Kat Chow wins UW Honors Alumna award

April 15, 2019

Kat Chow wins UW Honors Alumna award

The University of Washington Honors Program is thrilled to recognize NPR reporter, Kat Chow, as our 2019 Distinguished UW Honors Alumna.

Kat Chow earned her BA in journalism with College Honors, with a minor in diversity from the Department of American Ethnic Studies, from the University of Washington in 2012. Less than a year later she was hired by National Public Radio (NPR) where she helped start Code Switch, a team that reports on race and culture.

Chow is the youngest person to win the Distinguished Honors Alumni award, established in 2016 to recognize the deep yet varied impact of our graduates in the broader world. Previous winners have included a former UW provost, a state solicitor and a retired state supreme court justice. Each of these remarkable University Honors Program graduates has taken risks and collaborated across challenging divides to make a difference in ways that continue to ripple throughout our culture.   

Our awards selection committee — comprised of Interdisciplinary Honors students, faculty and staff — was impressed by Chow’s thoughtful public storytelling. Committee chair and Director of Honors Academic Services, Aley Mills Willis, made this statement: “We’re excited to recognize Kat’s interdisciplinary, collaborative professional approach and exceptional public impact in her chosen field. Although Kat is a relatively recent graduate, she already stands out in our community as a role model who inspires us to be open to new perspectives, to engage thoughtfully in hard conversations and to trust the inner voice that tells us we can do great things by investing in our concerns and passions. The impact she is making with this approach serves as a great example to our students and the wider community.”

College didn’t make much sense at first

Chow says that she initially struggled to understand what she was doing at UW — far from her home in Connecticut and borrowing against future earnings with her student loans. She knew that she liked writing, and that she wanted to pursue journalism — and that she wanted to tell stories about people of color and immigrant families like hers. But she began to question the value of her degree when guest speaker after guest speaker visited her journalism classes and shared cautionary tales about how traditional media outlets were downsizing or disappearing altogether.

Looking back, Chow notices how Honors helped her navigate the University by encouraging her to take risks, exposing her to new ideas and ways of considering her own identity, and affording her the flexibility to pursue subjects that fascinated her through Honors independent studies and thesis projects with faculty mentors. “I think Honors allowed me to be very curious and set me up to follow my internal compass of what I really like and what sorts of questions I gravitate toward. It helped me trust my gut.”

Like many college students, Chow struggled to balance a full course load with a part-time job — as well as a slew of internships, many of them unpaid. When Chow sought advice from the Honors Program, her academic adviser suggested earning credits via Honors 499 courses. This flexible model would not tie her to a classroom setting, but would allow her to work on a project independently (with light faculty support), emulating what post-college life would be like. It was an imperfect solution to the problem of unpaid internships, Chow points out, but it allowed her to wrestle with ideas that she was deeply interested in pursuing.

“That felt rare. I remember thinking: ‘I can’t believe they just let me do that.’ ” Chow credits her connection with former Honors Program director and current English professor, Shawn Wong, as a breakthrough experience in her development. “I think Julie Villegas put us in touch. I told him: ‘I’m interested in Asian American studies and I really admire your novels, Home Base and American Knees.’ He became my adviser while I was earning independent study Honors credits, but he also became a mentor. He helped me realize that the things I was fascinated in — racial representation, Asian American literature — could all come together.”

Wong agrees: “Kat Chow sat in on a creative writing class, which is how we met, and we discovered she had so much to say. We talked about life, about family, about loss, about race and identity and eventually Kat wrote a novel, not for me or any class, but for herself. I hope she publishes it, someday.”

Chow knew that working with Wong and with her Communications Department Honors adviser LeiLani Nishime was preparing her for something, but she didn’t know what. She approached graduation nervously, “not knowing exactly how I was going to pay back my college loans,” but determined to work in her field.

“As long as I get to learn from smart people, I’ll be fine,” Chow recalls thinking the summer after graduation, on her way to a Journalism Foreign Intrigue internship in Phnom Penh. She worked enthusiastically with a team of talented journalists to help produce The Cambodia Daily, an English-language newspaper. She knew right away that she wanted to keep reporting. But she couldn’t stay at The Cambodia Daily forever.

It all comes together

Late that summer in Phnom Penh, in the middle of the night, Kat Chow discovered a job posting that felt like it was too good to be true. “I saw that NPR had posted a bunch of positions for this new team they were creating to cover race in America. It felt so rare at the time. Not many newsrooms were devoting entire teams to covering race or identity. This felt huge, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it.”

Chow hoped her unique combination of experiences might lead to an interview, but weeks turned to months with no word about her application. She was working at an NPR member station in Boston when she got the call that she was a finalist for this thrilling new job —  one that had never existed when she was in college.

A month later, Chow found herself at NPR’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., starting the team that is now known as Code Switch. The team’s FAQ page explains the name: “We decided to call this team Code Switch because much of what we’ll be exploring are the different spaces we each inhabit and the tensions of trying to navigate between them. In one sense, code-switching is about dialogue that spans cultures. It evokes the conversation we want to have here.”

Kat Chow with her dog, Sampson
Chow loves taking walks with her good friend, Sampson.

Since helping start Code Switch, Chow has worked a handful of jobs with the team and elsewhere at NPR that include reporting, producing and editing stories for NPR’s website and radio programs. Her work has brought her to Dallas, Miami, Kansas City and Richmond.

Chow recently moved back to Washington, D.C., after a two-year stint in New York City.

Always asking complicated questions

Chow has reported on the colonial constructs that still define Native American identity today, gentrification in New York City’s Chinatown and the aftermath of a violent hate crime. Her cultural criticism has led her on explorations of racial representation in TV, film, and theater; the post-election crisis that diversity trainers face; race and beauty standards; gaslighting; and an in-depth exploration of the terms “Asian American” and “yellow.”

Today, Chow is on book leave from NPR. She’s working on a memoir (forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing) that examines some of the questions around grief, race, Asian American identity and family that her mother’s death triggered when Chow was young. It’s not the novel she started writing at UW, but she may return to that one day. She still has so much to say. Enough to fill articles, radio shows, novels and memoirs. So many questions to explore.

It’s scary sometimes, but she trusts the process. She’s learned that time spent wandering is rarely wasted. That it’s okay to wonder and be full of questions for longer than is really comfortable. Kat Chow is anchored by something that’s available to all of us, when we’re feeling unsure of what’s next: “It’s always important to lead your life with a big question that you want to answer.”

Kat Chow will accept UW’s Distinguished Honors Alumni award in-person on June 14 at the Honors Program’s Celebration of Distinction.