Solving problems to cover conflicts

October 21, 2010

Anne Garrels reported from war zones around the world for more than 20 years. During her six-year tenure in Iraq, she narrowly escaped countless explosions and other life-threatening situations. She was officially booted out of Russia for a period of time. As the Taliban was falling in Afghanistan, she snuck into the country with no map, no idea where she was going, and no one on the inside to help her.

Many would be surprised to learn that Garrels’ drive to persevere through such occupational hazards didn’t sprout from an early goal to become a journalist.

“When I was sitting in a classroom as a sophomore, junior in college, I had no idea what I wanted to do,” said Garrels, whose unpredictable path to an award-winning career as a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio began with a passion for Russian culture and politics.

Garrels visited Bradley University Wednesday to deliver the Robison Lecture, an annual event that brings to campus distinguished working professionals and educators in print and broadcast journalism. Garrels also led discussions in journalism classes where she encouraged students to soak up the educational opportunities at Bradley.

“Use this time at Bradley to take courses that really make you think,” said Garrels, “because it’s not enough to say, ‘I want to be a journalist.’ You have to have something to say, you have to know how to solve problems.”

In her line of work, Garrels encountered innumerable problems, some of which had little to do with meeting a broadcast deadline. The NPR veteran shared a harrowing story with students about rescuing a colleague from captivity by extremists during her time covering the Iraq war, then jumping through bureaucratic hoops to usher the man and his family safely out of the Middle Eastern country and into the United States.

That kind of resourcefulness, and indeed bravery, came after decades of problem solving, networking and building confidence in her own capabilities. Garrels’ first foray into international reporting came thanks to her Russian language skills and a willingness to work for a pittance. She admitted to students that the experience started with uncontrollable sobbing in Moscow.

“I was 27 years old, didn’t know how to write, and I thought, ‘What did you get yourself into?’” said Garrels, who now believes she has the greatest job in the world. “I had to make it, though, and that’s where problem solving kicks in.”

Garrels’ lecture Wednesday evening was titled “Bearing Witness . . . One Journalist’s View on Covering the World.”