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So Long, and Thanks for the Memories

It is time for a heartfelt thank you to everyone who has made this past year every bit as amazing as it has been. Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism — thank you! We made it. We are the centennial class, and we are ending an era at Columbia Journalism; next year’s students will have an entirely different curriculum than we did. Onwards and upwards!

When I arrived in New York City in late July 2012, I never imagined in one short year I would learn so much and make so many meaningful friends. The past year has been stressful, I lost a lot of sleep (and found some in times I probably shouldn’t have) and I produced work of a quality I never imagined I could. In the fall semester we all had RW1, the four-pack essentials and our elective. Relatively speaking, those few months were the same for most of us — with small differences between the concentrations (another thing going away with the class of 2014). Those months were stressful, they were crazy and they were fun. Yeah, that’s hard to believe, but amid all the stress of producing videos, print stories and squeezing in some learning, we had some fun. We made friends, and we learned how to play as hard as we worked.

We learned things we never thought we could — like how to navigate this city’s massive underground layer. The subway map ingrained itself in our minds, and we used Google Maps only to figure out when the next train was scheduled to show up. We whined and moaned when all the J School parties were held in the Lower East Side; well, we whined until we realized that would be the only time we would get away from Morningside Heights or our beats. Then we whined about how long it took to get there.

Then the spring semester came and hit us all like a ton of bricks. Now we had three courses — a seminar, a workshop and an elective — to keep up with, and each course expected us to treat them like a 40-hour a week fulltime job. That was 120 hours a week, and we all managed to survive it and come out on the other side. Each class expected completely different things, and each class expected all of our time. Oh, did I mention the master’s projects? That sustained reporting piece we all had to do. Yeah, that was another fulltime, but sort of on the side, project.

But we made friends and helped each other because we all were going through the same stress. The friendships we’ve all made this year will only continue to grow and flourish. I mean, we put in sweat, blood and tears with these people. At late hours. On weekends. All year long. I know I met some people who have inspired more than any major figure could. It’s awe inspiring — to say the least — to see someone pull out an amazing story when the only thing they want to do is curl in a ball and hide.

The best comparison I can come up with for this year is that we were all like sponges. We soaked up as much new knowledge as we could, but there was never any way we could retain all of it, so it started dripping out and we missed some. That’s where the breaks (wait, what breaks?) came in. Over Thanksgiving, Winter and Spring break, when we weren’t stressing about our master’s projects, we were able to relax (somewhat) and refocus on what we were here to do. We let other students’ progress and determination push us to do better for ourselves. I know I was inspired by dozens of my classmates. CUJ13 is a family, and graduation is far from the end of our relationships.

We networked, we produced, we recorded, we voiced over, but – most importantly – we grew. The year was one hell of a ride. I hated it at times, and it made me mad, but in retrospect it all was worth the growth. So, to the Centennial Class of 2013 from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, THANK YOU.

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Spring Break — Barcelona

I had a bout of madness two weeks ago. While talking to a good friend from undergrad, I learned he would be spending a few days in Barcelona before going home to Netanya, Israel. I’ve wanted to visit him in Israel for a while, and I decided this was my chance.
In four years of undergrad, I never did anything crazy for spring break. Now, I had my chance. In an effort to save space, I’ll post about Israel separately (probably tomorrow).

Take a listen to the song I listened to as the plane landed at BCN.

https://turnercowles.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/20-barcelona-feat-montserrat-caballe.mp3

I flew from New York City to Barcelona on Friday, March 15. I was meeting my good friend Eli from undergrad, and I was quite excited. Spain flag

Spain was beautiful. The flight there was pretty uneventful; I think I watched three episodes of Downton Abbey on my computer. The airport in Barcelona is a few miles outside of the city, but Spain is well connected by rail, so I was able to take the train into the Sants Estacio (Sants Station), where I walked to my hostel. I stayed at the Alberguinn Youth Hostel in Sants, Barcelona. It was so typical, urban Europe.

