This post title is the result of me tooting my own horn. Twice.
Make that four times.
Aside from all that makes this time of year hard for me, I just have to share what's making it a bit easier this time around. I'm actually quite surprised I haven't mentioned it yet because it's a pretty big deal (toot toot!).
During my final semester of college last spring, my broadcast journalism professor encouraged the class to enter online video contests (and by encouraged, I obviously mean she made them mandatory homework assignments that we dreaded doing), and, like the good little student I am, I did my homework.
The video assignment for the Pulitzer Center's 'Project: Report' contest was to document a day in the life of someone the world should know about. John had heard about an 82-year-old woman from Naples, Maine who sewed pillows for injured American soldiers in Iraqi hospitals. After many dead ends, I finally got Alice Fogg's contact information from a nice man at the National Guard. I called her immediately, and she invited me to her house the very next day.
I drove 6 hours round-trip to spend the afternoon at her home, which she has lived in for 60+ years. She welcomed me with open arms and a warm embrace, hours of wisdom and personal stories, and an invitation to stay for dinner before making the trek back to college. I kindly declined so I could get back before it got dark. She called her daughter to tell her she made a new friend and felt so blessed to have met me. She fed me chocolate chip cookies to fill me up for the drive home, and we spoke briefly about you passing away. She made sure to hand me some pamphlets about God that she thought would be helpful and gave me the two pillows she had made during my visit. A part of me felt bad taking them because it was two less soldiers that would be comforted, but it would have been worse to see the look of disappointment on her face. I mean, I had already declined her dinner invitation! So I took the pillows.
I created and submitted my video just before the deadline the next day. It was the first video I created that I actually felt proud to show my peers. They loved it and felt I had a real shot at being one of the 10 contest winners. I wouldn't hear the results for a few weeks, so I waited patiently.
Spring break rolled around, and all my friends left for Jamaica. Now, when I say all my friends, I am being completely serious. Over a dozen of my college girlfriends were on a plane to the Caribbean, while I was in my car driving two hours through snow and sleet to go home for two weeks. I instantly regretted my decision to save money.
In the midst of stuffing my face while sprawled out in front of the big screen in my PJs and tousled hair, I received an e-mail. I was one of the top 20 potential finalists for the contest, and they needed my address and phone number in case I was chosen as a semi-finalist in the next few days. All I could think was, "If I would have gone on that trip, I would be missing out on this potential opportunity." Everything happens for a reason. I slowly closed my laptop, placed it beside me, and did a happy dance for the next 35 seconds before calling practically everyone listed in my phone.
The next afternoon, I got a phone call from a man named Donte. Donte quickly became my new favorite human after he told me I was officially chosen as one of the 10 semi-finalists. I was beyond excited! He interviewed me quickly for an online story and press release, and then the doorbell rang. I looked out the window and saw a UPS truck. My exact words may have been something like, "HO-LY-CRAP."
I have never gone down our stairs faster, and I'm 99% sure the delivery man was completely terrified by my eagerness and abnormally exaggerated smile. He unloaded multiple heavy boxes into my arms that were already weak and shaking from excitement. I quickly thanked him and parked myself on the floor like a kid on Christmas morning.
Inside the first box was the new Sony HD video camera. I was speechless. Inside the other box was the newest laptop available from Sony. I started crying. Could something this wonderful truly be happening to me? For the past two months I had been using a laptop that would only work if I forcefully held the charger into the back of it with one hand and typed with the other. I was a college student; I couldn't afford a new one. I had no idea how I was going to get through the next three months of school. Suddenly, the answer literally showed up at my doorstep. I couldn't remember the last time I cried happy tears. It was the greatest feeling.
As I mentioned, this win qualified me as a semi-finalist. There was more work to be done in order to be a grand-prize winner. I had to create another video documenting a story or issue that was unreported on by the media. Once submitted, I would need to solicit votes from the public to determine my fate in the contest. I was definitely up for the challenge!
I couldn't wait to tell my classmates. They had always been so supportive. I e-mailed my professor right away, and upon my arrival back to school I was bombarded by media outlets. I'm about to toot my own horn a few dozen times, so prepare yourself: I was featured on multiple news channels, in half a dozen newspapers, on a radio station, and in my sorority's national magazine. I was photographed for our campus alumni magazine and the 2010 brochure mailed out to potential incoming students. I even got a phone call from my friend in New Hampshire that one of the pictures was used in the new University of Maine commercial (I saw this after while watching TV with my roommates a few months ago!). I was so overwhelmed that I almost didn't even have time to actually create my second video! I forced myself to come back to reality and buckle down.
I spent weeks debating a topic. I was beyond stressed. It got to the point where I thought I was going to run out of time, when out of nowhere, the kind of idea I had been waiting for (the one that makes you say, 'yes! That's the one!') finally came to me. I had never seen a Deaf person on the news. I had been taking American Sign Language classes on campus for the past two semesters, and I had spent months learning about the hardships my teacher faced as a Deaf woman. I e-mailed her that night and had an interview set-up for the end of the week. John's friend's brother was hard of hearing, and he agreed to participate too. And just like that, everything fell into place.
After weeks of soliciting votes from the public for my second round video through the media, social networks, etc., the 5 finalists were announced. I, coincidentally, was out to dinner with my sign language class and a few Deaf people. I took a peek at my phone and saw that I had a missed call from the Washington D.C. area. I excused myself and ran to the lobby. All I remember hearing is, "Congratulations, Samantha!" in that voice mail before screeching in the waiting area of the restaurant.
I had just won a $10,000 international traveling grant to create a short documentary anywhere in the world.
I returned to the table, unable to share my news with anyone because I didn't know exactly how to sign all that. Oh, the irony.
Next thing I knew I was graduating from college and driving straight home after the ceremony to hop on a flight to Washington D.C. the following morning. I met the other 4 winners (I am the only woman to have ever won the Project: Report contest), and we were welcomed by a fancy dinner and reception at the National Press Club. If you would have ever told me that executives from National Geographic, Google, Youtube, Sony, The Washington Post, etc. would be gathering at an event to honor ME, I would have called you a fool!
The following day, the five of us met at the Pulitzer Center and discussed the details of international travel and potential story ideas. That night, the videos we previously made (which had each accumulated over 200,000 views after being on the homepage of Youtube for a day!) were shown to the public at George Washington University. We went up on stage to accept our plaques and give quick speeches before heading out to another reception to mingle. It was humbling to meet so many aspiring (and professional) journalists who were inspired and impressed by our work and talent. It was a unique experience to have people come up to me saying, "I like how you did this" or asking "What made you do that?". I experienced the most exciting thing to ever happen to me, and yet all I wanted to do was call you to tell you about it all. Bittersweet doesn't even begin to describe the feelings I had... although my guess is you were there with me every step of the way.
My international trip plans were finalized just a few weeks ago. Any guesses on where I'm headed?! I'll fill you soon!
The moral of this story: Do your homework, kiddos! You never know... one assignment could instantly change your life.
All my love,