Alumni profile - Shola Lee
My friend and I established our own online publication called The Simple Press in 2018; it is an independent outlet that makes everyone’s voice heard. We have a team of incredible writers, each with a unique voice and viewpoint, who we help to find new leads and article opportunities and offer guidance where possible.
What did you study at Queen Mary and what are you doing now? I studied English (BA Hons) and I am currently Queen Mary University of London’s Graduate Intern, which I started about a week after graduation.
What does your Graduate Intern role involve? How does it feel to be back at Queen Mary post-graduation? My role as Graduate Intern involves assisting with the co-ordination and management of Welcome Week within Student and Academic Services. There’s also a lot of scope to work on my own projects and develop my professional interests. Recently my manager and I created a module on building relationships as a new student at Queen Mary, with a particular focus on mental health and support for students. I’m very passionate about mental health awareness and I’ll soon be taking the MFHA course to become a mental health first-aider. Moving forward, I’m looking to take on more mental health focused projects while working at Queen Mary, centring on advocacy and student support.
When I have time I also assist with the development and running of the Buddy Scheme, a Queen Mary run project that aims to pair first years with more experienced students in their school. I’ve just started a Buddy Scheme blog (https://buddyscheme.wordpress.com/) for mentors to contribute to; we also hold drop in sessions every Tuesday from 12-2pm for Buddy Scheme mentees/mentors who have questions or if they just want to catch up!
Why did you choose to study at Queen Mary? What do you think is unique about Queen Mary compared to other universities? I chose Queen Mary because it was the most welcoming university I had visited! Funnily enough, Queen Mary wasn’t my firm offer, I had initially chosen another university and had gotten into both to study English and History. On results day I decided I just wanted to study English so I called my firm offer and asked if I could change; they weren’t very accommodating and said I’d need to defer as their English course was already full. Therefore, I rang Queen Mary and they were so helpful and supportive of my choice that I knew I had to study there. I rejected my firm offer and headed to Queen Mary and, to date, it is the best decision I have ever made.
I understand that you participated in the study abroad programme; where were you based and how did your time abroad have an impact on you and your studies? I studied abroad for the first semester of my second year at Columbia University in New York; it was the first year they ran the programme with Columbia and I loved my time there. While in New York I blogged for Global Opportunities at Queen Mary and wrote for the Columbia Spectator. Living away from home made me realise how much I overthink and how I’m happiest when I’m busy. So, I started to fill my weeks with Spectator meetings, classes, university events and, of course, frat parties.
Being at Columbia also made me realise just how passionate I am about writing; I was blogging, writing articles and essays and volunteering to write or edit anything that came my way. Honestly, I can’t thank my friends enough for making me go out and actually see New York because there’s a certain point where you need to draw a line work and study wise.
What advice would you give to students who similarly want to study abroad? Do it. It’s going to feel scary, you probably won’t know anyone and you might not have ever visited the continent you’ll be moving to- that’s not a bad thing. There will always be reasons to hesitate but sometimes you’ve got to take the jump. If you feel like you’re stuck in a bit of a rut, whether it’s with your studies, home life, or socially, there’s nothing better than a complete change of scenery.
Also, remember to look after yourself. It sounds obvious but when you’re far away from your family and friends, caught up in the excitement of your new university, you can really run yourself down. I love to be busy, but it took me a while to find a good balance. It’s okay to spend a night in watching a series with friends or just taking time to unwind and walk around campus. Do whatever you need to do to help yourself adjust.
How did your time and study at Queen Mary help your career and development? While at Queen Mary I gained a lot of practical work experience; studying abroad helped me to move toward journalism but I also wrote for CUB Magazine (Queen Mary's Arts and Culture student publication) and started work as a Content Creator for Global Opp’s when I came home. Queen Mary gave me great insight into different industries and the pathways that were available after my degree. There’s this perception that Arts degrees are not practical and that they don’t lead towards a clear career path. I don’t see it that way. My degree and Queen Mary gave me the freedom to try different things, some worked out and others didn’t, but it helped me to understand what I actually enjoyed.
Sometimes I feel like you've got to ask yourself: if I were given a lifetime to do whatever I liked, what would I choose to do? Whatever your answer is, run with it; if you like writing then join a society or student media outlet like CUB or try theatre, like QMTC. If you try as many things as you can, you’ll start to find what you're interested in and how it can translate into a practical role.
