Phillip Jackson, a rising senior at Hampton University, used to write short stories and comic books he shared with classmates. In April, he found himself with other students — this time interviewing President Obama at the Inaugural White House College Reporter Day.
Jackson, web editor at Hampton’s student newspaper, The Hampton Script, is completing his degree in journalism. He certainly added some nice resume fodder with the visit to the White House.
“When I found out that I was chosen I was extremely excited,” Jackson said via email. “I immediately told my parents and my girlfriend that I would be making my way to the White House. I made traveling arrangements and bought a new suit and shoes, and read as many stories pertaining to the Obama administration and college tuition as possible.”
Before the trip to the White House, Jackson’s biggest thrill in journalism was a story he wrote about civil rights activist Gloria Richardson. He admits that being part of a student press corps interviewing President Obama was off the charts — even better than meeting the First Dogs, Sunny and Bo — another highlight of the trip.
“The day was very long and also interesting,” Jackson said. “I felt as if I was a real reporter, almost a White House correspondent. Experiences like this help me prepare for what I want to do in the future.”
Jackson said he applied for the event after finding out about it through the National Association of Black Journalists. He estimated that eight African-American students participated.
“The group of students could have been more diverse,” he said. “There were at least four to five HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) students including myself and three African-American students from predominantly white institutions. Other than that, at least 20 of the other college reporters were Caucasian.”
A leg up like this is especially needed for journalists of color. Jackson points out that the lack of diversity in newsrooms is problematic.
“The journalism field as a whole is not easy,” Jackson said. “You have to set yourself apart from others. And with diversity, there is not enough diversity in newsrooms and I have seen this with internships and fellowships that I have received. You can see this in certain headlines in stories and conversation on social media over controversial wording in reporting. If there was more diversity, there would be certain people in the newsroom to tell people what is right and what is wrong.”
Jackson said he engaged in valuable networking. During the breaks from meetings with administration officials the students vowed to stay in touch.
“I made great friends,” Jackson said. “That’s one of the most important things for young black journalists to do, especially while in college. Building our network and encouraging each other helps us become better reporters and open to more opportunities.”
The chance to interview President Obama was completely unexpected, Jackson said. The students originally thought they would only meet with other administration officials. Near the end of the one-day event, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest addressed the students — and then President Obama strolled into the room and offered to take some questions.
“I always thought I would have a chance to interview Barack Obama, but I never thought it would happen while in my junior year in college,” Jackson said. “It is something I will never forget.”
Jackson said the incredible experience cemented his interest in journalism.
“My biggest takeaway from the day was that this is not the end,” he said. “All of the work and experience that I have done so far helped me with gaining this opportunity. Now it is time for me to work even harder as I am going forward towards graduating from Hampton University.”