Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020
As a breaking news politics reporter for CNN, Virginia Commonwealth University alumna Chandelis Duster is used to chasing down and reporting the biggest stories coming out of Washington.
“Breaking news is quick, it’s fast,” Duster told a packed crowd of VCU students on Tuesday.
“Sometimes, I’m writing two or three stories a day, depending on — as people say — the news gods, if they’re good to us. Maybe it’s one, but sometimes it’s five,” she said. “It can be anything. It could be something happening at the White House, it could be Congress, it could be something going on at the Department of Education, it could be something happening in another state, on a local level or the state level. I like that. I like being able to know about all aspects of government and politics. But it can be exhausting at times.”
Duster, who graduated in 2010 from what is now the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences, returned to VCU for a Q&A with Tim Bajkiewicz, Ph.D., an associate professor of broadcast journalism. Bajkiewicz also is executive producer and co-news director for VCU InSight, a 30-minute undergraduate student-produced TV news program that airs on WCVW-TV VPM Plus (Richmond PBS). Duster took part in VCU InSight when she was a student.
“Here’s a student who has taken everything she learned in our program and is now working for one of the biggest news brands in the world,” Bajkiewicz said.
The event, “From VCU InSight to CNN Politics: A Conversation with Alumna Chandelis Duster,” was part of the Robertson School’s speaker series, which often features alumni and others who work in journalism, public relations, advertising and other communications careers.
“It is a blessing,” Duster said. “A lot of times when I was here as a student, I would watch CNN a lot and watch NBC News and all the other programs and news organizations and shows, and when I was in here in 2010, I didn’t think I would end up at CNN. I dreamed about it.”
Duster told the audience how she came to VCU from her home state of Alabama after a year at Troy University to be near her sister, who lived in Richmond.
“My brother-in-law got deployed to Iraq, and my sister didn’t want to be alone,” she said. “So I decided to come up and be with her. She was like, ‘Oh, you can go to VCU. They have a great program.’ I said, ‘OK,’ and I just loved it.”
Her career in broadcasting began around that time, as she interned with Shoals Radio Group in Florence, Alabama, and with Radio One in Richmond. She went on to work at Cox Media Group, now called SummitMedia, at radio stations around Richmond, working in promotions, production, hosting events and voicing commercials.
After graduating from VCU, Duster enrolled in graduate school studying broadcast journalism and public affairs at American University. As a student, she covered Congress and learned about politics in Washington.
“I [applied] for an internship at NBC News when I was in graduate school. I did not get it. I applied to several internships at NBC News and other organizations. I never got an internship in television. I was crushed. I was like, ‘How am I going to get a job in television if I don’t have an internship? How can I get my foot in the door? I need something more than just what I did in school.’”
She connected with Jeffrey Blount, who graduated from VCU’s School of Mass Communications in 1981 and was director of “NBC Nightly News.” Blount and Duster would occasionally get lunch, and he would look at her work.
“Throughout graduate school, I was like, ‘What do you think about this that I did?’ or ‘What do you think about this story?’ And we would go and have lunch and talk over things. So I was always interested in NBC News,” she said.
Blount let Duster know that a desk assistant program at NBC News was hiring, and she landed a job there. She went on to become a reporter at NBC News covering politics, pop culture, red carpet events, racial issues and breaking news.
During her time at NBC, she worked with “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt,” the “Today” show, “Morning Joe” and many other programs. She also wrote stories for and helped manage NBCBLK, a section of the NBC News website focused on the black community.
She joined CNN in August, right as the impeachment of President Donald Trump was heating up.
“A lot of news is generated in Washington, especially now. Going to CNN, you know, I just jumped into the middle of everything. That’s when the impeachment inquiry was taking off. Then we had the hearings, and now we have the impeachment trial,” she said. “Being a breaking news reporter, I love writing stories. I love just writing and covering everything. Politics is something I love. I’ve always been interested in government.”
Duster answered a few questions from journalism students, including one asking for advice to young reporters who are about to enter the workforce.
Duster told the student to learn everything possible while at VCU. And if you’re going to make a mistake, it’s better to do it in college, and to learn from it.
“Your professors are here to support you. I wish I had realized that more when I was a student. I say that now because, for any of you, if you’re going to make a big mistake when it comes to journalism, the best place to make it is right here. You’ve got the grace to come back. You don’t want to make a big huge mistake when you’re actually working for an organization like CNN. I mean, you have editors and people who are forgiving, depending on what it is, but the world — especially with the way things are happening with media — it is not very forgiving and people do not forget names.”
She also encouraged the students to network with VCU alumni who are working in journalism, much like she did with Blount.
“Don’t be afraid to just ask questions. Like, ‘Hey, I’d like you to look at this assignment. What do you think?’ Now I am embarrassed. I’m like, ‘Oh my God. Did I really show him that?’ But I’m happy I did, to get that real-world feedback from somebody who’s actually doing it,” she said.
Finally, she told the students to be open to a variety of journalism career opportunities and not limit their options.
“Don’t be afraid to cast your net wide,” she said. “It’s good to have ambitions and goals for where you want to be and where you want to end up. But don’t be afraid of where your path leads you. Your path can lead you many different directions and many different places.”
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