I AM PTK: Alumnus and Journalist John Sepulvado

Alumnus John Sepulvado hosts The California Report at San Francisco-based National Public Radio Station KQED. He previously served as host/executive producer of Weekend Edition at Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Sepulvado has earned four prestigious Edward R. Murrow Awards and has received Public Radio News awards for investigative reporting, and he helped CNN take home a Peabody Award for coverage of the 2010 Gulf Oil spill. But now we’ve turned the tables, and he takes time to answer our questions.

Q: Why did you decide to attend community college?

A: It was a necessity. I have two children who are almost grown now, but at the time, they were very young. Their mom and I wanted to do something with our lives and knew education was key. I was accepted to two universities, but Tallahassee Community College offered daycare, academic counseling, financial aid — what we needed to get where we wanted to go.

Q: How did you first learn about Phi Theta Kappa?

A: I had a professor that I’m still friends with — Dr. Tom Waller, who taught sociology. He suggested I get into the honors program and PTK. He said it would open doors for me, that I would find it stimulating.

Q: Did you benefit from being a member?

A: It helped me keep my grades up. At times, I thought I might slack — I was tired, but I wanted to be a leader in my school and be recognized for my grades. I graduated with a 3.8 GPA.

PTK exposed me to different ideas. It was the only extracurricular thing I did, but it really expanded my world. We watched foreign films, we discussed Cuban politics — we did all kinds of activities. At the time, I was working at the Olive Garden. I was thankful for the job, but it’s hard to be intellectually stimulated by offering people all-you-can-eat soup, salad and breadsticks.

Q: Did you always know you wanted to be a journalist?

A: I didn’t think I could ever be one, but from a young age I liked writing. I liked going places. I’m curious to the point that I got into a lot of trouble. I questioned everything. I never accepted the standard answer. It was considered antisocial, but in the field, it is standard. Journalism has saved my life.

Q: What career path did you follow?

A: I’m originally from California, and the place I grew up in was not one where you went to college. The three ways you got out of the neighborhood were to get a state job, join the Navy or go to prison. My mom said I should get a state job, but I lucked out. I got a journalism job by accident and hung on tightly. I moved to Florida, but the newspaper I worked for was sold.

At TCC I had a friend who knew someone in public radio, who, coincidentally, also had a friend who worked at Olive Garden. I came in as a news writer for $7 an hour, working as a fact-checker for the news anchor.

I was working there during the 2004 presidential election between George W. Bush and John Kerry. After what had happened with Bush and Gore four years earlier, everyone was watching Florida. So, I just hung out, put in a lot of hours, learned how to voice and eventually got hired by the Tampa station, which is a Top 20 market. I had a brief stint at CNN, but other than that I’ve been at NPR stations. I don’t think I’ll ever leave public media.

Q: Do you have any advice for our current members who may want to pursue a career in journalism?

A: It’s helpful if you have an idea of what you want to do. Knowing that helped people get me where I needed to go. Look at your passions and be unabashed in pursuing them. If you put your mind to it, the support network at the community college will get you there. Figure out how to shape your intellectual experiences around your passions rather than thinking about money.

Q: Do you feel you’re making a difference with the work you’re doing?

A: I am in journalism because of people like me. I was one of four kids of a single mom living in a mobile home park. She struggled to feed us mac and cheese. We were not brown enough, not white enough — not represented. When I was growing up, I loved Peter Jennings (longtime anchor of ABC World News Tonight), but he wasn’t talking with people like me.

What I try to do is represent those who don’t have a seat at the table — homeless kids, those who’ve gotten cancer from power plants, parents who’ve had a child killed at daycare and don’t know what to do. I really care about the stories of those who don’t have a lot of power. The first step in taking away a person’s power is to dehumanize them. We have to humanize everyone if civil society is going to exist.

Q: What’s your favorite story that you’ve covered?

A: I covered the militant takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. I didn’t necessarily agree with what they did, but I thought it was important to look at who they are, why they did it, and present them as human beings.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?

A: I want to thank my community college and Tom Waller. Even though he was a sociology professor, he taught me more about journalism than anyone else. He taught me how to recognize the humanity and the flaws of human beings. I still think about what I learned from him. I was lucky to have a professor who, at that critical time, was able to take me from a knucklehead-know-it-all to a focused and serious person.

Some people think that community college teachers are less qualified than others, but in fact, the opposite is true. And they don’t do it for recognition, they do it because they care.

Sepulvado encourages members interested in journalism to reach out to him on Twitter @JohnLGC.

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