Persistence and drive will win the race for you

Susan Snyder (center) celebrates with other members of The Inquirer news staff after learning that the series she had worked on concerning violence in Philadelphia schools had won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in April. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Susan Snyder (center) celebrates with other members of The Inquirer news staff after learning that the series she had worked on concerning violence in Philadelphia schools had won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in April. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 11, 2012

These are excerpts from a commencement speech given on May 12 at Indiana University of Pennsylvania's journalism department, of which Susan Snyder is a 1985 graduate.

The theme of my speech is simple: Anything is possible if you care enough, if you work very hard, and if you persist.

I don't come from an affluent family. I was the first person in my family — and, ultimately, the only person — to graduate from college.

I didn't score well on my SATs — that revered predictor of college success. I still remember my lowly score because it used to haunt me — 970. At that time, there was no writing portion, so it was 970 out of a possible 1600.

But what I've learned in this life is that another measure is far more important than the SAT scores that tend to label you as a teenager.

Heart.

That is: How much do you want to succeed?

How hard will you work for that success?

Will you persist even in your darkest moments?

On that particular scale — the scale of the heart, that is — I earned a 1600, a perfect score.

And it was with that score in mind that I embarked on my career as a journalist.

There I was, with a journalism degree and a head full of dreams about how I wanted to change the world, how I wanted to move the masses by telling the most important stories of the day. I must say, Randy Jesick, Pat Heilman, and my other IUP professors prepared me well and taught me early on the importance of taking my class assignments seriously — as seriously as if the stories I wrote would wind up being published in the local newspaper. And indeed, by the time I graduated from IUP, I had two series published in local newspapers, one on civil defense and the other on trends in elementary education.

The Pulitzer wasn't even a goal on the distant horizon. I just wanted a job, to get paid to do what I love, success by any definition.

My dream was to work for my hometown newspaper, the Allentown Morning Call, the paper I had delivered when I was in high school. I walked the streets of my neighborhood during those dark, quiet mornings, dreaming and hoping that one day I'd work at the Call.

And, eventually, I would get to the Morning Call and spend nine rewarding years covering the very schools I had attended, reporting and writing about how to make those institutions better.

But the only job I could get upon graduation was at a little weekly newspaper in Cooperstown, N.Y. So I moved there, and lived right across the street from the Baseball Hall of Fame. I was the only reporter at that paper, the Freeman's Journal, and I did absolutely everything — took the pictures, covered the village board meetings and school board meetings, helped lay out the pages, even covered high school sports.

I soon discovered that all-nighters were not just for college students.

My annual salary was $10,400.

I furnished my apartment with lawn chairs.

And so the dream began.

But journalism is more a passion than a profession, and early on — until I paid my dues — I knew it would feed the soul more than the stomach.

My soul has lived large.

I've had the chance to tell the stories of many courageous people: like the 7-year-old girl who inspired everyone around her as she fought bone cancer, aided by her fierce belief in God. That was the first time I spent months on a story, truly getting to know the girl and her family.

Amber eventually died, and the story was among the hardest I ever had to write. I can still say that 24 years later. I had to leave the newsroom and sit in an isolated office as I composed the story on deadline, the tears flowing almost as fast as the words.

But most important over my 27-year career, I've had the chance to make a difference, just as I hoped — perhaps no more so than over the last two years as part of the Inquirer team on school violence.

There were many late nights, many sleepless nights, times when I had to miss family functions, emotionally grueling moments.

There were times when we couldn't possibly see how the stories would unfold or how we would get all the information we needed.

But then we thought about Tamika, a brave, resilient 12-year-old girl who had been assaulted in a school cafeteria.

I'll never forget sitting on the couch beside Tamika in her home when she told me and colleague Kristen Graham about the cafeteria attack, where students wedged their hands under her shirt, tried to fondle her breasts, the assault so scarring, so traumatizing, that she thought of killing herself.

She told us: "It made me feel like: End it all right there."

Because of stories like that, we knew we had to keep going.

The School District, along with city and state officials, finally took action.

The district created a special committee on safety. The state appointed a safe schools advocate to help victims of violence in the Philadelphia schools. Students like Tamika and her family now have someone to turn to.

It was mid-March when rumors started spreading that our project was a finalist for the Pulitzer in public service, considered the most prestigious award in journalism.

On Monday morning, April 16, my colleague Jeff Gammage called me at home. He said our editor had asked our colleague John Sullivan — another reporter on the project, who had since left the paper and city — to fly to Philadelphia as soon as possible.

Then it hit me.

Oh, my God, they think we won.

We might actually win.

As I stood in my apartment, I thought of my days here at IUP.

I thought of Amber.

I thought of Tamika.

I thought of those dark, quiet mornings as a high school kid with a bad SAT score and very big dreams.

At 3:05 p.m., it became official. We had won the Pulitzer. The Super Bowl of journalism.

I'll never forget that moment. It changed me.

It was the moment the world became ever so smaller and my arms ever so longer.

It was the moment that I truly learned that anything — any dream — is within reach.

For all of us in the 1600 club.

And today, I invite each and every one of you to join me.

Contact Susan Snyder at ssnyder@phillynews.com or 215-854-4693.

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