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Gwen Ifill and students Jephtane Sophie Sabin and Kennedy Huff at the NewsHour in 2014.

Remembering Gwen: Letters by Gwen Ifill fellows

When Gwen Ifill was named the co-anchor of the PBS NewsHour in 2013, she said she hoped little girls would watch her and think it “perfectly normal” to occupy an anchor’s desk someday. Her death in 2016 was a shock in so many ways, but the loss was felt acutely by PBS’ Student Reporting Labs network, which was graced by her mentorship and inspiration as a role model for so many girls in the program.

Student Reporting Labs (SRL) began in 2009 to help middle and high school students produce news stories that related to their own lives and the experiences of their peers. Gwen served as a mentor and cheerleader to so many of these young aspiring journalists. Following Gwen’s death, it was clear that the best way to honor her legacy was to nurture it, and inspire many future generations of journalists.

The Gwen Ifill Fellowship supports high school journalists to intern at local PBS stations. SRL partners with local media to provide journalism training and amplify student stories within the community and beyond.

The first Fellowship was awarded to Sophie Sabin, who was inspired by Gwen and reached out to her in 2014, which ended in Gwen speaking at Sophie’s Middle School graduation that year. Sophie spent the summer of 2017 at New Jersey Public Television, producing stories about the state government shutdown and the impact of the 1960s Newark Riots.

Since then, seven young women have interned at their local PBS Stations in Houston, Los Angeles, Austin, Cincinnati, Hawaii, and Virginia. To mark this year’s anniversary, SRL asked past fellows to write a posthumous letter to Gwen about their experiences and how her legacy has shaped their goals and hopes for the future. As these letters attest, Gwen Ifill paved the way for girls to see themselves at the anchor’s desk, behind the camera, in the edit suite and in the director’s chair.

Please read the letters here:

Dear Gwen,

Hello, I am Mercedes Ezeji, a current college senior and a 2019 Gwen Ifill Fellow. We actually were supposed to meet in 2016 during the PBS Student Reporting Labs Academy, but we didn’t have time. You probably had no idea that a fellowship would be created in your name at the end of your career. It makes sense to me. I used to watch you all the time when I was younger, you were a major inspiration in my decision to become a journalist. I admired seeing someone who looked like me anchor the news, conduct great interviews, and tell such amazing stories. I grew up thinking ‘if she can do it then maybe I can too’. Right now I’d like to say I’m on the path to achieving that goal. One day I hope to become a journalist of your caliber and prestige.

Becoming a Gwen Ifill Fellow was in a way a full circle moment for me. I’d watched you as a child and imitated you as a teenager and now as an adult, I’m commemorating all of the great work you’ve done in your career. Through being one of your biggest fans, I’ve naturally become a PBS fan or “stan” as some people say online these days.

I loved my fellowship experience and I think you would have too. I got to work at the KLRU station in Austin, Texas with some of the coolest and most insightful people. Every day I learned something new about the world of journalism. It changed how I view myself as a journalist in many ways, and gave me the confidence I needed in order to transition from being a student journalist to a professional after my nearing graduation. I also got to wear jeans and t-shirts every day so it looked a little different from how I would see you on the NewsHour. I couldn’t have asked to be a part of a better fellowship or represent a more inspiring and motivational woman.

Best,
Mercedes Ezeji

******

Dear Gwen,

You once said you are “Unreasonably reasonable.” That’s just one of the things we have in common. Since I was young I knew I had a passion for media and communicating with the people around me, just like you. Through my school journalism program, I learned that your story is truly your story. It’s like a plant that grows everyday when you take care of it, the more time and effort you put into the story the bigger it will grow. Receiving the Gwen Ifill fellowship put everything in perspective for me. Your legacy means so much to me as an African American woman – it shows me that it’s possible to be a part of something bigger than myself. As former President Obama said “She not only informed today’s citizens, but she inspired tomorrow’s journalists.” Seeing you on the news made me realize you did it, so I can do it. You paved the way for me so I can pave the way for others like me. I’m looking forward to taking some of the same steps you did in your life and I hope my life is filled with as much inspiration and dedication as yours.

Sincerely,
Mary Williams, Sophomore at the University of Cincinnati majoring in Electronic Media

******

Dear Gwen,

My name is Angeline Abrera, I am a sophomore at the University of Houston, and I was a part of the 2018 Gwen Ifill Fellowship. I have always loved filming my travels, and making videos with my friends while growing up, but I didn’t realize how much I truly enjoyed holding a camera and creating stories until I joined my school’s journalism program. Something about creating a story from scratch and learning the step by step process of making a news package or short film is so vulnerable, raw, real, and almost personal, and that’s why I love it so much.

Through the Gwen Ifill fellowship, I got the chance to intern at Houston Public Media with award winning producer, Tomeka Wheatherspoon. I can honestly say that this fellowship has been one of the greatest experiences in my life thus far. Not only did I get to work hands on in the field, alongside many successful, creative, and talented people, but I learned so much from them, from pre production, interviewing, post production, and more. Through Gwen’s fellowship, I grew both as a person and a storyteller.

I believe you would be most proud of the fact that I, a woman of color, am interested in the film and journalism industry. Your success broke a glass ceiling and has given countless women that extra push to want keep rising to the top. With women of color being underrepresented and underestimated in various situations, you taught me to embrace my differences and to never let anyone degrade me based on my appearance. Thankfully, our society has become so much more inclusive, but there are still many areas where women are not seen as competent.

