A photo of a man sittng and speaking to a woman to the right of him.
During a visit to campus, VCU alum Aaron Gilchrist, White House correspondent for NBC Universal, detailed the rewarding, unpredictable work of being a journalist. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

VCU alum and NBC White House correspondent Aaron Gilchrist shares insight with students

Returning to campus for a Q&A, the 2003 mass communications graduate touches on the ongoing value of journalism and its engaging mix of stress and fun.

Share this story

After two decades in the field, amid the rise of social media and evolving technology, Virginia Commonwealth University alum Aaron Gilchrist said his belief in the value of journalism has never flagged.

“The profession is necessary, useful work,” Gilchrist, a 2003 graduate and now the White House correspondent for NBC Universal, told students Thursday as he returned to campus. “Our job is to watch people in power and make sure there’s an awareness about what’s going on.”

Gilchrist participated in a Q&A hosted by VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences. He spoke about his time at VCU, his career in broadcasting and journalism’s role in an ever-changing world.

“I love the art of storytelling,” Gilchrist said. “There’s a science to what we do as journalists, but then there’s an art as well. And the art is where we get to go out and meet people and we get to ask them questions and they get to tell us about the things that are happening in their world.”

Gilchrist was introduced Thursday by Nancy Kent Smith, adjunct instructor of media economics and management in the mass communications master’s program. Gilchrist worked for WWBT, Richmond’s NBC affiliate, during Kent Smith’s tenure as the station’s vice president of news.

“There was never any question from anyone who looked that Aaron had the grit and tenacity and the strength and the smarts to be outstanding in this business,” she said.

Gilchrist knew early on that he wanted to work in television news. As a student in Richmond Public Schools, he got his first taste of broadcast journalism working at a public service television station. And being a Richmond native, choosing VCU was “an easy choice to make,” he said – and not just for its hometown appeal.

“I was coming into an environment where I would get the academic foundation that I wanted and also have an opportunity to learn storytelling and have a media market available to me that was going to allow me to potentially start a career that had a good foundation,” Gilchrist said.

During his undergraduate years, he balanced classroom education with hands-on learning, working part time at WWBT. He recalled spending time at the station, doing the work of journalism in a newsroom environment, and then going to class, where he would get academic insight about the work.

While still working toward his bachelor’s degree in mass communications, Gilchrist was hired full time at the station. He eventually became its morning news anchor before moving to Washington, where he was morning news anchor for the D.C.-based NBC affiliate for several years.

A photo of a man standing in a room filled with cirgual tables with people sitting at them.
Aaron Gilchrist said that his time as a student at VCU helped provide the foundation for his career as a broadcast journalist. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Gilchrist told students Thursday that no two days are alike in journalism, which keeps his passion high.

Some of his favorite stories have been unexpected. He recounted one assignment where he interviewed a family who had recently adopted an abandoned pig. When he got to their house, he decided, “I might as well interview the pig.”

“I don’t know what I asked it,” Gilchrist continued, demonstrating how he got down in the dirt to hold up the microphone to the pig. “But I asked it something, and it grunted as though it were answering. It was perfect.”

Much of his work, though, can be serious and difficult. When asked how he handles the stress of the job, Gilchrist said it’s important to remember that the work needs to be done. He talked about covering the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007, describing the emotions at play while trying to focus on his professional responsibilities.

“You do the thing that needs to be done because we’ve chosen jobs where we’re going to do this thing for people, so that they can have an understanding of what’s happening in the world,” Gilchrist said. “But then I’m also a human being.”

From breaking news to the whirlwind of Election Night, stress and long nights are part of the job, he noted.

“I always tell students that it’s a 24-hour business that you’re signing up for if you get into [journalism], particularly into TV news,” he said. “You’re going to work nights, you’re going to work weekends, you’re going to do extra days, you’re going to do early mornings. That’s just the reality of what we do.”

The important thing to remember, Gilchrist said, is that the hard work provides a crucial public service.

He recounted the best advice he ever received, which is to stay curious. And if he finds that he’s losing that curiosity, it’s time to move on.

For the aspiring journalists in Thursday’s audience, Gilchrist added that his profession, for all of its challenges, has a remarkable upside.

“Remember that as much as it’s hard work, there’s a lot of good times, too,” he said. “It can be a really fun line of work to be in. You get to go places, you get to meet people, you get to hear stories. You get to literally roll around with pigs. There can be fun moments in what we do.”