BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Travelling with Nicholas Kristof

I'd trade anything to be in the shoes of Casey Parks. Casey, a journalism graduate from Mississippi, will have the opportunity to accompany New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, on a reporting trip to Africa this September. Below is her winning essay, chosen among three thousand plus entries.

Win a Trip With Nick Kristof
The Winning Essay
Published: May 22, 2006

Growing up poor, I saw my mother skip meals. I saw my father pawn everything he loved. I saw our cars repossessed. I never saw France or London. I didn't even see an airplane up close until I was a senior in high school and won an Al Neuharth-sponsored trip.

The older I get, though, the more I appreciate not having money. Working as a journalist in Mississippi for a handful of years, I found my past connected me to so many people. Crafting racially charged stories, I saw myself in the eyes of interviewed after interviewed. No, I didn't know what it was like to be perceived as scary because my melanin shaded me darker. But I knew what it was like to wear out-of-style clothes and want the shoes and cooler lunches that others had. As a lesbian, I knew what it was like to feel out of place.

Moving to Columbia, MO, to earn my master's, I've lost some of my soul. The city is a predominately white, mostly middle-class generally quaint town. The fury of Mississippi almost like a dream now, I've been reading voraciously articles about the poverty Palestinians sink into daily. I find, years later, Kevin Carter's Pulitzer-winning photo of a starving Sudanese girl and the vulture who stalks her, and I long to be a part of it. I consider the allegations against Carter--was he helping, just photographing her?--and I want to know those journalistic decisions for myself.

What moves me to be a journalist? It's been a career goal so obvious to me for such a long time that the question had ceased to be asked. This semester, almost muted by theory studies, I have returned to it often. I keep a binder of stories that remind me, though: Anne Hull's portrait of gay America, Andrea Elliott's story about an imam in Brooklyn saddling two worlds, Rick Bragg's Pulitzer-winning tale of Alabama inmates plagued by old age who still find beauty in flowers, Jacqui Banaszynski's Pulitzer-winning delve into the lives of two gay men, farmers who fell in love and physically fell apart because of it. I have a distinct want (it's a thirst and a flame, all at once) to create these stories myself--not for the Pulitzers, but for the reaching outside of myself, to break people's hearts so adeptly that they move into action.

The electricity that comes from crafting seeing the way journalists do--cataloguing every movement, sound, feeling, inference--is what continues to spark me. And by no means have I exhausted the stories that are to be done in America (or even Columbia, MO, in all its quaintness). But I so desperately want to leave this country and know more. I've never thought of myself as provincial, but this year, reading on the tension between the two Koreas, swallowing Rushdie's Pakistan and India, inhaling the French riots, I realize how insular my life has been. My tour of the Southern states has left me unable to fully discern what lies beyond.

But I want to.

I want to learn by seeing. I feel deeply, and I know journalism. I'm strong, and have no need for 5-star hotels or other luxuries. In person, I'm charming and sweet and considerate, but still bold and fearless. The trip you're offering is an experience that should merge experience and inexperience, skill and desire for more. I have these qualities.