Dream Job: Valerie Chen’s Full-Time Gig Is to Travel the World and Write About It

Plus, what she always packs in her carry-on.

Can you imagine getting to travel to amazing destinations around the world as part of your JOB? For many of us, that sounds like an absolute dream — but for Valerie Chen, it’s an absolute reality. As a Senior Editor at TravelAge West Magazine, Valerie has seen just about everything — she’s trekked through the Andean highlands and road-tripped through Iceland, and she’s not slowing down anytime soon.

So what’s it really like to work for a travel magazine? It’s not exactly what you’d expect — but in a lot of ways, it might be even better. Read on to learn more about Valerie’s amazing career, her early work as an editor at The Everygirl (woohoo!), and the advice she has for all aspiring journalists.

 

Name: Valerie Chen
Job Title: Senior Editor at TravelAge West Magazine
Age: 27
Hometown: Irvine, California
Current Location: Los Angeles, California
Education: BS in journalism from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona

 

What was your first job, and how did you land it?

 

I believe I was 12 or 13 years old when I got my first job at Wild Rivers, a now-defunct water park. But I wasn’t one of the cool high schoolers working as a lifeguard and saving people’s lives. I was a ride attendant who rocked a fanny pack, a visor that was too small for my head, a one-piece bathing suit, a baggy white T-shirt, oversized red shorts, braces that were color-coordinated to holidays, and a unibrow.

I applied the old-fashioned way for the job — in person — and mumbled through a group interview. The saving graces of that job were lessons in humility and delicious chicken tenders purchased with an employee discount.

 

Even in your college days and early career, you were doing incredible work. You were the founding editor-in-chief of a magazine, an editorial intern at a variety of places, and even a tutor — tell us about the importance of building up your repertoire and gaining experience.

 

Thank you! I began college at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona (CPP) feeling hopelessly lost. As a freshman undergrad, I hadn’t declared a major yet and had no idea what I wanted to do in my life.

Eventually, I realized that my love of reading and penning amateur YA novels far surpassed my ability to figure out a basic algebraic equation or even draw a straight line. And I was notorious for “asking too many questions” all the time and enjoyed learning about people, places, and things. So, I decided to study journalism (though I almost went the route of English literature).

Much to my surprise, I found I was decent at it. For most of my adolescence all the way up to that chapter of my life, I struggled with depression, anxiety, a mess of insecurities, and overall apathy. At last, here was something that made me feel excited and — for the first time in years — proud of myself.

During my sophomore year, I was hired as a tutor at CPP’s university writing center, which included helping older graduate students as well as leading workshops for remedial English students. I worked my way up at The Poly Post, the school’s weekly student-run newspaper, initially as a staff writer, then assistant lifestyle editor and finally lifestyle editor. If I wasn’t in class, you’d find me in the newsroom. We also had to work on the paper on Saturdays and Sundays, so I juggled the job with my tutoring gig and waitressing at a local restaurant. When the newspaper was inactive during summertime, I still tutored and had an unpaid internship at COAST Magazine, in addition to waitressing, working as a sales associate at a flower shop and/or working as a sales associate in retail. The hustle was mad real, as were the gallons of coffee demolished.

During my senior year, my magazine journalism professor, Dr. Vinita Dhingra, became my mentor. CPP didn’t have a university magazine, so she and I worked together to launch our own. With the help of several other students (writers, photographers, graphic designers, columnists), we built the magazine from the ground up, and it even became an academic course that offered college credits. As founding editor-in-chief, I poured my entire heart into it, and it was thrilling to see the magazine become a reality.

Long (rambling and personal) story short: Journalism, especially at a print magazine, is an extremely competitive landscape. So, when applying for a job right out of college, a robust resume with relevant experience is essential — you have to nail that first impression and stand out among a sea of applicants. The next step will entail bringing all those learned skills to a new table.

 

For most of my adolescence all the way up to that chapter of my life, I struggled with depression, anxiety, a mess of insecurities, and overall apathy. At last, writing was something that made me feel excited and — for the first time in years — proud of myself.

 

 

What skills did you learn early on in your career, and are there any lessons you learned in the early days that you still carry with you today?

 

In the workplace, always offer an enthusiastic “yes!” to doing more, taking on additional tasks, and working harder. The job description that had accompanied your initial role will evolve, which is something you can gently push in the right direction, too. Even if recognition may feel lacking, people do notice, and credit will play out in due time.

Also, this may sound cliché, but be a team player and be a friend. Offer to help your colleagues when they’re in need; when the roles are reversed, you’ll be thankful. (But don’t do it for that reason alone.) Competition can be healthy in certain scenarios, such as a tequila-inspired dance-off or an invigorating game of Mario Kart. However, in the workplace — and within a team — you’re working toward the same goal.

Last, but not least, networking with like-minded, career-driven folks is invaluable — but it’s totally OK to do it your way. Do you feel overwhelmed at big events swarming with people? Do you find small talk painful and end up hovering over the table of free food? (Same, boo.) Instead, opt for a one-on-one conversation over coffee, happy hour, or a casual lunch. You can even network virtually thanks to today’s hyperconnected world. The goal is to build lasting connections.

