Eager for a Chance, Scholars Seize Spotlight at Luncheon

by Aimee Rinehart

The Yale Club Ballroom was filled to capacity for the OPC Foundation Scholarship Luncheon on February 22. This year’s event launched the Nathan S. Bienstock Memorial Scholarship and the GroundTruth Fellowship. OPC Foundation board member and Global Post co-founder Charles M. Sennott introduced the $10,000 GroundTruth Fellowship for freelance correspondents who have more than three years of experience and propose a reporting project in the Middle East.

The Foundation awarded a combination of scholarships and funded internships to 14 graduate and undergraduate students from a wide range of academic institutions and from every region of the country.

The David R. Schweisberg Memorial Scholarship winner Jad Sleiman began his reporting career as a combat correspondent for the U.S. Marine Corps. He said that the call to be a journalist is “a mandate to humanize people oceans away.” OPC Foundation President William J. Holstein quipped that Sleiman hadn’t had a haircut since leaving the marines.

OPC Foundation board member Roy Rowan mentioned that at 93 he was proud to have made it to the podium to introduce Stephen Kalin, who received this year’s scholarship in Rowan’s name. Kalin said he has a passion for journalism and the Middle East. His grandfather immigrated to the United States in 1920 and no one in his family had returned to the Middle East. September 11 motivated Kalin to seek out his roots and identity in the Middle East. “I’m inspired by correspondents who learn the language and the region,” he said.

Kalin and Mateo Hoke took the opportunity at the podium to ask for work and networking opportunities in a room full of prominent media brokers like CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager who was last year’s keynote speaker.

H.L. Stevenson Internship recipient Tom Finn relayed his introduction to journalism when he received an offer from the Yemen Times about a copy editor position: “Our copy editor has a problem with her bowels, can you be here in three weeks?” Once the audience laughter settled down, he explained that the job gave him the opportunity to wear many hats in the newsroom and that after his OPC Foundation internship with the Reuters bureau in Cairo this summer, he’s headed back to Yemen.

Lunch and speeches ran a little late, but those who stayed — and that included most people — heard David Rohde deliver a heart-felt keynote address. He began by saying to the scholarship winners, “I don’t know you, but I love you.” He urged patience and persistence and “ground truth,” hitting the same theme as the luncheon’s beginning announcement of the GroundTruth Fellowship. (See transcript)

“You will have a front row seat to history,” Rohde said. “There will be moments of despair and setbacks but don’t give up.”

One might assume that this well-decorated journalist who has been held captive twice has lived a charmed existence, but Rohde’s fight to become a journalist was self-directed and began with several desk jobs at the Philadelphia Inquirer, ABC News and The Christian Science Monitor. It was at ABC News where he decided to quit and go to Lithuania to pursue his passion of being a field reporter. That experience first sent him to a copy editing slot at The Christian Science Monitor and then as an Eastern European correspondent to cover the war in Bosnia.

Rohde urged the scholars to ask questions and remember that every story was founded by a team effort. “In Afghanistan and Pakistan, our strongest team members were the Afghan and Pakistani local journalists,” he said.

He stressed that journalism has changed since he began in the 1990s. “In Bosnia then, all sides saw us as journalists. In Afghanistan, I was seen as part of the U.S. war machine and therefore useful.” Rohde said. “It’s not fair, but you’re a target.”

He advised that it’s critical to weigh the risks of interviews and stories. “Ask yourself, will the story be there tomorrow?” He said he stood by his decision in Bosnia to follow the story about the mass graves; he was held captive for 10 days. In Afghanistan, however, where he was kidnapped and held for seven months and 10 days, just two months after getting married, he confessed that he let competition get the best of him. “If you take a risk,” he said, “it will be your family and editors who will suffer.” His voice became choked with emotion when he mentioned his wife and their two-year-old daughter. “We’re paid to explore and learn. I urge you to pursue the ground truth. That is an honor.”