Illustration by Dave Cutler
N early 10 years ago, I spent my days learning hallway diplomacy as student body president at Lamanna High School in Priest River, Idaho, USA (population 1,700 – give or take a few elk). I was an Eagle Scout and regularly volunteered at Scout camp and in other activities around town; I was starting to make a name for myself, or so I thought.
But I learned the hard way that, having been a California transplant in my freshman year, I still wasn’t embedded in the culture of this small town. I was an outsider, and nothing brought that home more forcefully than when I was passed over for a college scholarship.
It was disheartening. My grades were good; I’d actually finished all my high school classes by my junior year and spent most of my senior year as a teacher’s assistant. My guidance counselor and I went down the list of local organizations with scholarships, and I applied to them all; it was the only way I could afford to go to college. One by one, they turned me down. I knew Rotary’s name, and not much more, but I applied to the Rotary Club of Newport, Washington-Priest River, as well.
What I didn’t know was that many of the Rotarians in this small town were also Scouts. They’d seen my volunteering, and they knew about the effort I put into the community, trying to help younger Scouts. Unbeknownst to me, they were the ones choosing the scholarship recipient. Rotary came through. That scholarship, along with my parents’ savings and another scholarship, was enough to get me through a year and a half of school. After that, I took out loans to graduate from the University of Idaho.
Underwriting the future
The Rotary scholarship was the boost that helped me go further than I could have gone on my own. It allowed me to go at the pace I wanted to go. It gave me a leg up. It may sound like a small thing, but that’s what I needed – someone to say, “You go for it, run with that ambition. Don’t let anything get in your way.” The club’s scholarship committee decided to underwrite my future when just about nobody else would.
What was my ambition? The running joke at school was that I would be president of the United States one day. I figured that, to be in public service, I had to study political science, but I got a C in it my freshman year. Not long after that, I found the journalism department, and that changed everything. The university’s radio and broadcast stations embraced me, and I just took to journalism. I became the news director of the student radio station, interned with newspapers, and graduated in three years. Radio really lit a spark for me.
All the way through, I continued to do volunteer work. In the movie Kingdom of Heaven , one of the main characters says, “What man is a man who does not make the world better?” My ambition became to embrace life, leave this place better than I found it, and go as far as possible.
At 27, I still have plenty of distance to cover. I’m now the proud dad of a two-year-old son, Alex – I met my wife, Katie, at Scout camp – and I work in Zurich as a correspondent with World Radio Switzerland, the English-language radio station for the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation.
Among the great benefits of journalism are the exposure to different cultures and sometimes being right in the middle of breaking news. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had several of those opportunities, starting in college. In 2003, a Saudi grad student at the University of Idaho was suspected of helping to finance a terrorist organization. The FBI raided his student apartment and took him off in handcuffs. This was a huge story in rural Moscow, Idaho. Suddenly, TV trucks and national media arrived on the scene, and our college newsroom was all in a flurry. The editor asked me to interview a local official from the American Civil Liberties Union about possible violations of the student’s rights, and the next thing I knew, the story was picked up by the New York Times. The student was acquitted but then deported. And I was hooked on reporting.
After college, in late 2005, I took a job as Morning Edition producer-reporter at KJZZ, the National Public Radio station in Phoenix. I was exposed to national and international media, even filing stories for the national network occasionally. But after a few years, my wife and I decided to think bigger, and I began researching what it would take to make it abroad. I applied for an Arthur F. Burns Fellowship, a two-month exchange program for German and U.S. journalists, and in 2008, I got accepted.
A year later, I had a big break: I was selected as a fellow by the Robert Bosch Foundation of Stuttgart, Germany, which chose 20 young professionals of varied backgrounds to work in Germany for a year. So I moved my family abroad. I met with business leaders and politicians across Europe, cutting my teeth on the biggest issues in transatlantic policy, including immigration, extremism, environmental concerns, and economic stability. I also got to offer commentary from Oslo, Norway, for a German radio outlet when U.S. President Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.
The point for me has always been to do something valuable. Even though I’m only 27, I have reached a place in life where I’m comfortable enough to look forward and back at the same time. I can see how my life has developed, how I’ve learned from things I’ve experienced, and how I’ve been helped.
It all started with that little endorsement from my local Rotary club. Rotarians, you chose to invest in my future, and you should know that I’m doing my best to represent you well in return.