Alumni Spotlight: Jeanette Lam

By Lexi Reich

Unsure of which study abroad program to choose, Jeanette Lam, 21, left the decision to a coin toss. Through that chance and the SIT journalism program in Morocco, she found herself in Paris last summer working as a cinematographer and editing assistant on a feature documentary.

“France’s Children,” directed by Aida Alami, advisor to the SIT program, follows the story of an immigration activist in France, and other activists who, fueled by the desire to empower their community, reject victimhood.

“This experience was one of the most unique opportunities I’ve ever had,” Lam said.

She filmed hour long interviews without understanding French, which taught her to be hyper-aware of subtleties in body language and gestures that are often overlooked. She learned to edit on French Premiere Pro without being able to read French, but this taught her to problem-solve on her feet.

“It gave me the confidence to really believe that I can rise to any challenge that appears seemingly unconquerable,” Lam said.

Alami hired Lam after working together to produce Lam’s independent study project in Morocco, a short documentary called “The Last Hands in Zellige.” Published in USA Today in June 2018, the piece was the first Lam has published internationally.

“The SIT program just throws you right in and pushes you to truly learn through hands-on experience,” she added.

The documentary explores the endangered traditional art of tile-making. The film profiles Driss Zourgane, a 36-year-old worker in Ain Qbib, Fes, Morocco who dropped out of school at the age of seven to become his family’s sole breadwinner.

Many of Lam’s films grapple with issues such as cultural erasure, race and oppression, requiring Lam to handle complex narratives with caution and care, she said.

“I am passionate about sharing stories which allow for deeper understandings of people and communities,” Lam said.

Lam is a senior at the University of Richmond studying leadership, journalism and film. She was intrigued by SIT’s journalism program, officially known as the Field Studies in Journalism and New Media program, because it promised professional mentorship and the opportunity to work in the field.

“As a young creative, I think two things are the most important — people who believe in you while you’re still learning to believe in yourself, and opportunities to learn, fail, learn, fail and learn again,” Lam said.

While in Morocco, Lam learned to appreciate a different notion of time. Used to the fast-paced culture of America, Lam noticed that Moroccans approached life at their own pace.

“Don’t worry, there’s no problem,” Lam’s host dad would tell her.

Every day, things would happen that she couldn’t prepare for, whether her interview subjects showed up late, her taxi driver took her to the wrong place or her translator canceled last minute. As frustrating as it was, Lam learned to accept there were things she simply could not control.

She started functioning with the mantra that five things would go wrong every day. If less than that went wrong, it was a good day.

“They have a very optimistic way of life that celebrates enjoying time and not just hustling every second of every day,” Lam said. “It was hard to adjust to at first, but now it’s something I deeply appreciate and wish we had more of back in America.”

Lam is currently working on a documentary film about a storytelling program between first-year University of Richmond students and juvenile inmates in Richmond. She hopes this documentary will encourage people to learn more about juvenile justice by both humanizing marginalized communities and helping viewers better understand young people’s stories.

“Everyone has a story to tell, they just need someone to ask,” Lam said. “So, ask the people around you about their lives and listen intentionally, you might be surprised at the connections you’ll make.”