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I got there pretty early in the morning, so I couldn’t check into my room right away — they were still cleaning it. I changed out of my airplane clothes and locked my suitcase in the hostel. My friend hadn’t landed yet (he had a layover in Kiev). I walked around a bit to see the city on my own before coming back to grab a quick nap. That night was pretty low key. After my nap, we all went out for a bit of dinner in the Fontana neighborhood. I had a spinach ravioli with bolognese sauce; it was delicious.

We went out for drinks around there, but we didn’t last long. Eli and I were both pretty jet-lagged.

The next day, Eli, his friends Nicole, John and Ray, and I went to the city’s center. We walked down to the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya — the National Museum of Art in Catalunya.

Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya

After seeing the Museum (it was closed), we walked up to the Poble Espanyol. Poble Espanyol was absolutely gorgeous. I got lost a few times just wandering through the beauty.

Sure, Poble Espanyol was beautiful, but it was only one thing Barcelona had to offer, and only my first real day there. Eli and I split up for a bit, and I walked toward the Mediterranean Sea. I “hiked” up the Park de Montjuic, which lends itself to some beautiful photos of downtown Barcelona and the Sea.

Once I made it to the top of Montjuic, I took the teleferico (the cable car) down to the neighborhood known as Barceloneta. Barceloneta is a small peninsula that blocks in the harbor of Barcelona.

Honestly, I had forgotten Barcelona was a port town. More than 1 million passengers passed through the Barcelona port in 2010. Ok, so this is just an excuse to get to the beautiful port building, so here are some photos.

Not only is Barcelona a port city, it’s also on the sunny Mediterranean Sea, which brings certain beach perks with it. The beaches of the Mediterranean are particularly beautiful.

The next day I had an awesome opportunity to go to a football match — FC Barcelona vs. Rayo Vallecano. We were in nosebleed seats, but we were in the endzone, and they only cost €27. It was a pretty great deal for the awesome experience it was.

The next day, I got back in touch with my faith. While I’m not the greatest Christian (I’m hardly a mediocre Christian for that matter), I visited the Sagrada Familia. The Gaudi church was absolutely amazing, even though some people in Barça consider it a tourist trap. New York City has several tourist traps that I still love, even though I’ve lived here for a bit. There wasn’t an inch of the Sagrada Familia that hadn’t been planned to the base of the columns — one was a turtle.

I said the Lord’s Prayer, and I’ve honestly never felt more connected to God (Allah, Yahweh, the almighty being, etc.). This trip was one of faithful awakening (sort of), cultural immersion and spontaneity.

Speaking of spontaneity, on my last day in Barcelona, I decided to leave. I got on a bus with Eli and Nicole to Valencia to see the Las Fallas festival. Las Fallas is a festival to celebrate and commemorate Saint Joseph. Valencians work for months on large flammable things made of cardboard and other materials that will then be set on fire. Fire, fireworks, sparklers and poppers are all around the city.

Going to Valencia (a four hour bus ride) knocked me out the next day. I was ready to get on my flight to Tel Aviv to meet Eli there (he teaches in Israel — he was just visiting Barcelona like me). Flying there took me over Italy, and I saw it out the window. I want to go back to the Amalfi Coast.

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Race and Education

There needs to be a national conversation about education and race. Black poverty is still more common than white poverty, and black income is still far below white income. In these yet-to-be-United States, as James Baldwin calls it, a black household’s income is roughly 30 percent below the median while a white household’s income is just above median income. Black children are more than twice as likely and hispanic children are three times as likely to drop out of high school as their white peers. America will never be truly equal until something changes to make education accessible to everyone.

Education is a very reliable determination of wealth potential. The 2012 unemployment rate for people holding a bachelor’s degree was 4.5 percent, and 3.5 percent for master’s degree holders. Someone who holds a master’s degree earns, on average, double what someone with only a high school diploma earns.

