Award-winning broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien has built a career that inspires many young women who aim to one day follow in her footsteps. Now, she’s helping to shine a deserving light on others who have served as mentors for young people in their communities as host of the PBS American Graduate Day broadcast.
The latest installemnt of the American Graduate Day series will aim to raise awareness around high school graduation, as well as the power of mentorship and representation for young people in communities of color.
“I think the American Graduate Day series is one of the rare opportunities that you get to highlight people who are doing amazing things and helping young people make sure that they get through high school,” Soledad tells ESSENCE. “And then, for those who want to go to college, helping them figure out the path to college. It’s very critical and I don’t think we spend a lot of time honoring those people and highlighting them and explaining what they do to be successful. So, truly, American Graduate Day is one of my favorite projects because we just spend the entire time saying, ‘Thanks and here’s how they did it and here’s what they do.'”
Speaking on what she believes to be the most valuable benefit of mentorship for young people, the Harvard University grad cites the undeniable impact of representation.
“What we’ve certainly found with the young women that we’ve sponsored through my foundation, PowHERful, is that a lot of what young people need is just a role model and an example of someone saying, ‘Yes, it is doable.’ Or even confirmation that yes, even this person had to work a couple of jobs to get through college,” she says. “It’s sort of a variation on the idea that you can’t be it if you don’t see it and this idea that people need to see some sort of success in front of them so that they can understand that what they’re working towards is possible to achieve. So I think without that mentor, that can be very challenging.”
She has also found that the best mentorship lessons come by way of advice and guidance based on the goals and aspirations of the mentee, rather than advice based solely on what the mentor thinks the need is initially.
“One thing I think mentors do really well is give advice. It’s not about talking someone into going to college. It’s more like, ‘What skills do you need for this thing you think you want to do?’ That’s the much smarter question. When I started my company, I wish I would have had some accounting skills. I wish I would have taken some time off to learn basic accounting 101, which I ended up having to learn on the fly with my own money.”
With 30 years of experience under her belt and an impressive resume to rival the best of them that includes notable careers with networks like CNN, NBC and HBO, Soledad has long solidified herself as a trailblazer for women in and women of color in media. Asked if she believes it’s better to fight for “a seat at the table” or build your own table, she says she whole-heartedly believes there’s value in one that enhances the other all the more.
“As a person who has built her own table with 30 years in the business, I found that having a seat at other tables was really helpful at making me successful in building my own business. You don’t have to pick between one or the other. I think there are tons of entrepreneurs who worked somewhere else or worked for someone and then said, ‘Ok, now I can take this expertise and go elsewhere.’ When I look at news, it’s really helpful to work in a big corporation, sometimes just to see exactly what the limitations are.”
It’s no secret that today’s young people have the world at their fingertips when it comes to choosing a career path. While earlier generations were taught that a college education was the only pathway to true career success, Soledad is confident that the broadcast will also help shine a light on the importance of being open to learning throughout life, no matter which path a young person may choose.
“I think there are options [outside of a college education] that are all still education,” she adds. “I really don’t think you can get through life with a high school diploma because you’re always going to be learning more. Even on the job, you’ll likely have to take some kind of a training class because that’s how jobs are today. Very few jobs at any level are going to say, ‘Yep, you’re done. You’re ready to go and you shall never again have to think about learning.’ I think one of the things that more young people need to recognize is that it really is about a lifetime of learning. So, a lot of what high school has to tee you up for is being able to learn. The job you have your first year out of high school may very likely not have anything to do with the job you will have three jobs in, which is a good, exciting thing. So, I think it is about education but, it’s also about being open to being educated whether you go to college or not.”
One of many highlights of the broadcast, Soledad says, will be the opportunity to see the remarkable hard work put in by several organizations who are working hard to change the workforce landscape for the better.
“We talk to a number of different organizations during the program and most people are thinking about workforce development. How do we make sure that everybody has the opportunity to fully partake in the workforce, if they’re able to and they want to? How do you break down some of those barriers? Employers today feel comfortable with what they know, they hire what they know has worked and breaking them out of that to hire something else that could be interesting to you, I think that could be very exciting. So, we’re going to profile some folks who are really changing their mission to focus on that and I think it’s such a great idea because it’s so critical.”
Most of all, Soledad is confident that the American Graduate Day broadcast will do an amazing job of celebrating a few mentors whose resilience has helped provide a clear pathway for other young people as they begin taking the steps towards building their futures.
“I’ve been in television for 30 years and outside of this broadcast, I’ve never done a program where we have celebrated people who really do the hard work; the people who very rarely hear someone stand up and say, ‘Thank you so much, we genuinely could not do this without you. People who show that resilience and flexibility are truly the keys to success.”
The American Graduate Day broadcast airs Saturday, October 14 from 2PM – 6PM EST on PBS.