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Lisa Ling Expands the Conversation

One of higher education’s most crucial roles, believes television journalist Ling, is engaging students in the global community. Ling shares her world view at the NACUBO 2010 Annual Meeting in July.

By Bill Lohmann

*At age 16 when most teens are focused on matters such as acquiring a driver's license, Lisa Ling landed a job in television. By 21, she was a TV war correspondent, covering civil unrest in Afghanistan.

Lisa Ling will speak at the NACUBO 2010 Annual Meeting in the closing general session, Tuesday, July 27, 10:30 a.m.-noon.

In two decades in television, Ling has reported on complex social issues around the world in sometimes dangerous places, worked with Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey, and had tea with the Dalai Lama.

“I have a very unconventional job description,” Ling said in a telephone interview from her home in Los Angeles. “But I have to say, I kind of willed it into existence.”

Ling will speak about the stories she's covered and how they've shaped her world view as a keynote speaker at NACUBO's annual meeting in San Francisco in July.

“My hope is to take people along on a journey and provoke them to think about things they might not otherwise have thought about before,” said Ling. Her family was in the news in 2009 when her sister, Laura—also a television correspondent—was detained, along with another journalist, for five months in North Korea before being released.

The Value of Cultural Exposure

Ling said her experience has taught her the value of visiting places and meeting people that expand her knowledge and broaden her understanding of what goes on in the greater world. She has shined a light on serious social issues that remain in the shadows for many Americans: drug trafficking in Colombia, gang rape in the Congo, and bride-burning in India. She has reported from war-torn Iraq, examined China's one-child policy, and investigated the phenomenon of female suicide bombers. She has explored the culture inside U.S. prisons and MS-13, considered by some the world's most dangerous gang. Poverty has been a major focus of her coverage—homelessness, too.

Engaging young people in social activism is a way to address these issues, and she believes one of higher education's most crucial roles is to encourage students to become acquainted with the world at large through travel.

“To me, it seems students these days go to school with the intention of getting a job rather than trying to become more well-rounded,” she said. “I guarantee if students immerse themselves in another culture for a reasonably extended period of time ... they will have a plethora of jobs to choose from because they will have learned skills they just could not learn in the classroom.

“If students have the opportunities to be exposed to other cultures, it really widens their perspective so much. It gives them a deeper ability to communicate. You become more well-versed and more well-rounded. I can tell the difference between a student who has spent time overseas and one who hasn't. It's a game-changer to me.”

Ling's own higher education experience is an unusual story. She attended the University of Southern California but did not graduate because she was working for Channel One News, a news network for teens that had her traveling the globe on assignments.

“I would never undermine the importance of getting a college degree or pursuing higher education,” said Ling, who grew up in Northern California and whose first TV job came as host of Scratch, a nationally syndicated teen magazine show. “But I had the kind of job that was sending me all over the world covering stories. It was really like graduate school.

“Once you get that opportunity as a young person,” she said of traveling to places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and China, “it stays with you. It's hard to turn your back on these things and pretend they don't exist in the world.”

Passion Leads to Fulfillment

Ling has succeeded—from a remarkably young age—in a business dominated by white males. How? Ambition and passion.

The ambition, a little blind at first, came easily. As a teen, she viewed television as a high-profile way to lift herself economically. It wasn't until she started working in the business and traveling and reporting that she discovered what she really liked about the job: “I just wanted to tell stories.”

“If people are interested in pursuing journalism to become rich and famous, they're in the wrong line of work,” she said. “But if they're truly passionate about telling stories and learning new things, there's no better job.

“Honestly, the most successful people are the people who follow their passions. They don't follow the dollar.”

Ling said young people should be encouraged to take risks and follow their passions. Those passions don't always lead to a successful career, but the time to find out is when you're young because, she said, “When you're young, failure doesn't hurt as much.”

Ling is not familiar with that sort of failure, but she has not stood still, taking on a variety of jobs over the years with a variety of outlets: cohost of ABC Daytime's The View, field correspondent for The Oprah Winfrey Show, contributor to ABC News' Nightline and National Geographic's Explorer, special correspondent for CNN's Planet in Peril series and contributing editor for USA Today's USA Weekend magazine. She describes herself as “a really, really good multitasker”—which is a good thing, considering her schedule.

“I'm constantly working on many different kinds of projects,” she said. “There will be weeks when I'm on the road, and weeks when I'm at home. I just don't know when those weeks will be. It keeps things interesting.”

Volunteerism 101

Recently, she's helped start a nonprofit organization, iVolunteer.org, that helps connect those interested in volunteering with opportunities in their communities. It's aimed particularly at people with busy schedules who have time to help but not enough time to investigate various organizations and their needs.

She believes volunteerism should “go hand-in-hand with higher education,” and she thinks some form of volunteerism should be compulsory in college. She also believes that notion fits nicely with what she sees of the younger generation.

“I think young people are more socially engaged ... and it's incumbent upon the younger generation that is already thinking in a more social way to be at the forefront of the change that needs to happen,” she said, noting students already are the leaders in using social media for networking and organizing.

Homelessness is a major focus of Ling's both in her reporting and in her private support. She is troubled by recent trends in the homeless population, including those who are homeless for the first time and those with young children. But as often happens in journalism, Ling has discovered inspiration among the misery.

“I've been doing a lot of stories about homelessness lately, and I find these are often people with the greatest amount of hope,” she said. “I've found that so many people who have found themselves homeless for the first time are actually starting to think about the way they live and things that are important in life.

“As challenging as these times have been, I think we're learning some lessons we should have been implementing in our lives.”

She applauds President Obama's call for America to have the world's highest proportion of college graduates by 2020, but she's not optimistic that will come to pass. She fears education is taking a back seat in budgets to war and other agenda items. She is, however, bullish on programs such as AmeriCorps, in which participants earn money to cover college tuition or pay back school loans in exchange for community service.

“Contributing to communities that are in such disrepair in order to secure funding for university,” Ling said, “I think that's such a great idea.”

Move the Conversation Forward

Where will we see Ling next? Though Ling has high expectations for her career, she steers away from setting specific goals.

“I try to really relish the here and now,” she said. “I feel really lucky to be doing the kinds of things I'm doing and want to continue as long as I can.”

Though well-known because of her high-profile assignments, Ling said she doesn't consider herself a celebrity. What she does appreciate, though, is the favorable responses she receives from viewers.

“I think people respond because I present stories in a way perhaps they haven't thought about,” she said. “That's really gratifying to think I expanded the conversation a little bit.”

BILL LOHMANN, Richmond, Virginia, is a columnist and feature writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.