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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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.

September 11, 2012

Why? That is the only thing I can ask. Why? Why did so many innocent people need to die? Why did the city of New York have to be devastated for years after this pointless attack?

I recognize that I am lucky. I am amazing, unquestionably and irrevocably lucky. My father is a pilot for American Airlines. He flies 757s and 767s—he has flown almost every airplane American Airlines has in its fleet; in 2001 he was flying Airbus A300s.

I remember 11 years ago. I remember he had woken up and left for work a few hours before I left for school. I was 11 years old, and I had no idea where his trip was to. I remember going to school like it was any other day. I’m not going to rewrite something I’ve already written, so you can read my experience here.

I write this post to say I now live in New York City. Last night, Sept. 11, 2012, I went downtown. Now, I’ve been to Ground Zero before—several times, in fact. But last night was the first time I have seen the tribute lights. To say they were amazing; to say they were awe-inspiring; to say I cried is barely scraping the surface. My father was nowhere near New York City 11 years ago. Dad wasn’t even in the air. I didn’t know that, and—to an 11-year-old—everything is about them, so my mind created the worst possible scenario. I thought my dad was the pilot on those planes. I know at any given moment there are thousands of planes in the air (and, therefore, thousands of pilots), but at that moment, on that day, I just knew it was him. Immediately I started thinking of all the things I never got to tell him. I started crying, thinking I’d never get to see him again.

I have to say this again: I am lucky, so lucky. He was not on those planes. He came home immediately and picked me up from school. He shielded me from the horrifying images. For many years that followed, he studied everything that happened. He bought the TIME Magazines, Newsweeks, New York Times, with stories about the attacks. For years, he shielded me from that literature. He knew I would learn about it elsewhere, but he didn’t want me to see it. Eventually, (I was probably 15 or 16) we had a heartfelt conversation about what happened, and I understood why he had shielded me. At 11-years-old, my mind wasn’t prepared to fully comprehend what happened.

Now, 11 years later, I was fully prepared. Well, I thought I was. Then I went downtown last night.

I was many things, but prepared was not one of them. I walked past One World Trade Center, known colloquially as Freedom Tower, and it was lit up red, white and blue from base to top. As if that weren’t enough, I saw—for the first time in person—the tribute lights. Those lights are amazing. Photographs will never do them justice. They are the brightest lights I’ve ever seen, and they seem to go forever upward; up toward the sky, toward Heaven.

My dad will be in town tomorrow evening on happenstance. This is his first trip to NYC since I have been living here, and I’m really excited to see him!

So, I write this blog post with only one purpose. To honor and recognize those who have been lost. Know you are never gone from our hearts. Those lights from Ground Zero are pathways to you up in heaven.

Alfred duPont Award Center Fellowship

I just learned that I have been offered a research assistant fellowship in the Alfred I. duPont Center for Broadcast and Digital Journalism! Here, one might expect a writer (particularly bloggers, whose sole platform is “look at me, read what I write!”) to gloat or to expect or solicit praise. That’s not what I’m about. It’s here that I turn back to my summers spent with my grandfather. I remember vividly what he has told me many times. “You’ve got to have humility,” he says.

Humility is a funny thing. It’s an interesting mixture of self-pride and appreciation for those who have helped you accomplish. I know I have accomplished a lot, and know that I’m proud of myself. But, I also know that there have been a lot of profound influences on my life. I have been paid for, as Maya Angelou says. “Never be modest,” she told me backstage. “Be humble. Know that you’ve been paid for. Modesty is telling people ‘oh, I didn’t do that.’ Take credit for what you have done, but know that you didn’t do it alone.”

Our president recently said, controversially, “if you are successful, somebody along the line, gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.” Without getting into politics, I have to agree wholeheartedly with this one sentence of that speech. (I’ll make no comments about the others or the recent controversy surrounding them.) I have had several teachers who I can point out and say have drastically changed who I am, who I strive to be and what I aim to do. I have been paid for.

I have been paid for. That’s such an extraordinary thing to understand and internalize. While I have been paid for, that doesn’t mean I stop being and doing. I am paying for the next in line. I am paying for the next generation. Their future rests on my shoulders, and I fully intend to pass this world on to them much better than it was when it was passed on to me. It’s up to me to take full advantage of every opportunity placed in front of me. I was able to go to journalist conferences last year. I spent a weekend at an NABJ Multimedia Short Course, with influential black journalists from around the country coming to teach the up-and-coming journalists at Florida A&M University.I was taught, for that weekend, by CNN employees, a television anchor in Tampa and another reporter from Sacramento. During undergrad I learned from Ben Davis, a man who has done so much brilliant journalism it’s hard to mention his name without mentioning his stellar list of work. I have had so many teachers who have molded me. Some did nothing, showing me what not to do with others, but some did so much it’s nearly unbelievable. I have a family who believes in me, pushes me and constantly makes me better. I have parents who never slighted my dreams, who only pushed me closer toward it. As Beyoncé sang this year at the United Nations, “let the hearts that I’ve touched be the proof that I leave that I made a difference, and this world will see I was here. I lived, I loved. I was here. I did, I’ve done everything that I wanted, and it was more than I thought it would be. I will leave my mark so everyone will know I was here.”

That’s the goal of everything I do. I only want to make one difference for one person. If I can do that, I’ll have accomplished my goals. Mother Teresa says, “if you can’t feed one hundred people then just feed one.” If I can make a difference for more than one person, that’s amazing. But I live my life hoping to make a difference—a real difference, not a banal, never-talked-to-you, disconnected difference—for just one person. Each person is one difference at a time. That is how I am paying for the next generation. If I can make a difference for one person, maybe—just maybe—they’ll be empowered to make a difference for someone else. Then someone else. Then again. And again. Then, suddenly, differences—even the little ones—are everywhere.

Here’s the caveat to paying for the next generation though: once you’ve made one difference, make another one. Keep making differences in the lives of others. I know I’ve made differences for others. That doesn’t stop me; it can’t stop me. It only inspires me. That’s why I do what I do. Journalism is a constant inspiration. Everyone has a story. Everyone has troubles, and sometimes people only need to know others have been in similar situations to know they’ll make it through. There is tremendous power in words. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” I’ll never believe that phrase. I think the best way I’ve heard words summed up is by Ms. Angelou through her Master Class on Oprah Winfrey’s network. “Words are things, I’m convinced,” she says. “You must be careful about the words you use or allow to be used in your house. In the old testament we are told in Genesis, that in the beginning there was the word. And the word was God, and the word was with God. That’s in Genesis. Words are things. You must be careful, careful about calling people out of their names—using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance. Don’t do that. Someday we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls; they get in your wallpapers. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, in your clothes, and finally into you.”

I have learned so much in the past month at this university. Growing up in a public school system, with all its pitfalls, faults and the increasingly rare silver lining, coming to a private institution is a welcome, albeit interesting, change. There are no more “grades.” I’m not getting As or Bs on my assignments; I’m not getting graded in the traditional sense. I am getting graded, but in a system much more beneficial for journalistic students: critique. My instructors come from making news. For a class of 18 students, there are three instructors—two professors and one adjunct. All of them are equally well-respected in their own accomplishments. Betsy West worked as the vice president for CBS News for seven years. Edward Schumacher-Matos works as the ombudsman for NPR. My adjunct, Merrill Perlman, worked at the New York Times for 25 years.

They know they’ve accomplished. But that boils back down to humility. They know what they’ve done. That’s the most important thing: for you to know what you’ve done. What have YOU done today to make YOU feel proud? Whether someone else is proud of you makes no difference. The true emotion is when you feel proud of yourself and your own accomplishments. The only thing you have to give others is your word. Use it wisely.

Indian Independence

Just an hour ago, August 15 ended. On August 15, 1947, the nation of India emerged from years of British rule as its own sovereign nation. 65 years later, a young, 22-year-old from South Alabama was celebrating a foreign nation’s independence in his own living room with several classmates from India.

Easily, the most emotional part of the evening when all of the Indian nationals broke out in their national anthem. There was so much emotion there. Every one of them was so proud to be Indian, so proud of their rich cultural heritage. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a Fourth of July party where people explicitly stopped what they were doing just to sing the Star Spangled Banner.

“The sun never set on the British Empire, until August 15, 1947,” one of my friends said last night.

I’ve been living in New York City for just a few weeks, and I’ve got a great group of classmates and colleagues. I learn so much from them. Being here, at this school and in this program, is truly inspiring. Mingling in my living room with my classmates, I realized how amazing our group of classmates really is. The same friend who said the sun finally set on the British Empire asked me if I was intimidated by our class. I think I am slightly intimidated. Don’t get me wrong—I know I’ve done a lot of work, and I know I’m a hard worker, but comparing my interpersonal interactions from undergrad to here, it seemed so many people were amazed by how much I did in undergrad. Quite frankly, I didn’t do all that much. I discovered what I wanted to do, and I pursued it with every fiber of my being. Isn’t that what college is for?

I realized tonight that, while at undergrad, all of my travels—I’ve been to six countries and nearly half of the U.S. states—and experiences seemed ‘amazing’ to my classmates. Here, in my grad program, I’m realizing that I have a lot in common with the folks around me. Many times I’m finding I’ve done barely anything compared to my classmates. It’s amazing to me. It bothers me that so many people in my undergrad admired me like they did just because I worked. They should have been working just like I was. It amazes me how many students couldn’t figure out that that was how they would make something of themselves—hard work.

I’m slightly intimidated here, but at the same time, dammit, I know I deserve to be here. I mean, I’m beyond intrigued to know where everyone else has been, what they’ve done and what they’ve learned. I feel like we all bring something to the table. No. We all bring a lot to the table. That’s what intimidates me. I know I have a lot to contribute. At the same time though, I know everyone else does. And I’ve never had that experience before. It’s exciting; it’s thrilling, and it’s intimidating.

I always love learning about other people and cultures, and I feel like tonight was one of the richest experiences I’ve ever had. I nearly cried when my living room was filled with the Indian national anthem. It’s easy to say I’m a cultural sponge. I absolutely love meeting and getting to know those from cultures different from my own. I can’t wait to visit all of my new friends and soon-to-be colleagues in their home countries.

Before I end this blog post, I want to apologize for the distinct lack of postings. Moving to New York City was a fiasco—to say the very least. I promise once things begin to settle back down into a semi-regular routine, I’ll post regularly again. Cheers!