Discovering a passion for journalism at St. Olaf leads to internship at The Post
Eli Tan ’21 knew when he applied for an internship with The Washington Post that the competition would be fierce. He also knew that landing a role at one of the most storied publications in the country would bring immense opportunities.
So when The Post business editor Lori Montgomery called with a simple question — “What would you say if I offered you a job right now?” — his answer was obvious.
Tan, a current graduate student at Columbia Journalism School, will be serving as a business reporting intern this summer at The Washington Post, participating in one of the most prestigious journalism internship programs in the country for undergraduate and graduate students. Those who participate in the program work alongside some of the most accomplished journalists in the industry and are oftentimes offered a permanent position at The Post once the summer is completed.
Tan came to St. Olaf with the intention of being an economics major, but felt a new calling after taking the required first-year writing class with Assistant Professor of English Sean Ward. He gradually developed a deeper interest in the English major, but struggled to define a career interest within the field. Professor Emeritus of English Mark Allister introduced him to the idea of writing professionally, advice that took Tan to the student newspaper — The Olaf Messenger, often shortened to “The Mess” — at the beginning of his junior year. Though he had no prior experience in journalistic writing, he dove headfirst into the opportunity and became the paper’s sports editor.
“First article I wrote, I fell in love with it immediately,” Tan says. “I was like, this is it. This is what I’m meant to be doing.”
That first article went on to win a student newspaper award from the Society of Professional Journalists, the first of three times Tan would be nominated, including for his coverage of the decline of the Burnsville Mall. His work also extended beyond the bounds of campus publications with his piece in The Sahan Journal about racial inequality at St. Olaf.
“To this day a lot of the articles that I wrote at St. Olaf are some of my favorite pieces that I’ve ever done,” Tan says. “I think that’ll be true for a while. The stories that existed on campus lent themselves really well to a young journalist who was wanting to tell stories.”
Tan’s work with The Mess marked a stark shift in focus for him, as he had mostly been dedicated to his other passion — playing on the varsity baseball team. Though his central priority became The Mess during his junior and senior years, he stayed with the baseball team all four years of college.
“I wouldn’t say I fell out of love with baseball, but I definitely grew to the point where I was actually enjoying The Mess as much as I was playing on the baseball team,” Tan says. “It became a new passion for me. The baseball team felt like a family for me at St. Olaf, and eventually the newspaper did too.”
Though equipped with a newfound drive for storytelling, Tan still felt somewhat uncertain about his prospects in the field of journalism, noticing the competitive nature of the industry that seemed mostly represented by individuals who received undergraduate degrees outside of the Midwest. This perspective shifted, however, when St. Olaf graduate Avery Ellfeldt ’19 spoke to The Mess about her own experience interning with NPR in Washington, D.C. She now serves as a climate change reporter at Politico’s Energy & Environment News, commonly known as E&E News.
“I remember that was the moment where I said ‘I’m doing it, I’m gonna go all in. She did all this great work — I want to try to do the same thing,'” Tan says.
During his senior year, Tan was working as both an editorial intern for Hangar, a venture capital firm, and Fulwiler Media, a mental health-focused marketing agency. He had also started looking for jobs in Minneapolis and Seattle, where he is from, but remembers being rejected from every local newspaper he applied to. Shortly before graduation he was offered an internship as a business reporter with CoinDesk, a cryptocurrency trade publication. Tan moved to New York City that summer, taking the leap into an industry he knew nothing about and eventually earning a full-time position.
“It was like learning a new language, or learning to swim once you’re in the water. It was as fun as it was challenging,” Tan says of the learning curve.
While working in New York for CoinDesk, Tan felt like he had finally broken into the industry. He was traveling all over the country to speak at conferences and interview CEOs, business owners, and even celebrities, including NFL football players Stefon Diggs and Justin Herbert, and musicians G-Eazy and Doja Cat. Tan was also invited to the 2022 Grammy Awards to do interviews on the red carpet, which he says was his most memorable experience while with CoinDesk.
After nearly two years working for CoinDesk, Tan began a master’s degree program at Columbia Journalism School, another dream he had ideated his junior year at St. Olaf
“I can still clearly remember so many nights sitting in Larson Hall, thinking about going to Columbia Journalism School and eventually working for a place like the New York Times or Washington Post,” Tan says. “I often lose track of it now, but it’s a great feeling to know I’d be making that younger version of me proud.”
Tan says his time at St. Olaf was key in helping him find his passion.
“I think that if I hadn’t gone to St. Olaf, I wouldn’t be on the path that I am now because I wouldn’t have just happened to join the newspaper, especially at a large school where the newspapers are more intimidating,” Tan says. “I’m just lucky that all the dominoes fell the way they did, otherwise I wouldn’t be going to The Post right now.”
To Tan, the ability to take risks with a level head is essential in his successful rise into journalism. He encourages other St. Olaf students to become more comfortable with ambiguity, trusting that following passions will present the right opportunities.
“I am a big believer in people finding their vocations and finding jobs that they’re really passionate about, and I was never stressed out about finding that,” Tan says. “I think at St. Olaf so many people come in knowing exactly what they want to do, but without having an open mind to switch paths I would have never found what I now consider my passion.”