If I got the chance to say one thing to you, it would be thank you for inspiring me in many ways, and for pushing me to become the strong and hard working woman that I am today. Because of you, I feel so much more confident in myself and what I believe I can accomplish. And thank you to the PBS NewsHour and Houston Public Media for believing in me and for providing the stepping stones leading up to my future career. This fellowship and opportunity you all have given me, with the chance to learn, grow, and gain real world experience before college is something I will forever be grateful for. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart, and thank you, Gwen Ifill, for being my greatest role model.

******

Dear Gwen,

My name is Khue Tran and I was a Gwen Ifill Fellow, completing a fellowship in your name with the PBS-KLRU station the summer before I started my undergraduate education at Yale University. When you became the co-anchor of the PBS NewsHour, you said you hoped girls would watch you and think it “perfectly normal” to occupy an anchor’s desk someday. The five minute news package I created focused on the volunteers at Grassroots Leadership, an organization that seeks to abolish for-profit private prisons and detention centers. I am currently enrolled in a class called Race, Politics and the Law, where we have learned about critical race theory, the differences between procedural reform and abolition of mass incarceration to the rights and sovereignty of indigenous nations. My summer internship still informs the work and writings I create today.

In covering difficult topics like immigration, I personally was confronted with the question of the role of the journalist. How do you accurately convey a topic without also capitalizing on other people’s trauma and devaluing their humanity? Journalism means much more to me as I have navigated college in an institution like Yale, where my fellow classmates hold so much power in shaping the world around us. You emphasized the importance of courage, fairness and integrity. That legacy guides my life and possible future policy-making, because I want to pursue a career in law. Behind your journalism was your curiosity and your boldness in covering broad topics that directly affect people’s lives and I want to use the same engagement and thoroughness in my future research and writing. Thank you for the lessons you’ve imparted.

Khue Tran

******

Hello Gwen Ifill,

My name is Jephtane Sophie Sabin, and I am currently a sophomore in college. I first met you while I was in middle school during the PBS Student Reporting Labs program at Philip’s Academy Charter School in Newark, NJ.

I remember how kind you were and the big and warm hug that you gave me when we met in person. Going back, I remember watching PBS Newshour at night with my mom and feeling so motivated seeing someone that looked just like me on TV, a black woman. Your elegance and composure as you spoke on camera truly resounded in me. Never letting anyone stop you from reporting truths, your ethics created a baseline for what a true journalist should be. Seeing your path in journalism and the heights you were able to reach with your hard work made journalism attainable to me. You sparked something inside my heart, starting my journey into storytelling.

It seemed meant to be when the SRL program started later on that year at school, and I must admit, it took a while before I truly felt comfortable behind the camera, but once I did, I didn’t let anything hold me back or stop me. Before taking part in the program, the idea of being outspoken on issues that we faced in society on a minute and grand scale was absurd. Because, who would listen to the words of a middle school student from Newark? But as I saw and understood the power behind words and storytelling and the lives that could be changed in the process, I was hooked.

Through the years, I progressed in journalism to the point where I was able to become one of your Fellows in an internship with a PBS affiliate, NJTV News. You were always so supportive of me and I will never forget the words that you said to me, “Sophie, I was you.” I carried those words around with me understanding its significance, hoping that I could make an impact on others as you did to me. During my internship, I had the privilege of learning first hand from seasoned journalists and even had the chance to write my own article on the Newark Riots, an event that changed the course of history and also served as a reminder of the power of our words and actions and their impact on bringing about change. Looking back on everything that I’ve accomplished, it is evident that none of it would have been possible without your presence in journalism. Your qualities and humility are what made the biggest impact on me. Even while you were being a journalism trailblazer, you gave time to the younger generation that was coming up and provided your wisdom and generosity, paying it back.

I hope this letter finds you well and I can only hope that in my life, I can be as impactful as you were. Thank you for helping to shape journalism into a career path of integrity and virtue.

Sincerely,
Jephtane Sophie Sabin

******

Dear Gwen,

I never got to meet you, and I never will. However, through this fellowship, I feel as if I have connected with you in spirit. I love to talk, all my friends tell me I talk too much. It is only because I like to listen to people’s stories, observe their emotions, see their expressions. I feel as if my day isn’t complete if I haven’t made someone else smile. That’s why I feel like journalism and storytelling fit my personality perfectly. Media enables me to travel, meet new people, inspire, and be inspired by others’ life stories. I also experienced working through technical difficulties, working in a team, and learning through mistakes. Being in journalism made me feel as if I really had a place in this world.

I believe you would be proud of me for being able to overcome my challenges. I had multiple breakdowns thinking my work was not good enough. I was not used to getting constructive criticism on my work. However, I was able to overcome my self-doubt by thinking positively, the way you would through the tough times, in order to finish the job.

Your strong and positive personality inspires me to continue what I am doing in order to achieve my goals of becoming the best journalist I can be.

Thank You,
Tiffany Sagucio

******

Dear Gwen,

My name is Jaylah Moore-Ross. I am an aspiring filmmaker among other things. Through journalism, I have been able to connect with so many different people and help share their voices, especially the youth voice, and through the Gwen Ifill fellowship I participated in this summer, I got to do this on an even larger scale. I co-anchored a 30-minute segment in the NewsHour studio, about the top 10 SRL stories from the 2018-2019 school year with my fellow intern, Victoria Hodge, also, a young African-American woman. I got to sit around the same table that you and your co-anchor, Judy Woodruff sat every day to report on the most influential stories and though I never got to meet you, I feel connected to you. I believe that you would be proud that as I co-anchored that segment, it felt as you once said “perfectly normal” sitting next to another young woman and reporting on important stories.

You have not only inspired young girls, including myself, to go for what they love despite the challenges, but you have opened up so many doors for storytellers behind you. Your legacy lives on and your smile remains infectious even to those that only witnessed your light on- screen. Thank you.

Respectfully,
Jaylah Moore-Ross

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