When Karin McKemey, my television teacher at Fort Mill High, notified me that I had been chosen for the PBS Student Reporting Lab All-Star program, I was beyond ecstatic. And unbeknownst to me at that point, I only knew some of what lay ahead.
It was an opportunity of a lifetime with was so much more involved than I could ever imagine. Ms. McKemey was fully aware, but she wanted to let most of what I was about to experience come as a surprise.
My journey started out with me shaking with nerves as Mrs. McKemey and I flew to D.C. with TV equipment as well as our luggage. Arriving at Reagan National Airport, I was ready for the unexpected, yet still a little anxious over what might be in store. I had a roommate named Meri whom I quickly befriended as we shared the same interest in telling stories and learning about people.
The first night, a Thursday, was the meet-and-greet where I met the producers of PBS and surprisingly enough, the lead anchor of PBS News Hour – Gwen Ifill! She took the time to speak and introduce herself to each of the 11 All-Stars and listened intently as we told her where we came from and why we wanted to be a part of the program. She talked to us about the foundation needed by young journalists like us and told us that if we keep up the hard work and strive to reach new goals, all things are possible.
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Friday was without a doubt the best and biggest surprise of my life. All of us young journalists toured the White House and explored the monuments in and around the national capital. But that is not where the surprises ended: PBS set up a private interview with Col. Steve Parker, who works closely with Michelle Obama on the Joining Forces program to improve mental health awareness and care among military members and their families.
I conducted a question-and-answer session inside the White House with a leading figure in a national program. Meeting in the lobby, Thai, the coordinator for PBS, and Matt, the new addition to the News Hour staff, went through a quick briefing before we headed out to ask our questions and begin our live interview.
When we reached the White House, the first thing I saw as the highlight of my day – Bo and Sunny Obama, the presidential pups. Soon after, we sat down and interviewed Col. Parker.
“The passion resides in the most vulnerable population – the kids,” he said.
“Children have the least ability to do for themselves and it’s important to me to create a Gold Star family. You must have a plan, something to focus on. Your ability to react and build success everyday, every minute of every hour is what we are really focused on here.”
As the interview came to an end, Col. Parker shook our hands and headed off to finish some work helping with the VA.
Then we had a day of exploring, from the Lincoln Memorial to the National Mall. The most astonishing yet emotional part of the Smithsonian was the Newseum. Hundreds of newspapers from all over remain preserved from the tragic day of Sept. 11, 2001.
Other exhibits included pieces of the Berlin Wall and weapons used in genocide. There was so much to make you think and feel.
Overall, I had an amazing experience as an SRL All-Star, and it was one that I am ever so grateful for. It left me with amazing new friends, mentors, and some insight to the world of broadcasting and journalism. I brought back from D.C. some new confidence, knowledge and American souvenirs.
PBS really did contribute to the smile I continue to wear today and I would like to thank all of PBS, including Thai and Leah for making it possible for us to prove to the world that we, as hard working, creative and impassioned young journalists, can and will do what it takes to serve viewers and readers and answer the questions that keep them up at night.
McKenna Cieslak is a senior at Fort Mill High School, where she is a member of the award-winning Buzz TV staff. She is also an intern at the Fort Mill Times.