Journalist Paroma Soni shares how she navigates a creative career across 2 continents
May 14, 2021
On F1 visas, creativity, & finding your way.
By Tanashya Batra, Contributor
South Asians and creative careers often seem like two opposite ends of a spectrum. South Asian Gen Z and Millennials are, however, breaking the mould and delving into creative careers. They bring with them a new perspective on creativity and financial security, as well as deep insights into South Asian culture. Navigating the creative world isn’t an easy task and finding a community is very important. I spoke to Paroma Soni (@paromasoni), a videographer and journalist based in Mumbai and New York about navigating the creative field on a student visa and her journey of working in India and the US.
A little bit about Paroma before we dive in: She has worked previously as a video producer/editor at BuzzFeed India, a writer for Homegrown, and an intern for Slate Magazine. Her work, which focuses on culture, politics, gender, and identity, has also appeared in Scroll.in, The Wire, and The Swaddle. She is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Data Journalism at Columbia University, where she also reports locally for NY City Lens. You can view all her work at paromasoni.com.
Q1. What did you study in undergrad?
A: I studied Human Rights and Film studies at Trinity College in Connecticut. I had not initially planned on studying human rights and had applied to liberal arts colleges with good film programs. During my first year at Trinity, I only took classes in Film but as a person living in the U.S. for the first time, I experienced a different kind of culture shock, where I realized how little my peers knew about the world. I was thrown into the world of affluent white students who asked me the dumbest questions like if I have electricity. They truly didn't know about a world outside their bubble and outside Connecticut.
I got really tired of being in this environment and took one class on human rights philosophy and realized there was an entire field dedicated to understanding the issues we face as humans and decided to double major. It was an interdisciplinary major so it was fairly diverse. After undergrad, my main goal was to merge the two fields since I believe that
Visual media is one of the most accessible ways to communicate something.
You don't need to know how to read or understand the language. I started looking at documentary filmmaking, did a video internship at Slate, and realized maybe journalism is a thing I can do and then I moved back to India once my OPT ended.
Q2. What was it like going into a creative field on an F1 Visa?
A: I think visa discrimination is very real and a big issue, I must’ve applied to over 200 jobs towards the end of undergrad and heard back from 3. I actually started skipping the question about visa sponsorship or putting a “No,” and I started hearing from more people. When my internship at Slate ended, they wanted me to continue but would not sponsor a visa, which basically made it impossible for me to stay.
A lot of people don’t understand how complicated the visa and immigration process is.
Employers definitely need to be more considerate.
Q3. What was the biggest difference between creative work in the U.S. and India?
A: I think the fundamental difference between working in India and the U.S. is that the U.S. sets more professional boundaries. The work I do is very collaborative, and in the U.S. there are more boundaries around the scope of work which can be very healthy. In India, the personal and professional are blurred in creative fields, and in Mumbai in particular, the circle of freelancers is small and we all help each other find work. You can organically break into these circles and find your way as everyone is helpful.
photo credit: Paroma Soni
Secondly, having a degree from the U.S. gives you an edge in India, I get my pitches accepted quite often in Indian publications as opposed to American ones. Despite the close knit circles, it’s not easy to be a journalist in India, especially more recently with the government cracking down on the freedom of press. Liberal publications will accept pitches but they often don’t have the resources to protect journalists.
Q4. What do you do when you’re in a creative slump?
A: I think it’s very hard to get out of a creative slump, especially being a journalist, it requires creativity with a deadline. Working in a newsroom or a news cycle, there is a lot of pressure to be creative. For example, in grad school, I have a pitch due every Monday, which requires so much thinking. Nobody is an idea machine.
Over time, I’ve learned not to force myself to be creative.
I used to sit at a table for 8 hours trying to get an idea, and I never got work done and ended up feeling bad about myself. Now, since I don’t force it, it gives me space to be creative. One of the biggest things I do to be productive and get my creativity flowing is hang out with people. Being surrounded by people, either my friends or in a cafe, helps me get out of a rut and pushes me to work.
Q5. How do you practice self-preservation?
A: I don’t do such a good job at self-preservation and generally get overwhelmed with the work I’ve procrastinated. On a more emotional level, I think I cut myself some slack and tell myself that it’s okay if I miss a deadline, and it’s okay if every article you turn in isn’t perfect. Life gets in the way and you can’t be on your A game all the time. At the same time, though, I don’t want to be at a stage where I don’t care and don’t put in effort, so it’s important to keep that balance.
Q6. Describe a typical day!
A: I’m in graduate school so my days never look the same and my week is very imbalanced. Most of my classes are on Thursdays and Fridays so the other days I generally wake up and enjoy my coffee on my fire escape and do homework or meet up with friends for coffee and work together. The good thing about working in journalism is that every day is different. Some days, I’m interviewing a guy in Virginia talking about maintaining a vineyard, and some days, I’m in the Bronx talking about gun violence.
photo credit: Paroma Soni
Q7. Is there anything you’d recommend to a person wanting to get into this field?
A: Honestly, I’d have different pieces of advice depending on where the person is. For the U.S., I think applying to jobs is such a number’s game. It’s a messy process, especially getting into the creative field, because jobs are either part-time or contract work.
Don’t lose heart and remember that you’re not defined by your job.
If you are absolutely not hearing back from anywhere, work on improving yourself and don’t be afraid to reach out to your network to ask for help! In India, a lot depends on where you are located and who you know, but the biggest piece of advice I have is that you need to show up to events and network through friendships and offer to help on projects in whatever way you can.
Cover photo credit: Paroma Soni, @paromasoni