What exactly is Global Opportunities? Can you describe it in your own words for current and future students and our alumni who might not have heard of it? Global Opportunities are the department that run the Queen Mary study abroad scheme! They’re wonderful and very supportive of new students. If you have any questions about studying abroad or if you’re a visiting student they’re always happy to help- their office is in Queen’s Building. Each year they have a stand at Welcome Fair to get students interested and they also run events throughout the year to help generate excitement surrounding the scheme. Global Opps also use their Instagram, which I developed an IGTV series for, to offer insights into life as a study abroad student (@qmulgo).
You were formerly involved with CUB. What other media-related experience do you have and how did you secure such experiences? My first official staff writer position was for the Columbia Spectator; at this point I was already blogging for Global Opp’s after having secured a bursary to document my time away, but the first job I had for a print publication was for Spectator. I went to their stall during the society fair and chatted with Sophie, who would eventually become my editor and close friend. She was so passionate about the publication that I had to apply; Spectator had quite a lengthy application and interview process, but it was completely worth it. I joined the Arts and Entertainment department and learned how to follow leads, co-by-line, interview and fact check. Not to sound like I’m just reiterating my CV, but I really did learn a lot!
When I got home from Columbia my close friend, Roberta, told me how excited she'd been to start a publication after securing some funding. She asked if I’d run it alongside her and I loved the idea, so we created the Simple Press in 2018. SP, as we like to call it, is our baby; it took a while to work out our schedules and the creative direction of the publication, but I’m so proud of everything we’ve accomplished. SP is an independent outlet that makes everyone’s voice heard. We have a team of incredible writers, each with a unique voice and viewpoint. Currently I am Editor in Chief, but I used to run the Arts and Entertainment department and covered the other departments when needed. I can’t even explain how proud I am of our writers and how much the Arts and Entertainment team grew as a team- literally, they ended up being the largest cohort of writers for the publication.
Here and there I also write for UniDays' fashion section. Writing for UniDays has been such an enjoyable experience. I started contributing after attending London Fashion Week in 2018 and taking over their Instagram stories for the weekend. With each writing job I kind of fell into the next, that’s not to say it isn’t hard work, it is, but if you’re passionate, apply and ask those with more experience than you to help, then you’ll find yourself writing in no time! The thing that helped me secure all of these roles was talking to the people in that profession, they have heaps of knowledge and can completely sympathise with your situation- I still go to my previous editors with questions, they're a god-send!
You have established your own online publication called ‘The Simple Press’, can you tell us more about it? What are some of the challenges and rewards that have arisen since its creation? Roberta and I started the publication in 2018, creating an independent news outlet where everyone’s voice would be heard. We halved the editing and I wrote regularly for the publication, as well as running the Arts and Entertainment department. We hired student writers and helped them find new leads and article opportunities, offering guidance wherever possible. As of this year, I became Editor in Chief and am excited to see the writers grow as well as nurturing new talent and supporting them in any way possible.
One of my greatest rewards was watching how the writers developed from their first article, each of them has a strong voice and I look forward to reading their work each week, they’re all so talented! Our greatest challenge was that Rob and I undertook this project during our third year of university. There were a lot of late nights editing, but we leaned on each other and I’m so proud of everything we’ve accomplished. We’ve formed partnerships with the Royal Opera House and started a series ‘Get Into’ in which we interview industry professionals, providing an insight into different career paths and how to approach applications and interviews.
You have achieved so much already, do you have any future plans or ambitions in terms of journalism or the media? I want to run things for myself and to change media for the better. Whether that’s as an Editor in Chief or director, I’d like to have an influence on what’s said and how it’s being articulated. Recently, journalists have gotten such a bad rap for spreading fake news but we forget that passionate journalists with bravery and integrity, like Jamal Khashoggi, have inevitably changed the world for the better. The same for media more generally, there are massive issues with sexual harassment and abuse in the industry and it’s not okay to ignore them. What is so inspiring to see is the continued, tenacious work of the #metoo movement and the progress towards closing the gender pay gap. I’d like to follow in the footsteps of those making active strives towards change and fostering a safe, strong industry of professionals where nobody’s voice is marginalised or disregarded. And I think as long as you build up a body of work and have a strong voice, there’s no reason you can’t become Editor in Chief of the New York Times, or start your own production company and contribute to active change; they’re two of my goals. It might seem strange setting goals that high but I wouldn’t have any drive if I set a goal I could reach in a year.