Education pays in higher earnings and lower unemployment rates (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics)
Education pays in higher earnings and lower unemployment rates, when calculated for those 25 and older, working full-time or in salaried positions. (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics)

It has been clear for a long time education is becoming more necessary. An American with a master’s degree, per the 2012 census, earns more than double the $34,000 median income of a high school graduate. I don’t know what the solution is, but I know the education gap is an issue that affects all of us—particularly as we advance into a further technology-filled world.

What are your thoughts?

duPont Award Photos

Hail to the Chief

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President Barack Obama is officially sworn-in by Chief Justice John Roberts in the Blue Room of the White House during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013. Next to Obama are first lady Michelle Obama, holding the Robinson Family Bible, and daughters Malia and Sasha. (AP Photo/Larry Downing, Pool)

Today is a day to be celebrated. Today is a day to be marked with a fresh take on our nation’s tradition of peace. Ladies and gentlemen, today is a day to be happy you live in a place that this kind of ceremony can take place. Lest we forget that we, as a nation, elected Barack Obama to the office of the president. We did. Whether you voted for him, we all elected him. That’s the beauty of the American process. While very few people agree with every single position he has, he is still our elected president.

A president’s inauguration is a great ceremony, and it’s one of the governmental beacons we send out around the world. It’s a new beginning. It’s a fresh start. While we are certainly not the only nation on earth with regular inaugurations, we can still take pride in them. I hope today and tomorrow’s celebrations can take place without bickering, politicking or hating. I hope we, as one people, remember the true meaning of the office of the president.

Hail to the Chief we have chosen for the nation,
Hail to the Chief! We salute him, one and all.
Hail to the Chief, as we pledge cooperation
In proud fulfillment of a great, noble call.
Yours is the aim to make this grand country grander,
This you will do, that’s our strong, firm belief.
Hail to the one we selected as commander,
Hail to the President! Hail to the Chief!

Christmastime

In a little, much-needed reflection, I’ve spent Christmas Day alone in my Upper West Side apartment. Pandora has been playing Christmas tunes all-day long, and my oven has been acting as a makeshift fireplace. Thankfully, this isn’t my only Christmas this year.

We are celebrating Christmas Day on Dec. 27 because that’s when my dad and I can both be home with mom and Rachel. We’re used to celebrating Christmas on a different day than most; it’s great for Santa too because its one less house he has to cram in his busy schedule on Dec. 25.

This year has been one amazing roller coaster. I never imagined I would be accepted to the graduate school of my dreams. Quite frankly, I didn’t even think I could graduate from Florida State University. I’ve gone from being born in a town of 2,000 people to living in a city of 8 million people. Now that I’m here, I’ve completely fallen in love with city life. There’s something strangely freeing about not needing a car. I live right at a train stop, and that train can take me all the way to the northern tip of Manhattan or all the way out to the airport in Queens.

There’s no way I could have made it here without the amazing support system I have. I remember crying on the phone with my parents when I was accepted to Columbia. I remember living with my grandparents over the summer in rural Alabama. I love talking on the phone nonstop with my little sister. It’s pretty undeniable—no matter how dysfunctional my family is (and, believe me, we pretty much take the cake), I couldn’t be half the person I am today without them.
Rockefeller Christmas Tree

During the Christmas season, there is so much to do. I went to the Rockefeller Plaza Christmas tree; it’s absolutely beautiful. Yesterday, Christmas Eve, it snowed! Luckily, it wasn’t cold enough for the snow to stick and get slushy and nasty on the ground. There’s a good chance I’ll come home from Florida around New Year’s Eve to see snow on the ground. The temperatures are supposed to drop pretty significantly over the next few days.

This year has been one I’ll never be able to forget. Now, I’ll probably forget some of what I’ve learned (that’s what happens when you go to school), but I’ll never forget the people who have made it amazing. It doesn’t even feel like I could have been in undergrad at all this year, but it wasn’t even eight months ago that I graduated from Florida State University.

Graduation Photo Westcott

Then I spent the summer bonding with and learning from my amazing grandparents in a tiny town in Alabama. I did a little bit of work there for the local, hometown paper called the Fairhope Courier, but it wasn’t anything big.

