She started working again, as co-editor of the photography blog PetaPixel and photo editor at Hyphen magazine. And she applied to grad school. She was determined to be a journalist, and thought the skills and experience she’d gain there would be the best way to accomplish this. Her parents weren’t so sure. Anna encouraged her to stay in Sacramento, get an office job, and “focus on getting her health back.” Jessica responded, “Mom, this disease, it’s gonna get me anyway. And so while I’m feeling well I want to be able to live life. Be able to pursue my dreams. However long I can.”
She removed all references to her illness from the Internet. Jessica would later say this was for “professional reasons”—she was afraid employers wouldn’t hire someone who was sick—but she also chose not to tell her professors or classmates. She didn’t want pity or special treatment.
Jessica began at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism in fall 2010. She was interviewed by one of her professors, Richard Koci Hernandez, as part of a video about the first weeks of school. She looks happy and healthy and energized. “What does journalism mean to you?” Koci asks. Without hesitation, Jessica answers, “It means storytelling at its deepest level. At its most human level, I think, in a very real way.”
She thrived at Berkeley. Professors describe her as “pretty phenomenal,” “immediately terrific.” Classmate Hadley Robinson remembers her as a “social-media addict” who was “interested in how journalism is evolving,” what it would and could be. “I was impressed by her right away,” Robinson says.
Rainy days Jessica worked at Berkeley’s Mission Loc@l during both years of grad school. She wrote, photographed, edited, and coded for the site. (Jessica Lum / Courtesy of Mission Loc@l)
Jessica enrolled in a class called “Digital TV and the World,” the description of which seemed tailor-made to her interests: “new styles of global reportage that take a close-up look at ordinary people and the issues they face.” That semester, the class focused on South Korea, and spent a month reporting from inside the country. Their work was published in a special section of The Washington Post’s website that Jessica designed and produced. Two of Jessica’s video reports are featured, including “The Return,” about a schizophrenic woman who makes weekly visits to the mental hospital where she was once committed to teach the patients who are still there.
The access Jessica got to the woman is testament to her ability to connect with people. “She actually went in and was filming in an institution,” recalled her classmate, Anne Brice. “That’s really hard to do, especially in Korea. It’s a very taboo subject.” The woman invited Jessica into her home, allowed her to film her brushing her teeth (one task the woman said her illness still made it difficult for her to do) and celebrating her 64th birthday. Jessica narrated the video: “It’s one more year she’s lived—on her own terms.”
As soon as she returned from South Korea, Jessica began an internship at the LA Times. By August, she was itching to escape LA for a while, and organized a road trip with some co-workers into the Colorado Desert in southeastern California. One stop was Slab City and its itinerant population, which typically shuns the outside world.
It was more than a hundred degrees when Jessica first got to Slab City; she didn’t stay long, but found herself wondering who lived in the RVs, and why they chose to stay in such inhospitable conditions. She returned in October, when it was cooler and many of the part-time residents had returned. “I just felt like this was a place that I could meet really fascinating people with great stories,” she later said.
Most “Slabbers,” as the people who live there are called, have become reluctant to talk to a media that often portrays them as “weirdos, hippies and drug addicts inhabiting the lawless patch of the California desert,” as a headline in UK’s Daily Mail put it. Jessica saw an opportunity to take a different approach.
To do this, she’d need to spend enough time with the Slabbers to earn their trust. Neil Mallick, an artist she would eventually profile, remembers first seeing Jessica around Halloween, “just hanging out,” with a camera at her side but no “reporter vibe,” as he put it. He saw her again in December, when she rented an RV and lived among the Slabbers for three weeks.