A Day in the Life of Amber X. Chen


Amber X. Chen Courtesy of Amber X. Chen

What I’m working on:

I regularly contribute to Atmos Magazine and recently wrote an update on O’ahu’s ongoing water crisis, caused in large part by the Navy’s Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, which sits precariously above the island’s sole source aquifer. I initially reported on the issue in May 2022, after a major 14,000-gallon leak prompted the Department of Defense to announce they would shut down Red Hill. But now, nearly a year later, they haven’t yet begun the defuel process, and residents say that their water is still contaminated. Also for Atmos, I just published a profile of the singer Raveena Aurora, in which I interviewed her on her latest album, relationship to nature, and journey with self-love.

A little over a month ago, I was invited on my first journalism trip to attend a Climate Solutions Series at Minneapolis’s Great Northern Festival, after the festival’s public relations person stumbled upon an article I wrote for Atmos exploring the potential role of psychedelics in climate activism. I got to meet and learn from some amazing journalists and local organizers there, and am currently working on sending out some pitches about Minnesota’s environmental-justice issues.

My start in freelancing was rather unconventional. I had been writing for my high school newspaper, but freelancing had never crossed my mind as something high schoolers could do. I never pursued it until I decided to submit an essay about my high school boyfriend to the Los Angeles Times’ love column, L.A. Affairs.

From there, I sort of used “I’ve been published in the LA Times” to get an in at other publications. I had been involved in a lot of environmental organizing throughout high school as well, and I knew I wanted to write about the environment.

I started blogging for the Eco Justice Project, an environmental justice–focused digital platform, and while doing so began to research “how to freelance,” which is how I stumbled upon The Open Notebook. I used TON’s pitch database as a guide for how to draft my own pitches. I also religiously listened to the Longform podcast to get inspiration from other journalists.

Atmos was the first publication that accepted a pitch from me about the environment. It was a profile of climate activist Disha Ravi, who had been arrested by the Indian government for her outspoken support of the farmers’ movement. I’m so thankful that Yessenia Funes, Atmos’s climate director, took a chance on me, then a naive high schooler. I remember having to redo that draft twice, and Yessenia was super patient with me. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of working with her on multiple articles and she has become an important mentor of mine as I navigate the environmental journalism world.

Being a part of the Uproot Project—this amazing space for environmental journalists of color—has also been super important and helpful for me. I am so excited to soon be writing two newsletters for them!

I’m really proud to say that environmental justice is my main beat, because as the effects of climate change increase globally, we need more reporters to focus on who is disproportionately impacted and how we can create equitable climate solutions.

Where I work:

I am currently located in Berkeley, California, for school, but I’m originally from SoCal! My work space is this tiny desk in my dorm, but I also love hitting up all the coffee shops within a one-mile radius, the student center, study lounges, and libraries.

A laptop computer, books, and a burning candle, among various other items, sit on a desk in a dark room.
Amber’s desk. Courtesy of Amber X. Chen

Daily routine:

Ideally, I would wake up at 7:45 a.m. and go to bed before 12:00 a.m. every weekday. In reality, I am a somewhat-disorganized college student. I unfortunately signed myself up for an 8:00 a.m. English class this semester, which takes place on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so on those days I am up at 7:45 a.m., lest I arrive late. When that class ends at 9:30 a.m., I always try to eat breakfast. I never ate breakfast before starting college, but now it is the most important meal of my day because the dining halls here serve the worst meals for lunch. Then I have a Spanish class from 11:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. After Spanish on Tuesdays I have a Students of Color Environmental Collective meeting from 6:00 to 7:00 p.m. On Thursdays, Spanish is followed by a two-hour history seminar on the Cold War in Central America, which is one of the most interesting classes I’ve taken in my time at college thus far.

On Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays I will either wake up at 9:45 a.m. for my calculus lecture or skip it to catch some extra z’s (my professor posts the lecture online). Then, I have Spanish class again, followed by a calculus discussion section. These days, eating breakfast becomes less of a given because I often don’t wake up early enough for it (the dining halls here close their breakfast at 10:00 a.m.).

I try my hardest not to nap between classes, so that I can fall asleep for the night at a reasonable time. To accomplish this, I make a point of not returning to my dorm until it’s time to sleep, so that I won’t be enticed by my wonderful bed during the day.

My routine definitely changes depending on the assignments I have. Last semester, when I was juggling a story for The Guardian and (a very long and complicated) story for Atmos, I would sometimes have to wake up at 6:00 a.m. to interview people in different time zones before class.

For me, college is about getting work done when I can, in the order of which deadline is most immediate. I don’t have set times for doing homework, working on my assignments, or sending pitches. For example, 7:00 to 10:00 p.m., which could be my writing time on one day, could very well be cram-for-calculus-midterm time the next day. Then, the next day I might have to stay up much later in order to file a draft on time that I put off writing to study for said calculus midterm.

Lately, I’ve been working a lot on internship and fellowship applications for the summer. I’m also in a bit of a pitching slump and am taking most of the free time I have to brainstorm. I also need to catch up on my calculus homework.

I have been trying to carve out better weekday routines for myself, but still, every time I have tried it has not worked. I think this is mainly because I am a big fan of spontaneity. In college, I’m always surrounded by my friends and their friends. There’s always so many new people to meet and I am a major extrovert! A lot of my days get shifted by last-minute hangouts, and to be honest, I think I want to keep it that way. At least for now.

Most productive part of my day:

For me, productivity comes in spurts. Sometimes these spurts are at 8:00 a.m. Sometimes they are at 11:00 p.m. And I wish I could focus while with other people, but I work best when I’m alone. Lately, I’ve been holing myself up in the graduate-student section of UC Berkeley’s Doe Library whenever I have a decent chunk of time. Graduate students are super quiet!

Most essential ritual or habit:

I need to spend time with friends or else I will lose my mind! I make a point of going out every weekend and make notes to check-in with people and plan little lunch/dinner or study dates throughout the week.

Favorite note-taking techniques/tools:

I use Otter.ai to record and transcribe interviews, which I then transfer into Google Drive. Also, my awesome mentor, Gabe Schneider, at the Zenith Cooperative—an organization dedicated to creating a sustainable and collaborative media world—helped me create a fancy Google spreadsheet to keep track of my freelance assignments!

An open planner sits on a nondescript surface. On the left page a few appointments and due dates are listed. On the right, there are very full "homework" and "journalism" lists.
Amber’s planner. Courtesy of Amber X. Chen

How I keep track of my to-do list:

I am a big fan of my 2023 Moleskine planner (in red!) that my best friend gifted to me. I finally found a system for it that works for me: On the left, I write down important events such as meetings and interviews. On the right, I have my to-do lists split into the categories of “homework” and “journalism.” I also use the Stickies application on my MacBook to keep track of miscellaneous ideas and notes.

Essential software/apps/productivity tools:

Right now, it’s just my planner. But I am trying to figure out Notion!

Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:

So much TikTok! Also, Twitter. So much Twitter! (Am I … chronically online?) I used to be really into Instagram, but since starting journalism it’s just been Twitter all day every day. I also have the tendency to spend more time looking for songs to listen to while studying than actually studying.

My reading habits:

I am currently behind on my course readings! Right now, I need to catch up on The Grapes of Wrath and Oil! by John Steinbeck, and America Is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan, for my English class. I have a whole Google window dedicated to various essays and articles my friends have sent me over the last year that I still need to read. I am currently halfway through the essay “On Liking Women” by Andrea Long Chu. The last books I read for fun were Hua Hsu’s memoir Stay True and Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux.

Sleep schedule:

I am on a college sleep schedule. In other words, I don’t really have one—it all depends on when the work gets done and if there’s a party!

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