What I’m really excited about right now is joining The Wing; I just got accepted as a member to the London location that’s opening soon. It’s an all-women’s co-working space that hosts events and workshops to help advance and champion female-led projects. There’s so much positivity in having a community of supportive people behind you and I can’t wait to start any new projects that come my way as a result.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to create an outlet to have their voice and the voice of others heard? It's okay to know what you want and to ask for it. The opportunities we’ve had as a publication have only come from the team taking their own initiative, chasing leads, talking to press contacts and sticking to what they value. Also, the biggest piece of advice I can give is that your voice is your own, so own it. It’s so easy sometimes to be quiet because it’s comfortable, but that’s not going to help anyone, including yourself. For a really long time, I tried to tone down my own writing voice and would over-think every essay, article and basically every sentence I had ever written. If you want to make your voice heard, you need to be loud. I’m not saying force your opinions on everyone you meet but if you speak (or write) with integrity and originality, you’ll speak volumes.
As a recent graduate yourself, is there any advice you would give to current students or recent graduates considering their career options? Particularly if they are not sure of what path to take? I'd say try as many things as you can and speak to your professors, friends and family to get a good grasp on how you can move forward- your advisor isn’t the only one who can give you guidance. If there’s a particular class that you look forward to each week, you should drop into your professor’s office hour and try to unravel what it is that you enjoy and how it might translate into a future career path.
For me it was the societies and classes I enjoyed that made me realise what I wanted to do; I knew I loved writing, but it wasn’t until I studied comedy, modern writers and journalism that I realised the type of writing I wanted to do. Also, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to just do one thing, your interests are naturally going to change and develop, so don’t feel that because you did a Geography degree, for example, that you can’t write an incredible play, or that because you studied English you have to go into publishing.
What sparked your passion for what you do? I think from a young age I was really fascinated by storytelling, how you could make people laugh, cry and feel just about every emotion in between if you weave your words in the right way. I was never really sure how that would fit into a career, so when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I usually said a magician; mainly because I got to surprise people and dress up. It wasn’t until I started sixth-form that I realised how much I enjoyed writing. I took it so seriously. I still do. I think that spark and interest I have in writing has always been there but what really ignited it was when I was given some freedom to play around with it. When I started writing for the Arts and Entertainment section of Spectator that’s when I realised how all of my interests could be blurred into one. All I really wanted to do was to write about the exciting stories being told, whether it was through new plays, fashion shows or comedy nights; it also made me realise how much I wanted to write and tell my own stories, to surprise and entertain.
What was so special about your time at Queen Mary? Can you give one or two examples of your most memorable moments? I think what was most special about my time at Queen Mary was the amount of freedom I was given, I never felt pressure to write about one particular thing or be a particular kind of student. I didn’t need to check a certain number of boxes each term to make sure I succeeded. I was just given space to work it out and it made me so much more committed than I had ever been.
My most memorable moments were meeting my closest friends. Regardless of how great your classes are, or how nice your campus is, it’s going to be your friends that get you through your degree. A couple weeks into my first year I met Tia at Shakespeare’s Globe, I had gotten lost on my way to the trip and arrived late (the most me thing ever). I bumped into Tia and we’ve been inseparable ever since. From pulling all-nighters at the library to early morning comedy lectures, I couldn’t have done my degree without her. Also, like any typical study abroad student, I've got to mention Columbia. I met my little squad in my first week and we’re all still so close, our questionable trip to Philadelphia and countless themed parties helped me get out of my own head and helped me enjoy every part of being a student.
Do you have any role models that you look up to, both inside and outside of your field? Anyone who knows me will probably read this and roll their eyes because I won't shut up about her, but Phoebe Waller-Bridge is my hero. Everything she’s done with Fleabag as a play/series and Killing Eve has completely floored me. Regardless of how you feel about TV, what Phoebe is doing, her writing and her performance, is completely artful. I really love Robin Williams too, his speeches in Good Will Hunting and Dead Poet’s Society are part of the reasons I chose to study English and I usually just re-watch them if I need a pick me up, or if I want to remember why I started writing. Also, Michelle Obama, obviously, I mean who doesn’t love her? I remember the night Roberta finished her dissertation we were both exhausted and had tickets to see her live at the O2 as part of her book tour, I think we spent the whole two hours with tears in our eyes in complete awe of how strong she is!