When we met food editor Laura Shunk for her Professional Spotlight, it was over breakfast (naturally). While enjoying eggs and toast, we discussed studying abroad, being a food writer, and being on the board of New York City Coalition Against Hunger. Having studied International Relations at Claremont McKenna College, Laura is smart, thoughtful, and passionate about her career and involvements. We love Laura’s outlook about post-college years being a skill gathering time, and if you’re a student, take notes on the top three traits she looks for in interns. For a more in-depth look at Laura’s life, great advice, and to learn how she got to where she is today, read on!
Carpe Juvenis: How do you define ‘Seizing Your Youth’?
Laura Shunk: I don’t know if there’s one good way to describe it or way to answer that. I think about how to seize any time in your life and it’s engaging in things that you care about and you feel invested in for whatever reason, whether that’s because you’re helping a cause you’re interested in or enriching your own life and knowledge and setting yourself up for future success.
CJ: What did you major in at Claremont McKenna College and how did you determine what to study?
LS: I was an International Relations major. Before I was an International Relations major, I was an Economics major, a Government major, a Literature major, a Biology major – I probably changed my major about 10 times. I ultimately settled on International Relations because it was the only major that required you to study abroad and I really wanted to have the opportunity to do that. It ended up being a great major.
CJ: Where did you study abroad and what was your big takeaway?
LS: I studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I learned Spanish, so that was a very tangible takeaway. I spoke it fluently after that. Study abroad isn’t necessarily about the classes you take or what you study, it’s more about seeing a different culture. I studied development theory in college and I had never seen it applied in real life, and I spent the summers in parts of Latin America in poor communities, but I had never understood what it meant to be in a developing country and Argentina put such a vivid experience to that. A broader understanding of the world and understanding that other places in the world aren’t just like here and that people are great everywhere.
CJ: Are you happy you went out-of-state for college?
LS: Yes, I highly recommend it. My parents told me when I was getting ready to go to college, “Go out of state because you can always come back.” That was the best advice anyone ever gave me.
CJ: Where did you intern and how did you go about securing those internships?
LS: My only internship was at Chipotle, which I had throughout college, in their corporation headquarters. I was part of the culture and language program, so we were writing and managing programs that helped employees learn English, which helps them advance in restaurants. It was an amazing internship, it ended up being so hands-on and I secured it by working my network. I knew I wanted to do something that used my Spanish and do something in the business world and I was interested in food, but I wasn’t quite sure how to put the two together. I knew people at Chipotle and asked about internships and they pointed me to the right place.
CJ: You are a Food Editor at Village Voice Media. What does being a Food Editor mean?
LS: On a job responsibility level, I manage the division of a section, I assign stories, I edit stories, and I keep the online part of the food coverage of the Voice and the paper moving in the direction I think it should be moving.
CJ: What makes a good food writer? Is it traveling and eating, or is it eating a lot?
LS: It can be a lot of things. There are a lot of different kinds of food writers. The best food writers have a unique angle of some sort. They could have traveled and bring a cultural awareness to the food that they’re eating or writing about. They could really love the human story behind foods. They could love the environmental factors or the experience. There are a lot of ways to be a food writer.
CJ: What does a day in your life look like?
LS: I wake up, drink a lot of coffee, spend the first four hours of my day editing and writing and getting our blog set for the day, and then I spend the second half of my day interviewing, talking to people, strategizing, and transcribing. There is also a lot of eating involved. I am out to dinner every night and out to lunch a lot. Sometimes I’ll have two dinners.
CJ: What should a teenager or young adult who wants to be a Food Editor do now to set themselves up for success?
LS: Write. That would be the first thing. Writing is a skill that no matter how naturally good at it you are, you get better as you do it more. And find a good editor because that helps a ton. Start a blog. With the direction media is going, get good at social media, photography, and film. In that same vein, a good food writer has a unique angle – learn something in the food world better than anyone else knows it and you’ll be the go-to person for that topic.
CJ: In addition to being a Food Editor, you are active with the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. How are you involved and why do you believe in their mission?
LS: I sit on the board, which means we meet and hear about the day-to-day of the organization, we help with fundraising, and we help with higher level strategy decisions. The board provides overall strategic direction and fundraising help.
The New York City Coalition Against Hunger works with and on behalf of food pantries around New York. Instead of just helping soup kitchens fulfill their duty, we work on changing the rules of the system. We are focused on fixing the problem as opposed to just putting a Band-Aid on it. Being in the food industry, fixing the problem is important to me.
CJ: If you were hiring an intern, what are the top three traits that you would look for?
LS: Eagerness. The best intern I had was eager and never said no. That’s a big one. A certain level of maturity and self-awareness. Be able to take direction and accept that somebody might have something to teach you. Communication is also important, especially today, you’ve got to be a good communicator.
CJ: You’ve been out of school for seven years. How did you transition from college life to “the real world?”
LS: I approached post-college as a skill gathering time. I looked at it as a time to do a lot of different things, and I ignored people around me telling me I had to have a career where I was moving up. I didn’t buy it. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but it worked out on my end. Being flexible is important. I moved from L.A. to Denver, went to New York, back to Denver, and then back to New York. Some years were harder than others. The year I quit my consulting job and was working for a quarter of the salary waiting tables I would think, what did I do? That’s when I would think that I wasn’t transitioning well post-college. But it’s all temporary and things work out. If I hadn’t done that I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.
CJ: What activities were you involved in throughout high school and college? Were there any experiences that were most memorable or life changing?
LS: In high school, I was the editor-in-chief of the yearbook, I was on the mock trial team, I was on the golf team – but I’m pretty sure I only did that to get out of gym – and I was a girl scout. That was meaningful not so much from the organizational perspective, but because I did a lot of community service, which was very rewarding and momentous.
In college, I did different things such as Model EU and a foreign affairs club because I got to travel. At Claremont McKenna, I helped design a curriculum that helped staff, such as janitors, to learn English. We would tutor them one-on-one, and that was rewarding.
CJ: What motivates you in your everyday life – at the office and/or during your down/personal time?
LS: I think a lot about making an impact. Going back to what I said about seizing your youth, feeling engaged is huge. I worked a lot of jobs where I didn’t feel engaged. I feel engaged now and I feel compelled to continue to dig in and I want to feel that way forever about what I’m doing. I’d like to do something that impacts my community in a positive way.
CJ: What is your favorite book?
LS: Recently: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
CJ: Who is your role model?
LS: I’m pretty lucky to have a lot of role models. I had an editor in Denver who I would consider a role model. Still one of the greatest editors I’ve ever worked with. She taught me a lot about the business, and she is one of those people whose impact on me is something I hope to have on others.
CJ: What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
LS: Don’t worry about it when you feel uncomfortable. You’re going to have times where you are unsure if you can pay a bill or if you’re going to be fired. These things will happen and it is part of it and it is fine and it usually works out. Try to enjoy it and try not to get caught up in others telling you what to do or how to feel.