of my skills and talents for the things I love to do and get paid for it. I’ve been able to take pictures for my articles, make videos, and perfect my craft when it comes to writing.” Describing herself as “more of a backstage person,” she is at this point leaning toward a career in print rather than broadcast journalism, though she isn’t ruling out transitioning to television or radio at some point. First though, she plans to complete a master’s degree in journalism after graduating from Hollins next spring.
For now, Mouketo is taking great pride in her accomplishments at Hollins and beyond, which perhaps crystallized in one special moment following the Miss Virginia competition.
As audience members were leaving Roanoke’s Berglund Center after the event concluded, Mouketo had already “run into the lobby and was typing my story. People were walking through and saying, ‘Oh, she’s a journalist.’ And I said, ‘Yes, I am a journalist!’”