President's Award recipient Soledad O'Brien finds satisfaction in sharing her wisdom with journalism's next generation.Soledad O'Brien remembers what it was like being a young broadcast journalist struggling to get a toehold in a competitive business. That's why she's committed to giving something back as a mentor to young people embarking on careers in TV news. In doing so, this year's recipient of the NAACP's President's Award keeps her focus and perspective in check.
"(It's wonderful) when I talk to young women who dream of getting into TV, and (they) see it as a realistic goal," says O'Brien, co-anchor of CNN's flagship "American Morning" broadcast (a post she has held since 2003). "It was tougher when I was in college. But I'm also careful to make sure I spell out the difficulties in juggling everything. What I love is doing something in my work that can have an impact, like my (current) series that looks at the just-released Martin Luther King Jr. papers. It's tremendously important to understanding our history."
O'Brien, who is receiving her NAACP honor in recognition of her journalistic and humanitarian achievements, was part of the CNN team that earned plaudits for its Hurricane Katrina coverage in 2005, the aftermath of the devastating 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia and the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.
"Being in the middle of covering the tsunami, it's impossible to see children on metal slabs and not be moved by that," O'Brien recalls. "It left me wondering what teeny-weeny thing I could do to give back, to make a positive difference in the world. That's why I mentor."
Born to an Australian-Irish father and an Afro-Cuban mother, O'Brien is herself a wife and mother of four young children (including 2-year-old twins). And she's proud to be an exotic collection of ethnicities.
"I'm black, I'm Latina, I'm mixed race, I'm everything," she says. "My mother and father got married in the late 1950s at a time when interracial marriage was actually still illegal. My mother instilled in me the attitude that you have to live the life you want to live and not abide by somebody else's rules. You have to make your own. And that's what I've tried to do."
It hasn't always been easy. O'Brien recalls weeks when she was "called not ethnic enough on Monday, and by Wednesday I was seen as too ethnic. Everyone has an opinion. You have to be philosophical that when opportunity slams the door, a window is going to open."
O'Brien's first network job was as a field producer at NBC for "NBC Nightly News" and "Today" in 1991. She moved on to work at MSNBC, anchoring the weekend morning show and the technology program "The Site," becoming anchor for "Weekend Today" in 1999 and contributing reports for the weekend edition of "NBC Nightly News." During that time, she covered John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane crash and the Columbine High School shootings. She also was the only broadcast journalist to travel with first lady Laura Bush to Paris and Moscow.
A Harvard University graduate with a degree in English and American literature, O'Brien's ethnicity has brought her an eclectic collection of honors -- including spots on Irish America Magazine's "Top 100 Irish Americans" list and Black Enterprise magazine's 2005 Hit List, as well as the 2005 Groundbreaking Latina of the Year Award from Catalina magazine.
"I love my career, but you have to keep it in perspective," O'Brien says. "To have kids like I do, and a husband, is very challenging. I can't just phone in my job, and it's a struggle to accomplish it in a way where everyone and everything gets the proper time. But, by the same token, I refuse to be too stressed to feel blessed."
It humbles O'Brien that she is receiving the same NAACP award that has been bestowed on such icons as former President Bill Clinton, Ella Fitzgerald, Bryant Gumbel and Jesse Jackson.
"I'm really excited to be getting something that so honors the black community," she says. "It's one of those things I'm really going to appreciate when I look back on my career. And I hope it serves to inspire young people to get into journalism, which is a great profession."
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