College honors NPR reporter

NPR Foreign Correspondent Nelson delivers her acceptance speech.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson flew back to Cairo, Egypt from Tunisia the night before the revolution broke out in January 2011. When tens of thousands gathered in Tahrir Square to protest then-President Hosni Mubarak and his government, she was there as a foreign correspondent to National Public Radio (NPR), bringing the story from the thick of things to living rooms and cars across the United States.

Nelson has made a name for herself as an authority on the Arab world and as a brave female reporter with a gift for bringing the human element of the story to the forefront. The intrepid journalist made a big impact on the Hill, too, where she was honored with the prestigious Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award for her courageous journalism. On Sunday, Oct. 16, the College presented Nelson with the award and conferred upon her an honorary doctor of laws degree. She spoke to a full audience in Lorimer Chapel, moving her listeners to a standing ovation with her humor, insights and incredible stories of reporting from the front line.

Since 1952, the College has annually honored the memory of Elijah Parish Lovejoy, Class of 1826, through the award. Lovejoy lost his life condemning slavery in his editorials—the newspaper editor died in 1837 trying to save his printing press from a pro-slavery mob, becoming the first martyr to freedom of the press in the United States. The award’s website states that it seeks “to honor and preserve the memory of Elijah Parish Lovejoy; to stimulate and honor the kind of achievement embodied in Lovejoy’s own courageous actions and to promote a sense of mutual responsibility and cooperation between a journalistic world devoted to freedom of the press and a liberal arts college devoted to academic freedom.”

Though Nelson is the 59th Lovejoy Award recipient, she is the first broadcast journalist to win. In recognition of the ever-changing nature of the media, the Lovejoy Selection Committee decided to extend the award beyond the realm of print journalism.

In his warm introduction, President William “Bro” Adams said, “Extraordinary commitment and courage in the face of terrifying danger are Elijah Parish Lovejoy’s legacy. Tonight we draw a line from Lovejoy to Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. Like Lovejoy, she is undeterred. She is our eyes, our ears and at times our conscience, showing us the human faces of soldiers and civilians, women and men, Americans and Afghans and Arabs.”

Nelson said part of what makes an excellent journalist is passion, and she has a lot of it. Now based in Cairo, the former print journalist joined NPR in 2006 to open its Kabul Bureau, because she said she “fell in love with the Afghan people” when she first reported there for the Los Angeles Times in 2001. “There’s such a spirit about them,” she said. With only one month of training for radio under her belt, Nelson flew out to Kabul, alone. NPR “threw me in the deep end,” she said, and she had a choice: sink or swim. But with her drive and spirit, and with the incredible support from her family and colleagues, Nelson was more than ready for the challenge. There were bumps in the road, but within six months, she really hit her stride with radio reporting, and she said it felt so good—it was as if she were in Disneyland.

She reported from the infamous Rixos Hotel under Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Tripoli, Libya, describing her time there as “a surreal, Orwellian experience in a five-star setting.”

“While NATO bombs rained down around us, our hosts held rambling press conferences at the hotel offering their version of events,” she told the Lovejoy audience on Sunday. A Libyan spokesman “denied the rebels were gaining ground. ‘All Libyans love Gaddafi,’ he would say. Graffiti spray-painted on walls near the hotel was supposed to drive that point home.”

Indeed, her Convocation speech read like a dispatch from abroad. Through her stories, Nelson walked the audience through the Arab Spring—the series of revolutions that have been lighting up the Arab World since January of this year—which she witnessed firsthand. Later in her visit to campus, she said her experience has been, “very intense…and it’s been brilliant to see the biggest story in the world unfold in front of you.”

Although she is incredibly well versed in the politics and history of the conflicted region, it is when she talks about the human element that Nelson’s eyes light up and she leans forward. One of the things she finds most compelling about journalism is the act of sharing people’s stories, of bringing worlds together—“stories not about the machinations of politics but of the tragedies and triumphs of the people living in an unstable world,” she said.

She said she feels continuously inspired by those she meets overseas. In particular, Nelson said that the Saudi women she has met and reported on have stuck with her.

The fast-paced speaker slowed down, reflecting on the women who put everything on the line to fight for a vote in Saudi Arabia. Her voice grew louder when she said, “the excitement, the fear, the trepidation, the raw emotion of trying to be people, with things that we take for granted.” Though the women did not get their vote, the Saudi King promised that women will vote in the next election, and their bravery, Nelson said, “took my breath away.”

Indeed, “many obstacles confront women in the Middle East, and Ms. Nelson has had her fair share. At the same time, unlike her male counterparts, she has access to women’s circles and to the work and long untold stories of those women,” Adams said as he introduced Nelson on Sunday.

Radio, in particular, lends itself to storytelling, which has given her the ability to bring a three-dimensional story across the Atlantic to listeners in the United States. “Like a photographer, it’s very much about the moment. If you miss the moment, you miss the story,” she said. “You try to make a point of trying to get as many voices and sounds as you can.”

She often has feared for her life in her line of work. “I’ve thought I’ve met my maker,” she said. To cope, she prays: “I find that gives me strength.”

In her speech, Nelson spoke highly of her peers, her fellow Western journalists struggling to tell the story in a place where they are fed biased, exaggerated information: “Most of us try and emulate the journalistic tradition of commitment and courage that Elijah Parish Lovejoy set the standard for. But in many places the dangers of doing so are as great now as they were during his time,” she said.
“The fact that I still feel so passionate about the journalism, about the story-telling…it hasn’t dried up.…It really is something that requires a full-on commitment.”

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson was joined on the Hill by her husband Erik Nelson, also a journalist. After the Lovejoy Convocation and dinner on Sunday, Oct. 16, the pair stayed on campus through the beginning of the week, visiting classes and meeting with students and faculty. The Lovejoy Award is made possible through the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement and through the hard work of the Lovejoy Selection Committee, a group comprised of highly esteemed journalists, trustees and other College officials.