 

In the workplace, always offer an enthusiastic ‘yes!’ to doing more, taking on additional tasks, and working harder. The job description that had accompanied your initial role will evolve, which is something you can gently push in the right direction, too.

 

 

You worked as an editor at The Everygirl — how did you come to The Everygirl, and what was your position here?

 

As a devoted reader of The Everygirl, particularly their career profiles, I was thrilled when they announced they were hiring contributing editors for the first time. At the time, I was working full-time for a medical health publication, mostly focusing on editing (since doctors had to write the content) and content strategy. I desperately craved a creative outlet.

They posted part-time job opportunities for editors specializing in beauty, food, and fashion. I knew nothing about beauty and was surviving on a diet of Hot Cheetos and Bagel Bites, so I figured fashion was my best bet!

Alaina and Danielle ended up hiring two fashion editors: the lovely Jess Keys of Golden Girl blog, and yours truly. Together, Jess and I conceptualized story ideas and managed an editorial calendar. For my articles, I coordinated logistics of photo shoots, including securing products, locations, models, and photographers, in addition to writing and editing. It was a blast to collaborate with big brands and notable bloggers, as well as meet inspiring women. I later contributed to the career content, too, and interviewed eminent individuals about opening an online shop, working in marketing, and more.

 

Tell us about the experience working in niche journalism — is it realistic to aim to break into a specific niche?

 

Much to my bank account’s dismay, I’ve always loved shopping. Do I consider myself passionate about fashion in particular? Not really — I just like putting colors, textures, patterns, and silhouettes together, and I like feeling good in my attire and in my skin. When I was covering fashion-related topics for The Everygirl, I was less concerned about influencing people to spend money (that does happen indirectly, of course), but more concerned with the endgame: people feeling confident, even if that stems from something outwardly superficial like clothing.

And when I sent in my application for TravelAge West, I was unaware of how much travel would be involved. I was more interested in working at a print magazine and honing my journalism skills. Most of my childhood vacations involved low-budget road trips to U.S. national parks (which I still love). I saw travel, especially to international destinations, as a rare and unfeasible privilege. Travel still is a privilege, but one I’m lucky enough to experience more often.

Before writing about fashion, travel, or interior design, I had a temporary full-time job in technical writing and admin work (and interned at LAist on weekends for free). At my next job, there was the aforementioned medical content.

Basically, yes, it’s possible to break into a specific niche, and kudos to those who do! But is it always realistic in the very competitive journalism field? Not necessarily. At the core of your skill set should be the ability to write and edit well. Once you’ve sharpened those attributes, it’ll be easier to specialize in what you want.

 

On that note, a lot of people ask you for advice for breaking into the writing industry as a whole — so you created a super handy guide. In a nutshell, though, what’s your best advice for those who want to pursue journalism?

 

When starting out and building your journalism portfolio, you may have to swallow your pride, accept the bags under your eyes, and simply put in the work. That might include tedious internships, writing assignments that don’t get published, returned pitches, nonexistent paychecks, and other frustrations. However, if you keep at it, hone your craft, and deliver quality work again and again, I promise that a bright, shiny, beautiful light will appear at the end of the tunnel.

It’s imperative to know your self-worth; I cannot stress that enough. But sometimes you have to put in extra effort to prove it to the rest of the world, too.

 

READ: Valerie’s Guide to Getting a Writing Job

 

 

In 2014, you became an Associate Digital Editor at TravelAge West. How is digital journalism different from print media?

 

Digital journalism is a different beast than print journalism. It involves SEO best practices, web strategy, e-newsletters, content management systems, social media strategy, and more. It’s much more instantaneous, and the way the world consumes online media is continually evolving.

 

Tell us about your current position — how is it different from your other past roles?

 

TravelAge West is a b2b print and online magazine for travel agents — yes, they do still exist, and yes, it could be your dream job! — based in the Western U.S. We publish two issues of TravelAge West per month, and we publish additional web-exclusive articles and newsletter articles. We also have two national magazines: Explorer (covers experiential, soft adventure, and adventure travel), distributed quarterly, and Family Getaways (focus on family and multigenerational travel), distributed six times per year. There are only four other full-time editors on staff (besides freelance writers, the art department, salespeople, a production manager, a marketing manager, etc.); as a result, it’s all hands on deck, all the time.

As Senior Editor, I edit newsletter, web-exclusive, and print stories for all three publications, as well as write my own stories as often as I can. I mostly work on the digital side of things, which ranges from strategizing best web practices, keeping track of analytics, and managing social media to building daily and monthly newsletters and uploading content. I’m in charge of the internship program, too. I try my best to ensure our interns’ time at TAW is a beneficial stepping stone in their career trajectories. Also, there’s also a lot of communication with freelance writers and tackling of various projects that come up. And a huge thing that’s different from previous roles is that I get to travel for work regularly.

 

 

What’s your favorite part about your job?

