Fulbright Filmmaker Becomes an Emmy Award-Winning Storyteller with a Mission
Emmy Award-Winning Journalist and Communications Director at the McKnight Foundation
1999 Fulbright U.S. Student to Zimbabwe
When she was five years old, Na Eng and her family escaped from the killing fields of Cambodia and resettled as refugees in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her passion for telling stories has taken her on a remarkable journey around the world as a news and documentary producer and back home to Minnesota, where she is now the Communications Director at the McKnight Foundation, a major philanthropic organization.
Eng’s 1999 Fulbright U.S. Student Program award to Zimbabwe proved to be a pivotal early step in her journey; she called it “one of the most transformative experiences of her life.” As part of her Fulbright, Eng created a film about a girl coming of age in a home burdened by alcoholism, AIDS, and poverty. The 40-minute documentary, Fortunate’s Letter, screened at several venues, including the 2001 New York African Film Festival.
Eng first explored filmmaking as an undergraduate at Columbia University, where she taught herself how to operate a video camera and turned the lens on her mother to relay their harrowing experience as refugees. A summer fellowship to Haiti followed, as well as an internship in Kenya. That is where Eng says she first felt drawn to the rich and fascinating continent of Africa.
Eng went on to earn her master’s in International Media and Communications from Columbia University’s Graduate School of International and Public Affairs, earning a full merit scholarship as part of the inaugural class of Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans.
Upon graduating, Eng applied for a Fulbright to Zimbabwe, aiming to tell a story that offered more depth, humor, and respect than other popular depictions.
“I was frustrated by the absence of nuanced, humanizing narratives about this incredibly diverse and modern region,” she said in a recent interview. “I wanted to offer a window into how this one family experienced the world.”
A one-person crew, she lugged her camera equipment onto crowded city buses to reach the outskirts of Zimbabwe’s capital city of Harare. At the center of the film is Fortunate Rukainga, a precocious student whom Eng met in an after-school girls club. “We had instant chemistry,” recalls Eng. “I loved how she asked so many questions and demonstrated such curiosity.” Eng developed a lasting friendship with the Rukainga family, and came to the conclusion that “the family dynamics, struggles, concerns and aspirations in Zimbabwe are strikingly familiar to those experienced by many Americans.”
After her Fulbright experience, Eng’s creative spark fueled an impressive two-decade journalism career that took her all over the globe—from the fields of cotton farmers in Burkina Faso to the homes of political dissidents in Bahrain. She heard the gripping testimony of a former prisoner of Guantanamo Bay and interviewed Fulbright alumnus Dr. Hans Blix, former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Swedish diplomat, and recipient of the 2014 Fulbright Prize for International Understanding, about the war in Iraq.
Eng earned numerous national awards while producing for the weekly public affairs show NOW on PBS and the documentary unit at CNBC. At PBS, she received an Emmy Award for a piece that showed the human impact of regressive taxes on the working poor in Alabama. Recently, an anthropology professor in Georgia shared that he has been showing the piece to his students for years, calling it “superb” and going on to write: “I never found anything better on the subject.”
She garnered Emmy Award nominations for her investigations into the oil and gas industry and the subprime mortgage crisis. While at CNBC, her investigation into the growth of private prisons was recognized with a prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Documentary.
These same empathetic storytelling skills have led to success in her current role in philanthropy. In 2015, Eng and her husband moved to her home state of Minnesota to raise their son closer to family. She is now a senior leader and Communications Director of the McKnight Foundation, which grants $100 million a year to “advance a more just, creative, and abundant future where people and planet thrive.”
At McKnight, she supports her colleagues and nonprofit partners in crafting and editing reports, videos, media coverage, op-eds, and statements that inspire people to action. A few recent examples include a #BrightSpots video campaign featuring organizations adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic and an explanatory video that highlights ways to prevent evictions. Consistent with her Fulbright experience, she is still telling stories with a mission.
Committed to giving back to the community, she serves on the board of Friends of the Saint Paul Library and the advocacy committee of the Minnesota Council on Foundations. Eng’s commitment to the Fulbright spirit of global understanding and interdependence continues to benefit communities in Minnesota and around the world.