Back to College at 61: A Veteran Reporter Sees There Is Much to Learn
By Rose Ellen O’Connor
When I was 22, just a couple years older than my daughter, who attends Montgomery College, I dropped out of school to take a job as a producer for the Washington bureau of a group of television stations. I figured I would finish my degree– I only needed 21 credits in night school. But late-breaking stories always seemed to collide with my plans to go to evening classes at the University of Maryland, College Park, and soon I dropped out.
At age 61, I’m now back in school at Montgomery College with my daughter. I’m studying Spanish and World History and get a rush each time I step out of my car and walk to my classes. I’m not going for a degree. I’m going for knowledge. I am studying introductory Spanish and World History.
Back in my reporting days, I used to think how lucky I was to love my job and how I would do it for free if I weren’t paid. I soon moved from producer to on-air reporter and covered Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court and government agencies. In 1981, when 52 Americans were freed from captivity in Iran, I flew to Wiesbaden West Germany, where the former captives were taken for treatment at a military hospital. I was the only reporter in the gaggle of international journalists to get interviews with the “freed 52.” A few months later I reported from Washington when John Hinkley Jr. shot President Ronald Reagan.
When I moved to a local station in Norfolk, I did both life style and investigative reports. I parachuted out of plane and flew an ultralight aircraft, a plane made essentially of kites. My investigative interests drew me to print journalism, which allowed for more in-depth reporting.
While at the Virginian Pilot in Norfolk, I spent a year tracking down drug dealers from Atlanta to Philadelphia for a story on the seedier side of Virginia Beach and a politician who frequented it.
Years later, I returned to Washington to work for the Portland-based Oregonian. I was six months pregnant with my daughter when a congressman threatened to “bust” my nose for reporting that he had lied about serving in special forces in Korea.
He made matters worse by releasing a press release saying he had been misquoted: he said he hadn’t threated to punch my nose but had threatened to “whip” me. The story made all the major news magazines and became the fodder of late-night comic monologues.
I was thrilled when I was introduced to Anthony Hopkins at the White House Correspondents Dinner as the pregnant reporter who’d been threatened, and he said “Yes, I read about it in the New York Times.”
I stayed home after my daughter was born and freelanced for People Magazine. I didn’t stay up with all the changes in journalism, such as the use of social media. With the advent of the internet, newspapers and magazines saw a dramatic loss of readership.
They folded or cut staffs drastically to stay afloat. People downsized its Washington bureau, where I worked, to one person. When I wanted to return to journalism things were different and I couldn’t just rely on my resume.
To weed out candidates for the few jobs that are available, news outlets and public relations firms ask as a first question whether a job candidate has a degree. I really regret not finishing college now.
So here I am at Montgomery College. I’m something of an oddity but the students and teachers are very nice to me.
History Professor Kurt Borkman, who makes history fascinating, sometimes makes asides to me about things we can share because we’re older. He always explains what we’re talking about to the much younger students and we all get a laugh.
When I asked my Spanish Professor Josephina Astrada, if there was a place on campus to learn power points for a presentation I have to make to the class, she offered to teach me herself.
Sometimes I think the students think I’m a space cadet, but, as I said, they’re always nice to me. The young man sitting next to me in Spanish class helped me find the control, alt, and delete keys when I had a brain cramp and couldn’t find them.
One day I was sitting on the bench outside my Spanish classroom when a nice young woman came up to me and asked what I was doing. I told her I was waiting for Spanish and she said, “But, Rose, we don’t have Spanish on Fridays.”
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