This is the Start Here / Never Stop Podcast with Dean Susan King of the UNC School of Media and Journalism.
00:13 Dean Susan King: Hello. This is Susan King, the dean of the UNC School of Media and Journalism at Chapel Hill. I am very excited to have with us an alum from the class of 2012: Reema Khrais. How are you and welcome!
00:25 Reema Khrais: I am doing good. Thanks so much for having me.
00:26 King: It's such a pleasure to have you join us because you were in my first graduating class, so you were very important to me. And what a ride you've had from UNC to the prestigious Kroc Fellowship in NPR to the Fletcher Fellowship covering Education Policy at WUNC Radio here to Marketplace in six short years. Wow.
0:00:49.7 Khrais: Yeah, it's been great. It's been wonderful. I couldn't have imagined and I can't believe it's been six years since I've graduated. But thinking back on it, I didn't imagined being here at this point. But, I mean, it made sense. I think one thing led to the other. Even when I was at UNC — it's funny that you mentioned that we were there at the same time — because I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do exactly, and I felt so grateful [for] Professor Adam Hochberg who was there, I mean, he's still there.
0:01:18.4 King: Absolutely.
0:01:20.6 Khrais: Yeah. I honestly credit so much of my career to him just because he was the former correspondent, and we were these timid 19/20 year-old, but he didn't care. He treated us as if we were professionals working at NPR, and that went down to the way he edited, and the way he interacted with us. He had really strict standards starting from there. When I eventually moved on to NPR right after I graduated, I already had a lot of skills on how to write a radio script. I knew how to voice the radio script in a very professional way and — which comparing to the other interns and fellows there — they did not have that necessary kind of training. So, I remember feeling very lucky for that. And at Carolina, I did spend most of my time in general at the journalism school and at Carolina Connection class, hosting and putting together radio script and taking it incredibly seriously. I remember I'd be there like every Friday night before the show airs on Saturday with all my friends and classmates who I'm still in contact with today, and we would go on air the next day. And it just felt like everything in that moment — it really set me up from where I am today.
0:02:40.4 King: Well, I remember you as really a young woman with ambition because part of your Carolina Connection class was to go to Egypt — where you had some roots — and cover the Arab Spring.
0:02:50.4 Khrais: Yeah, yeah. That was a great opportunity because, at that point, I was in training at The Story with Dick Gordon, which unfortunately is not on the air anymore. It was a national radio program based out of Chapel Hill. I was interning there, and I was also interning at CNN the other half of the summer. But then I really wanted to go to Egypt. And I didn't have the funds to go there, and I remember The Story with Dick Gordon didn't have the money either. And so, I actually got a grant through the UNC journalism school. And that was the reason I was able to even go to Egypt and I was there for a month and a half or so and went on the ground and talked to taxi cab drivers and talked to protestors in Tahrir square. That was my first international reporting trip, and I remember feeling really lucky I was able to do that and that The Story and the journalism school gave me that opportunity.
0:03:54.6 King: And I'm so glad we had the funding because it's part of what we believe in; it's really immersing our students in the real kind of experiences of work that they're going to have. Not just theoretical idea that did make a difference turn in to be on the ground to really covering a story.
0:04:11.1 Khrais: Oh yeah, for sure, yeah. And then following that, I guess after I graduated, as you mentioned, I went on into the NPR Kroc fellowship which, funny, I remember that summer, I applied to so many internships and so many opportunities, and I think the fellowship was the one thing I wanted and the one thing I didn't think I was going to get, and then I end up getting it, which is funny how that works out. But then I was in D.C. for another year or so and that was when I met another fellow MJ-school grad and Kroc Fellow, Parth Shah '15. For my fellowship, I had to rotate around NPR for a year. You do like three months of national reporting right after I graduated, I was maybe 21 or even 20 at that point, and my first assignment was a national piece for NPR which felt so intimidating at that time. But again, like I said, I felt like I had the tools and the fundamentals to be able to do that.
