Growing up Nigerian American, Mercedes Ezeji ('19) would often visit Nigeria during her winter break. Her mother was very keen that she keep in touch with her roots, so these trips were a must every year. When she came back home, she received a lot of questions from her peers about her travels.
"I would have people in America ask me all kinds of questions like, 'Do you have lions as pets in Nigeria?' or 'Do you have internet there?' That made me realize how unaware everyone was about the world around them because the media does such a poor job of portraying places like Africa."
Ezeji decided she wanted people to know more. While attending Pflugerville High School, she joined PBS Reporting Labs where she got her first glimpse of the journalism industry. She learned how to create news packages, write feature stories and navigate the ins and outs of the newsroom.
"That's when I knew for sure that this is what I wanted to do."
Now, the UNT alumna is an engagement manager at PBS and a production assistant on the "On Our Minds" podcast that recently won the Edward R. Murrow Award. "On Our Minds" is a student-led and produced podcast about the mental health challenges that young people face today. It highlights themes like social isolation, anxiety and depression.
She honed her skills at the Mayborn School of Journalism, where she worked with different forms of media and discovered her niche.
"I loved how we could go around Denton and film stories. It gave me real news experience, but also showed me that podcasts and documentary style stories were more my style."
For "On Our Minds," Ezeji worked with teen host Zion Williams to produce episode two of season two of the podcast, which touches on the topic of social media and the fear of missing out (FOMO).
"Episode two is one of my most memorable projects because I think not just teens, but adults also have FOMO. With social media, it's so easy to get sucked into other people's lives and feel like you're not doing enough."
For Ezeji, this was something she experienced personally. When she graduated from UNT in 2019, she had been in the journalism industry for most of her academic life, and it seemed like her future was set. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and everything shut down. Thousands of people lost their jobs and companies had no roles open. Her post-graduation plans were suddenly very uncertain.
"Nobody was hiring. I went from living in my college apartment, independent and sure of myself to being disappointed and uncertain. I decided to flee to Los Angeles to stay with my friends and re-center myself."
Her trip to L.A. helped her completely revamp herself and start from scratch. She focused on updating her resume and reached out to people she knew in the Washington, D.C. branch of PBS, who connected her with somebody who needed a co-manager for PBS Teacher's Lounge blogs. This led to her current position as engagement manager at PBS.
"I really had to change my entire way of thinking and start from the beginning. The worst part of the whole thing was waiting -- waiting on COVID to figure itself out and trying not to be scared."
Her advice for young people, especially students: don't let the fear of missing out make you lose hope. Ezeji also stresses making the most of what is available to you.
"Some of my biggest tips for students would be to use all the resources that your school has -- join clubs and make sure to treat your independent journalistic projects as valuable pieces of work that you can include in your portfolio. And don't be afraid to explore other areas of interest. Journalism isn't just news, and you can do so much more with it."
Now, Ezeji plans on expanding her position as a producer and working on documentaries that highlight underrepresented communities. She hopes that, through her work, she can dispel cultural myths while making content that people can enjoy and learn from – which is the reason she got into journalism.
"I would love to break a lot of people outside the box. I think people are just ignorant about a lot of things because they are not exposed to much. I want to change that."