Emmy-award winning journalist Anderson Cooper delivered the keynote address in the Palestra on Saturday morning as part of Meliora Weekend.
Cooper, who also works as a foreign correspondent for ABC, currently hosts the show ‘Anderson Cooper 360″ on CNN, where he works as a political satirist as well as a journalist.
Other potential speakers included UR President Joel Seligman and Senior Vice President and Chief Advancement Officer Jim Thompson, but it was Cooper who was picked.
‘We chose Anderson Cooper because we felt his insights into the news media and world affairs would be both timely and of interest to alumni, students and parents,” Executive Director of Alumni Relations Kevin Wesley said.
Cooper took the stage with a jovial tone, making humorous comments as he told the audience about his experiences as a reporter, as well as other aspects of his life.
His mother was famed heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, and he spoke of her loving, though not entirely pragmatic, advice during his childhood. He told the humorous anecdote of how he asked for his mother’s advice before interviewing for a job as a waiter.
‘She told me, “Wear vertical stripes because they’re slimming,'” Cooper said. ‘And if you can see, I am wearing vertical stripes today. I hope they are slimming.”
Cooper went on to talk about the beginnings of his career and his life when he was around the age of most UR students. Cooper stressed to students that they should not worry if they do not have everything in their life planned out or if things do not fall perfectly into place upon graduation. Cooper likened graduation to standing before freshly fallen snow.
‘There are no footprints you need to follow,” he said. ‘You can make your own.”
After graduating from Yale University in 1989, Cooper was unable to find a job. He applied for an entry-level position at ABC but was rejected.
‘I guess that’s the value of a Yale education these days,” he said.
Following his own advice, Cooper concocted his own plan to jumpstart his career. He reasoned that in order to get published, he would cover the dangerous stories no one else was willing to do. He set off for Burma with nothing but a forged press pass made by a friend. He met with students fighting the Burmese government and was ultimately able to sell his homemade news segments. Cooper traveled all over the world seeking conflict, covering wars in Somalia and Bosnia, as well as the Rwandan genocide.
Cooper told a story of his time in Rwanda. He came across several bodies on the side of a road that had been in the sun for many days. He recalled how he was looking at one of the corpse’s hands, where the sun-soaked skin was peeling off. Cooper took out his disposable camera and took a picture. A friend took a picture of Cooper doing this, and showed it to Cooper later.
‘He said, “You need to take a look at what you were doing,'” Cooper said. ‘And that’s when I realized I’ve got to stop.”
Despite his grim subject matter, Cooper succeeded in his field, becoming a foreign correspondent for ABC News. He explained the irony of being hired by the same channel that had rejected him for an entry-level job and emphasized to students that some of the biggest rejections can turn into the greatest successes.
Cooper stressed that the ideal reporter strives to cover significant issues, even if they are not what his audiences are most interested in. To demonstrate this, he described the horrors that he experienced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, phenomena that he feels do not receive enough press. He spoke of the gang rapes that leave many women without control of their bodily functions and the violence that is being inflicted upon these disenfranchised women. He describes one victim’s sickening encounter, whereby after she was violently raped, a gun was shot inside of her. The audience responded with gasps.
After Cooper finished his speech, one student asked whether he believes Sarah Palin is qualified to be the next president.
‘It’s my job to ask people tough questions and not to take sides,” he said.
The audience responded to this reply with enthusiastic applause.
Cooper published a memoir of his travels, called ‘Dispatches from the Edge” in 2006, which also includes much about Cooper’s personal life, including his brother’s suicide and the death of his father when he was a young boy.
Event chairperson of the Campus Activity Board and junior Elizabeth Gabster attended the simulcast and explained her reactions to Cooper’s talk.
‘It was a great experience because even though I wasn’t seeing him live, you still felt engaged,” Gabster said. ‘Everyone walked out of there feeling inspired to make positive changes in the world.”
Cooper ended on a hopeful note, describing the strength and courage he has seen rise through even the world’s darkest tragedies.
‘You expect to find darkness, but you can also find hope,” he said. ‘You expect to find horror, but you can find humanity as well.”
Schneier is a member of the class of 2011.