0:05:14.2 King: And you've already said that, that was a difference from some of the other Kroc fellows because you got such a good experience learning under Prof. Adam Hochberg. But what was that you would say helped us prepare you. Was the fact that the faculty took you seriously? Was there a fact that there was these immersive experiences? Was the fact that you had the close connection of the people on this radio program that was a weekly experience?
0:05:37.7 Reema Khrais: I mean, yeah, it was all of it. I literally can't emphasize enough how crucial Adam was or is really to my career trajectory. And I mean, I love Adam, but you know, he was also harsh. He told it how it was. If it's something that needed work, he would tell us it needed work; when something was great, he would give us affirmation. He really took his job seriously. For Adam, it was never really the idea that something is good enough — it could always be better, or you could always edit that and make that audio equality just a little bit stronger or make the writing a little bit sharper. He would sit down with you and walk you through it. And so, like I said, even though at the fellowship I remember there were other Kroc fellows who were like, "Oh, you write in this kind of way? I didn't realized that you should do it that kind of way." Essentially, in Adam, it was like we had an NPR editor working over us. And I remember being in the journalism school and I was such close friend with a couple people who are still in the public radio world right now. And now just having that network or that support network even outside of college years later, I mean, I was just texting one of my good friends who I used to host Carolina Connection with. And I was telling him about my latest stories and projects that I'm working on and went to his wedding a few months ago. I am also talking with another person who is working over at StoryCorps right now, and we talked about the project she's working on. So being able to have that network has helped me in college but also beyond.
0:07:30.7 King: But I want to ask you one thing about your experience here that's not a radio experience. You are Muslim-American, Palestinian-American and you know on campus as we're talking a lot, this year particularly, about race and diversity issues, we were all chagrined and disturbed by the way the school year opened with the events in Charlottesville and of course there's a debate here on campus around Silent Sam. What was it like to be a minority? Did you feel supported yourself? How did you deal with being the ‘other’ on campus?
0:08:04.4 Khrais: Yeah, it's so funny you say that. When I was a first year, I had no clue what I wanted to do. I joined the Muslim Students Association. I joined other sort of minority groups and made a lot of close friends that way and just observed what they are doing in terms of their career path or whatever they wanted to do. And so many of them were wanting to go to the med school or wanting to become lawyers. And so, like them, I was like, “Okay, I'll become a doctor, or I'll become a lawyer.” That is what you do, that is a stable career trajectory. And I remember — just to talk a little bit about how much representation matters. I was part of those groups and I remember there's this one student in particular who I would always see around campus lugging around like all this huge camera equipment. And she's Egyptian-American, she's also Muslim, and I remember being so confused and taken aback by the fact that she had decided to go into the journalism school, because I remember, at that point, the idea of pursuing journalism just seemed so wild to me. And not necessarily because I was taught to believe that, but it was more of just I haven't seen enough people who were doing that to make it seem like a feasible career path. And it's funny, I remember going up to her one day, and she was a junior, and I was a first- year and I was like, "can I just shadow you for a day?" And she said, "Sure, I'm actually at this radio class, I'm going to go talk to this scientist on campus and you can just come in and shadow me". And I did that one day after class, and I remember thinking it to be the coolest thing ever because it melded in so many ways all the things that I like, — public speaking and writing — and there was an element of performance to it and it's very artistic. And obviously the journalism aspect to it. And still to this day, she is a close friend of mine, and I still tell her today that I definitely thought to pursue journalism because of her. And I know I'm not completely answering your questions about what it was like to be a minority on campus, but I think it was part of the experience. You become part of this group and you know in many ways I had a good support system, I had people like her to be able to show me what is possible. And I even remember when I signed up for the journalism school, I think at that point you had to choose which path you wanted to go down. I admired her so much in what she was doing, and I was like, "hey, what is the path that you chose again, you did broadcast, right?" and she was like, "Yeah, yeah, TV and radio?" And I was like, "OK, sure." Then I signed up for that blindly. [laughter]
0:11:16.4 King: But how fantastic that it was a positive experience you know. And it makes that point that representation does make a difference so that people who hear you and know you too are not "Susan King", you know you've got a name that has some resonance that is compelling for millions who listen to Marketplace.
