Phenom Chapel Hill reporter blazes new path for young journalists

By Isabella Reilly 

Six years ago, 9-year-old Teresa Fang applied to become a reporter for the award-winning international journalism program, Scholastic Kids Press

She wasn’t accepted. 

“‘We liked your writing, but you’re a bit too young,’” the editor said.

The following year, she applied again, inspired by a fifth-grade wildlife reserve visit. “I saw these birds flying in synchronized blocks,” she said. “They looked like clouds.” 

Moved by the “clouds,” Fang’s second application, an article on bird migrations, landed her a spot as one of only 50 chosen kid reporters. Scholastic Kids Press Editor Suzanne McCabe said the competitive program annually receives around 400 applications worldwide. 

Fang’s acceptance to the program would soon afford her a collection of high-profile interviews – some in-person, some on live television – with former presidential candidates, well-known astronauts, Olympic gold medalists and more. 

“[Teresa] seemed extraordinary from the start,” McCabe said. “She showed a willingness to learn and grow all the way along. By the end, she was leading me.” 

‘Nothing to be afraid of’

And willing she was – within a year at Scholastic, Fang landed an interview with NASA astronaut Christina Koch at 12 years old, reporting a story on Koch’s first space expedition in 2019. 

Fang said she wrote directly to the government agency, and recalled her message being “one of the hardest, most time-consuming emails” she ever wrote. 

NASA responded to the young reporter and invited her to interview Koch on a live broadcast of NASA Television. 

With the day off from school, Fang recalls dialing into the livestream at 8 a.m., patiently waiting her turn among reporters from WRAL News, ABC 11, CBS News and others. 

“I wasn’t intimidated,” she said. “There was nothing to be afraid of – I just needed to speak.” 

Ten months later, Fang emailed U.S. Figure Skating and requested an interview with Olympic gold medal-winning figure skater Nathan Chen. Soon after, she was on the road to Greensboro, North Carolina, having scored an invite to the 2020 Toyota U.S. Figure Skating Championships to meet Chen. 

“It was cool to see such a famous person who looks like me,” Fang said.

McCabe said although Fang wasn’t the first kid reporter to earn a high-profile interview, she was surprised by her skill and determination. “She’s not going to take no for an answer,” she added. 

Fang remained a Kids Press reporter from 2018 to 2021. “I only stopped because they said I was ‘too old,’” she said, grinning. 

‘Determined’ and inspiring student

At the same time, Fang was also a middle school student. In late 2019, Erin Kellas, Fang’s seventh-grade social studies teacher, tasked each of her students with a hefty assignment: enter C-SPAN’s annual national video documentary competition, StudentCam

Tapping into her Scholastic confidence, Fang reached out to former presidential candidate Andrew Yang for her video. She recalls a month of coordination with the head volunteer for Yang’s South Carolina campaign rally before securing the interview. 

Her family riding along for the 2 1/2-hour drive, Fang recalls meeting Yang backstage at the rally, wearing his signature scarf and snacking on popcorn. Even after her interviews with Koch and Chen, it was the interview with Yang that made Fang realize “famous people weren’t really that hard to get to,” she said.

Kellas said she was “floored” to hear about Fang’s interview with the former presidential candidate but wasn’t surprised. 

“Teresa is a determined student,” Kellas said. “[Her work] was an inspiration to the rest of us.” 

The final documentary, “America: This Equality,” highlighted social, racial and socioeconomic inequality, winning third place in 2020 and a $750 prize. Fang said the competition pushed her to become more active in finding solutions to social issues and helped her learn the importance of communicating those solutions to wider audiences. 

Former Chapel Hill Town council member Hongbin Gu, who was also interviewed for the documentary and since has become a mentor of Fang’s, said she greatly admires the now 16-year-old’s passion for civic involvement. 

“She is actually aware of what is going on locally and at a national level,” Gu said, “and she’s very confident in presenting those ideas.”

Use your voice

Since her prize-winning first year, Fang has entered C-SPAN’s national competition annually, winning second place in 2021 for “U.S.-China: Survive or Thrive” and an honorable mention award in 2022 for “Stand and Deliver: Our Youth Voices.” 

To encourage her classmates to participate in the competition, Fang founded East Chapel Hill High School’s first documentary film club. She said she hopes the club motivates her peers to use their voice. 

“I wanted more teens to jump in because that’s what high school is about,” she said. “It’s a pathway to be the person you want to be.” 

As for paving her own path, Fang is already well on her way. In July 2022, she sent an email to Jessica Stringer, editor at Chapel Hill Magazine, looking for summer volunteer work. 

“I’ve always wanted to contribute to my community’s media and especially to your magazine,” Fang wrote in her email to Stringer. 

And just like before, Stringer responded, too. 

“She said, ‘Can I call you?’” Fang recalls. “She offered me an internship right then and there.” 

Stringer said she was impressed by Fang’s experience and thought it would be exciting to guide and mentor the young reporter. She spent a month as the summer’s youngest editorial intern, sandwiched between third and fourth-year college students at the Sage Road office. 

“I didn’t think of her as, ‘Oh, she’s the high schooler,’” Stringer said. “I thought of her as somebody who’s considerate, mature and driven beyond her years.” 

Despite a lengthy list of experience, the high school student isn’t sure journalism is her future. Fang’s loss of several family members to COVID-19, she said, helped her discover a new passion outside of reporting. 

“After the pandemic, I was inspired to save lives,” she said. She is considering studying medicine after graduation and aspires to go to an Ivy League. 

Even if Fang doesn’t continue to pursue journalism, she describes her journey as “magical,” with one thing certain – no matter what she does, she hopes to be a “trailblazer,” adding, “it’s all about grasping opportunities and using them to the fullest.”

Edited by Harrison Clark and Valeria Cloës