Nichols–Chancellor’s Medal winner still striving

Journalist Soledad O'Brien is Vanderbilt's Senior Day speaker May 12 in Memorial Gym.

Being 50 years old isn’t much different than being 23 if you’re living a life of purpose, said Vanderbilt’s 2016 Nichols–Chancellor’s Medal winner in an interview with MyVU May 3.

“I’ll be turning 50 in a couple of months,” said an ebullient Soledad O’Brien, who will be Vanderbilt’s Senior Day speaker beginning at 11 a.m. Thursday, May 12, in Memorial Gym. “But I’m no different than when I was 23. The pressures are exactly the same.

“Do I go out and do something with purpose and make sure I’m creating thoughtful, meaningful work, and that I’m living up to my own standards and I’m dragging other people with me?” she asked.

The versatile producer, reporter and interviewer, whom viewers have seen on CNN, the National Geographic Channel, MSNBC, HBO, NBC and other media outlets, “defines the 21st century and exemplifies the best qualities of the human spirit,” according to the criteria of the Vanderbilt award.

“So, no pressure there at all,” O’Brien said with a disarming laugh about receiving the prestigious medal, which was established by Edward C. Nichols Jr., JD’70, and his wife, Janice Nichols, in memory of Edward Carmack Nichols and Lucile Hamby Nichols.

“I have opportunities because I was blessed with two great parents and a very solid — to the point of almost boring — family,” she said. “I owe it to other people to help them.”

O’Brien grew up one of six children of two teachers. Her first ambition was to work in medicine, and she got as far as an organic chemistry class at Radcliffe-Harvard, which she took with her sister Stella, who is now an eye surgeon.

“She really understood science, and I could memorize and regurgitate it on a test,” O’Brien said. “It made me understand for the first time that I wasn’t passionate about it.”

Taking a hiatus from school, O’Brien landed an internship at a local television station. There she found her passion. “I just loved it,” she said. “I loved the craziness of it. I loved that everyone was focused on a very frantic goal of getting on the air.”

As she progressed and learned the business, she began to realize and respect the power of the media.

“There’s a chance to influence what kinds of stories get told, whose voices are elevated, and whose positions are not,” she said. “I think a lot of my path after that was trying to figure out the seat of that power.”

O’Brien flourished and moved up quickly. She covered the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. and interviewed FEMA head Michael Brown after Hurricane Katrina for NBC, before moving on to CNN, where she hosted two shows and had other duties.

In 2013, O’Brien left CNN and started her production company, Starfish Media Group. Working through Starfish, she has kept busy with projects for CNN and media across the spectrum from podcasts to cable television to interactive experiences in movie theaters. She is respected for her productions about poverty in America, girls and education, the plight of American war veterans and other issues.

“[lquote]I don’t know that my journalism changes things, but I do think it’s important that you ask the right questions[/lquote],” O’Brien said. “I like to think that when I cover stories, I’m bringing something a little bit different than other people.”

O’Brien’s father is Australian and her mother Afro-Cuban.

“I have a different background than other people, so when I do an interview, my strategy and questions and what I’m interested in hearing is different from somebody else,” she said. “I think you’ve got to have a bunch of different kinds of perspectives.”

O’Brien says she’ll share her unique perspective with Vanderbilt graduating seniors on Senior Day and tell the story of what she’s learned from becoming an entrepreneur.

“I’ve had a lot of great highs and a lot of really awful lows,” she said. “There were times when I sat in my bed and ate Häagen-Dazs and wasn’t really sure what I would do next.

“So I think I’m interested in talking to students about having to navigate those ups and downs — what it means to live your life with a sense of purpose while doing jobs that grow your skills.”

Watch the full speech here: