Scholarship Winners 2005

The Foreign Press Association 2005 Scholarship Winners were ERIC VANDEN BUSCH (1ST) from Brazil, LEELA DE KRETZER (2ND) from Australia, AYESHA AKRAM  (2ND) from Pakistan, ELIAS OKACH (3RD) from Kenya, and XIAOLI ZHOU  (3RD) from China.


Eric Vanden Busch worked as a reporter and columnist for the Nanfang Daily News Group in China until August when he became a student at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia

Eric has always been immersed in multicultural environments. Born to Belgian parents in Canada, he grew up in Brazil. At the age of 16, a summer trip to China aroused his interest in the country’s social transformation and its dialogue with the West.

A month after graduating with a BA in history from the University of Sao Paulo in 1997, Eric moved to Beijing. He learned the language and obtained an M.A. in Chinese Modern History from Peking University.

Fluent in five languages, Eric has freelanced for British and Brazilian publications, among them The Guard-ian, The China Review and Tempo Brasileiro. He has also published a book on the 25 years of Sino-Brazilian relations. Since 1999, Eric has participated as a guest debater on Chinese affairs for a Brazilian radio station, De Olho no Mundo, a co-production pf the BBC and Radio Eldorado in Sao Paulo. He has been quoted and interviewed by the BBC website, Folha de S. Paulo and Ultimo Segundo covering topics such as the 50th anniversary of the Chinese Revolution, Taiwan’s presidential election to name but a few.

Eric will intern at Toronto’s Globe and Mail after graduating from Columbia University in May. He hopes to expand coverage on China in the western media and intends to continue working on a reporting project on ethnic minorities in China’s poor Southwest countryside.


Leela de Kretser worked as reporter for the Herald Sun, Australia’s largest circulation newspaper, for four years before arriving in New York for Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2004. As a journalist at the Herald Sun, she covered social justice issues, business, courts and crime. In 2002, she was named the Melbourne Press Club’s Young Journalist of the Year.

During her last year at the Herald Sun, Leela also completed the fourth year of an Honors degree in History, writing her thesis on the western media’s coverage of the 1979 Iranian revolution. Her interest in Middle Eastern studies had an early foundation. She was born in Iran the year before the Shah’s fall and stayed in Tehran as a baby until her family was expelled at the end of 1979. Her parents’ stories of their years living there and in other countries around the world inspired her to travel as far and wide as she could from the age of 17. She has
worked, lived and traveled in India, Sri Lanka, China, South-East Asia, the Middle East, the U.K., Europe and, now, America.

A career in journalism was also conceived at an early age. She had her first story published in the old Melbourne metropolitan daily, The Sun, when she was nine-years-old, ostensibly a sports report on her first Australian rules football Grand Final. While studying for her undergraduate degree, she also worked full-time on magazines and newspapers, gaining as much experience as she could.

Leela plans to use the scholarship money to help learn Farsi and report stories about daily life in Iran and Afghanistan.


Ayesha J. Akram was born and bred in Lahore, Pakistan. She attended King Edward Medical School and graduated with honors in April 2004. She is 23 years old and is currently studying for her Masters in Journalism from Columbia University. She is a broadcast major and is also president of the student body.

Akram’s first foray into journalism came as a sixteen-year-old, when she was offered a position at the children’s supplement of a daily newspaper called The Young Nation. Her first byline was for an article on the problems of being a twin. This by-line led to another and within a year, she was working as a writer for other sections of the newspaper.

She wrote about the birth of the fashion industry in Pakistan, a series of profiles on women who were breaking traditional norms, and covered youth issues, while continuing to work for the children’s paper. Over the next couple of years she moved to other publications, writing for the Reader’s Digest, Himal South Asia, Leicester Mercury.

She contributed to a book published by the British Council and was selected by the British High Commission to represent Pakistan at a “Covering Islam” conference in London. 9/11 marked her transition from print to broadcast. She worked as a field producer for Middle East Broadcasting, CNN-Turk and ARD –German TV while continuing to work with MBC for a couple of years after the invasion of Afghanistan.

Before coming to study at Columbia, she finished a year-long stint as editor of one of Pakistan’s most highly circulated weekly and was working on the template of the country’s first biweekly. Ayesha plans to use the Foreign Press Association scholarship award to go to Kabul and report from the inside what she reported from the outside in 2001.


Elias Okach followed an unusual path in his pursuit of a career in international journalism. Born in a village in western Kenya, Elias studied at a local seminary. On his way to school one day in 1992, he witnessed a clash between police and demonstrators who had gathered to advocate multiparty democracy. The media coverage of the events he had witnessed galvanized him to make a difference in Kenya by putting pen to paper and paper to press.

Elias began his career in journalism before he was officially trained. He joined Kenya’s largest newspaper, Daily Nation, as a correspondent and later ran a one-man bureau in Homa Bay, a small town on the shores of Lake Victoria. On his return to Nairobi, Elias covered the justice system before focusing on international affairs.

He was part of the team that covered the tragedy of the attack on the U.S. Embassy in 1998 and was able to contribute several stories to the Los Angeles Times. He also worked for the UN Wire as a writer, condensing breaking news throughout Africa into insightful analysis with a humanitarian focus.

Strange twists of fate brought Elias to Montana, first to Montana State University and then to the University of Montana from which he graduated in 2003 with a degree in Political Science. When he moved from the Rocky Mountains to the Big Apple, Elias returned to his dream of becoming a journalist.

He will complete his Master’s degree at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in May. In addition to writing stories that will inform, empower and entertain his readers in Kenya, Elias plans to expand his reporting to cover international journalism focusing on the events, processes and institutions that impact the quality of life of people in the developing world. He hopes to be able to focus on writing that sheds light on the confluence between political policies and economic processes with the aim of shedding light on how these factors impact the on-going war on poverty and underdevelopment in the third world.


Xiaoli Zhou from Shanghai, China is a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
Before Berkeley, she worked as a researcher for The Wall Street Journal Shanghai Bureau. Though she couldn’t share a byline due to government control, Xiaoli significantly contributed to many front-page stories including an extensive profile of one of China’s most notorious smuggling kingpins, a tale of a disgruntled state enterprise worker that murdered his boss, an exclusive interview with a top scientist about her stem cell research and a feature that unearthed the first al- Qaeda cell in southern China.

Prior to her experience with the WSJ, Xiaoli worked for Chinese television outlets as a reporter and editor. She covered cultural and international events and the Fortune 500 Forum for an English-language magazine show.

As a teenager, she hosted a student TV news magazine. Xiaoli obtained her bachelor’s degree in International Journalism in 1997, and is now pursing her master’s in Long-form Television. For the past year and a half she has reported for both local TV outlets and newspapers on a wide range of issues including the recent US presidential campaign, the California recall election, the immigration rules, and community conflicts.

She has made several reporting trips to China for a few broadcast projects. Last year, she produced a TV profile of a Chinese American actor, Joan Chen. As one of the recipients of PBS’ Frontline/World’s journalism fellowship, Xiaoli is now working on a film about the tourism impact on one of the last matriarchal societies – The Women’s Kingdom – in southwestern China.

Recently, she made a trip back home to report on China’s emerging environmental activism. While at school, Xiaoli received several awards from various California organizations. Xiaoli expects to graduate in May and plans to work as an international correspondent and filmmaker to cover cultural and environmental issues in the future.

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