 

Besides being part of a fantastic team and magazine, my favorite part is being able to explore the world, learn about different cultures, and then share it all with our readers.

 

What’s your favorite place to which you’ve traveled?

 

Peru was magnificent. I’ll never forget trekking through the Sacred Valley in the country’s Andean highlands, and the Peruvian people are genuine and kind. They also make the best ceviche! (I wrote about my experience on Peru’s Lares trail here.)

Iceland holds a special place in my heart as well. Its terrain is jaw-dropping; on a road trip, the vistas outside will change dramatically within minutes. It’s blissfully quiet and untouched. Seeing the Northern Lights outside Reykjavik was an unforgettable check off my bucket list, too. (I highly recommend Hotel Ranga, where guests are likely to view the aurora borealis.)

 

What’s always in your carry-on?

 

A blanket scarf, books, hand salve, a reusable water bottle, headphones, and probably a zillion more things. Workout clothes, which I always pack, always remain untouched. Weird, right?

 

 

A lot of people would assume that traveling for work is glamorous — but there’s a lot of research and hard work involved. Tell us about the experience of visiting and covering a location for TravelAge.

 

Some people tend to mistakenly assume that I can treat these trips as vacations. Don’t get me wrong: I’m inexpressibly grateful to have opportunities to travel — but they aren’t vacations.

I am constantly taking note of every single experience while on road. The following isn’t always the case, but, occasionally, these trips can be jam-packed with activities that might begin as early as 7 a.m. and last until 10 p.m. Sometimes I’ll arrive at a hotel late at night just to sleep, then jet off again by sunrise. There are press conferences and conference events to attend and interviews to conduct. Eight times out of 10, when I’m posting a ‘gram of a pool, I never had the chance to dip a toe in it.

I have been able to bring a plus one a handful of times, but usually, I’m traveling along with a group of strangers (journalists, photographers, or travel agents). I’m naturally an introvert, so, at times, this can be emotionally draining. But I’ve gained countless friends from all over the world because of it, and I’ve also become more at ease with such scenarios.

The perks outweigh any negative aspects tenfold, though! I have camped in Morocco’s Sahara Desert, learned about Chinese history in Thailand, kayaked among crocodiles in Mexico, rock climbed in the Santa Monica Mountains, and gone dune bashing in Qatar — to name a few incredible experiences.

 

 

Some people tend to mistakenly assume that I can treat these trips as vacations. Don’t get me wrong: I’m inexpressibly grateful to have opportunities to travel — but they aren’t vacations.

 

 

What’s next for you and your career? Where’s the next spot on your travel bucket list?

 

I’m happy where I am at the moment, but I do toy with the idea of starting something of my own one day. However, there’s still so much for me to learn about the media industry and the travel industry, so I’m going to take my time.

As for the next spot on my bucket list, New Zealand seems like my cup of tea: geothermal springs, glowworm caves, volcanic terrain, and national parks! Alaska, Canada’s northern territories, and Patagonia are way up there, too.

 

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?

 

Specific words don’t come to mind, but I do look to my mom as living proof of overcoming hardships and shaping a flourishing career. She grew up in Wuhan, China, without much money, and during the Chinese Communist Revolution, she was taken out of high school and separated from her family to perform manual labor in tea fields. Later, after being forbidden to pursue higher education, my mom was the first in her immediate family to immigrate to the U.S. Living in New York City, she attended community college during the day and took remedial high school classes at night (because she couldn’t get a high school diploma in China), all while supporting herself and her family back home through restaurant jobs.

My mom eventually earned her undergraduate degree in computer science, then a master’s degree in computer science. She has since succeeded as a software engineer in a male-dominated field, despite being an immigrant and with so many odds against her. I’ve seen her write code, and it absolutely blows my mind.

 

What advice would you give to your younger self?

 

Believe in yourself. Everything will be OK.

 

Valerie Chen is The Everygirl…

Worst airplane experience ever?
When people applaud when the plane lands. Just kidding! You know, I’m not sure I’ve had an experience awful enough to warrant “worst airplane experience ever.” When I’m annoyed, I remind myself that I’m miles up in the air, flying in a plane that’s literally above the clouds — and that’s pretty damn incredible. (Why yes, I would love a glass of wine with that cheese.)

Favorite part of living in southern California?
Within mere hours, I can be hiking in the mountains, swimming in the ocean, or camping in the desert. Tied for first place, though, is southern California’s ethnic and cultural diversity and subsequent assortment of cuisines. Give me all of the tacos and soup dumplings!

Guilty pleasure song?
“Pony” by Ginuwine, duh.

Go-to breakfast?
Breakfast is my jam! At home, I make matcha lattes, which are usually paired with a chia seed pudding (topped with granola, berries, coconut flakes, etc.) or an eggs-and-arugula connection that’s topped with a squeeze of lemon, a splash of avocado oil, salt and pepper, and a generous dash of sriracha.

If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and why?
Can it be several people, and can we make it a dance party? I would invite Ilana Glazer, Abbi Jacobson, Beyoncé, Mindy Kaling, Amy Poehler, and Michelle Obama.

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