0:11:37.8 Khrais: Aww. Yeah. I do think, yeah, representation matters a lot. And that was part of the reason why I wanted to be able to go to journalism, too. I think I do, I mean, I think everyone can provide a different perspective. They tell me their experiences and their background, and I felt like, I could do that. Here at Marketplace, I've been spending a large time reporting on immigration issues and as a daughter of immigrants, I think I'm able to bring some nuance and understanding to the stories. And also, it's a really sensitive topic, right? And people increasingly are uncomfortable talking, especially on the radio, or putting themselves out there, so being able to relate to them in that way and sort of disarm them helps a lot. And I think it's so crucial to be able to have those kind of voices in the newsroom.
0:12:30.4 King: And also, when you were here as the Fletcher Fellow, we had such a tragedy right off campus with three of our students being murdered. And that ended up bringing you into covering that story because it was part of your community and people you know.
0:12:48.4 Khrais: Yeah. That was really tragic.
0:12:50.4 King: And how’d you cover it as someone who was also part of the community grieving?
0:12:55.3 Khrais: Yeah. Yeah, it was really difficult. You know, it’s funny, I even remember the night before or the night off actually we found out about the three Muslim-American students murdered in Chapel Hill. I remember my friend call me that night when she found out because, like you said, they were part of the community. I didn’t know them that well, but I did know of them. And I remember she told me, I remember she was like “Reema, you have to cover this.” And I remember the next day, I had to be at the legislature, and I know it sounds awful that I wondered, “I agree that we need to cover this.” And at that point, details were still coming out, but I remember thinking “will WUNC want to cover this? Will this get attention? Which is sad that I even had that thought. Then when I woke up the next morning and I got a call from NPR national, and they were like, this is a national story. At the point, it was becoming an international story, and I was on that story the next day, and I basically had to turnaround a quick story for NPR across the country. And yeah, I just remember that day specifically was just so difficult talking and processing this with all of my friends. And I remember I had a moment before I went off and did the interviews, and I had to sit in the studio and had to collect myself slowly and just sit there in silence. And then I went out, and I had to report it like you report any other story and sort of remove your emotions in that moment, but also you know, similar to what I was saying earlier because I am part of the community, I think there was an element of trust and trust that I would be able to represent them fairly and to represent the stories fairly and to honor their memory. Yeah, it was a difficult time for everyone.
0:15:00.2 King: Absolutely. But it’s also a moment when you know that you’ve been called to this — this moment and you have to live up to the moment of the profession and the people you love. So, where do you go from here? Do you have a sort of sense of your next ten years?
0:15:18.2 Khrais: Wow, big question. I love radio. I love it a lot, and I think six years ago, I would’ve said that I wanted in this position and now I feel really grateful for that and that I am here reporting for national public radio program. You know, still just getting better and learning, trying to do my job better than the day before. But I love radio, I think I could see myself doing it for another five years. With the boom in podcast — I mean we’re doing a podcast right now — that’s also an interest of mine, being able or work on a podcast one day. So yeah, I see myself staying in radio. If I do leave, I’ll probably go to the more digital side, but I think you know, as you know more than anyone, all this is molding. So who knows which job will be out there. But definitely I’ll be going to stay in journalism. I can’t see myself doing anything else.
0:16:20.4 King: And journalism is worth your best efforts in my estimation. Of course, I am prejudiced, and journalism is an important profession. And I will be remiss for not saying that you won two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for the coverage of that tragedy here in Chapel Hill. And that’s also an important note that was recognized for the quality of the work under you. And we’re very proud of where you are. I’m very proud that our students can reach this. Look forward to talking to you maybe in six more years to find where you are. But thanks for being with us, Reema.
0:16:53.3 Khrais: Thank you so much for having me, I really appreciate it.