We threw my grandparents a surprise 85th birthday party in July. There were almost 85 people there, we rented out a big party room and I put together a video celebrating everything they’ve done for all of us over the years. I still don’t think they know how much they’ve done—just by being there—for us over the years.

My grandfather in particular; he’s not one to be overly emotional. I don’t mean to say he doesn’t show his love because, believe you me, he does, but most of his time is spent in his chair. Over the summer, he and I had some of the most amazing bonding time we’ve ever had. “You’ve got to be humble,” he told me countless times; “Humility is the most important thing you can have for yourself.”

My older sister met, and fell in love with, a great guy (we’ll try not to hold his love for Auburn University against him). He’s probably the best thing to happen in her life in the past two years. We’re all so glad to welcome him to the craziness… err, I mean welcome him to the family. Well, I guess those are the same thing.

Then I moved to New York City. I knew it would be an amazing adventure—perhaps the greatest of my life so far. What I didn’t know was the amazing level of education I would be getting, the amazing people I would meet or the amazing things this city has to offer to anyone. I can’t believe I’m halfway to a master’s degree! Most ADHD-diagnosed folks can barely get a bachelor’s degree—only eight percent of those diagnosed with ADHD earn a college degree, compared to the 20 percent who go to college. Here I am not only getting a bachelor’s degree, but I was inducted into the Garnet and Gold Scholar Society, National Society of Collegiate Scholars, AND I’m halfway to a master’s degree.

Since August, I’ve met some of the most inspiring people in my life. We’re all on an adventure together, an adventure that, for some of us, changed drastically from what we expected. I’m talking to folks in Karachi, Pakistan about a job possibility after graduation! That’s the kind of globalization and prestige I work with at this school. Every single morning I’m in awe of what I’m doing. I find myself extremely lucky (and I mean, quite possibly, the luckiest ever) to be here, and I’m not going to spoil these opportunities.

As the year wraps up, Happy Christmas to you and your family. Even if you don’t celebrate this holiday, enjoy some quality time with those you love. You never know how long you’ll have with them. Happy Christmas, and an even happier new year! God bless you all!

duPont Jury Meeting

NEW YORK—In the World Room of the Columbia University, the jurors for the duPont-Columbia Award meet for the weekend to decide which submissions are worthy of this award—the broadcast equivalent of the Pulitzer Award.

I have to admit, I am in awe of the brains here right now. There were more than 550 submissions for this award, and the jurors must choose around 14 that deserve awards. The conversation has been riveting and unforgiving.

“This is great, but I don’t know if it’s duPont worthy.”

duPont-Columbia Awards

What makes something deserve a duPont is different for each juror. There are nine jurors, and they all come from distinct backgrounds. Bill Wheatley is the chair of the jury; he is the former executive vice president for NBC News. A’Lelia Bundles worked at ABC News as a producer and an executive. Callie Crossley is the host of her own show, the “Callie Crossley Show,” on WGBH in Boston. June Cross is the director of the documentary program here at Columbia Journalism; she was the executive producer of “This Far by Faith,” a six-part PBS series on the African-American religious experience that broadcast in 2003. Mark Jurkowitz is a press critic who works at the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Marcy McGinnis is the associate dean at Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism. Michael Skoler is an executive at Public Radio International. Al Tompkins is a senior faculty member of the Poynter Institute. Dick Wald is another professor at J School here at Columbia who has worked for the Herald Tribune, NBC News, ABC News, the Washington Post and the L.A. Times.

To say being here, listening to this discussion, is amazing would be an understatement. The quality of the conversations is beyond educational, so I am trying to soak every drop of it up. The conversation’s quality is amazing, and the submissions are astounding too. That certainly helps push the discussion forward. As a student, I’m learning what makes good journalism, what makes good story-telling, what makes a story important and what makes something award quality.

I am so lucky to be here! This weekend, and the awards ceremony to come, are (and will be) the experiences of a lifetime.