Lester Holt’s journey as a journalist started at Sac State

Lester Holt is one of the world’s most respected broadcast journalists – and it all began for him at Sacramento State. He became a better student, he says, and made the decision to become a journalist while at the University. “It set me off into the world.”

He still considers himself a student – “and my finals are every night at 6:30 Eastern time when I get in front of the camera.”

Holt, 58, anchors both NBC Nightly News and Dateline NBC. As a TV journalist, he has covered some of the world’s biggest stories, including the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil leak, the lead-up to the Iraq War, and two hurricanes.

In 2016, he was named as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, and he became the first African American to moderate a general-election presidential debate in nearly a quarter-century. In 2015, he was inducted into the California Hall of Fame, in Sacramento.

A few months earlier, during Sacramento State’s Spring 2015 Commencement ceremonies at Sleep Train Arena, Holt’s alma mater and the California State University Board of Trustees recognized his many achievements by conferring on him an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. His wife, Carol, and his parents, June and Lester Sr., who still live in the Sacramento area, were in the audience.

“I am honored, and I certainly accept this degree with deep gratitude,” said Holt, who noted that his father also attended – and graduated from – Sacramento State. “I am so proud to be and (to) have been associated with this university.”

Holt, a graduate of Cordova High School in Rancho Cordova, was a government major and left Sacramento State during his junior year to take a job at a San Francisco radio station. Within 18 months, he landed a position at the CBS-TV affiliate in New York City and was on his way to becoming one of the nation’s most highly regarded broadcast journalists.

“I began with dreams of being a big-time disc jockey, but it was at Sac State that I was exposed to journalism, and it was there that my interest and my focus really narrowed in on becoming a news person,” Holt said in accepting his honorary degree. “There have been many times … that I wished I had completed my formal studies, but I hold my head high, and I accept that things happen for a reason.”

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President Robert S. Nelsen with NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt during Holt’s Jan. 17, 2017, visit to the Sacramento State campus. (Sacramento State/Rob Neep)

Holt came “home” to Sac State again in January 2017, stopping by the campus for a quick visit, arriving in a modest rental car he drove himself. A day earlier, in Old Sacramento, he interviewed graduate students Ahlam Abdul-Rahman and Norma Mendoza as a part of a national discussion on immigration in the days leading up to the presidential inauguration. Sacramento was the first stop on his “Across America” series for NBC Nightly News.

The big news in the Holt household these days is the impending arrival of Carol and Lester’s first grandchild. Their son Stefan and his wife, Morgan, are expecting their baby in September.

Former associate dean and commercial co-star among seven alumni to be honored

Remember this Sacramento State commercial from 2013? Recognize the man in the green robe? It’s none other than Sac State alum, longtime professor and former associate dean of the College of Arts and Letters, Kimo Ah Yun ’90 (Communication Studies).

Why the throwback? Ah Yun is one of several impressive Sacramento State graduates who will be honored April 20 during the Distinguished Alumni Awards, which honor community and industry leaders for their contributions to Sacramento State and the community.

In addition to Ah Yun, who now is dean of the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University, five other Hornets will receive Distinguished Service Awards:

  • Kraig Clark ’91 (Accountancy): Founder of JLM Energy and eScreen Logic
  • Carol Garcia ’08 (Family and Consumer Sciences): Senior Vice President of Community 1st Bank
  • Gilbert Herdt, MA ’72 (Anthropology): Clinical and cultural anthropologist specializing in human sexuality
  • Andrei Tokmakoff ’98 (Chemistry): Henry G. Gale Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Chicago
  • Angelo Williams, MA ’06 (Education), MA ’07 (Higher Education Leadership), Ed.D. ’10: Director of Community Engagement and Mobilization for the California Black Health Network

In addition, Ryan Harrison, MS ’11 (Criminal Justice) will receive the Rising Star Award, given to a graduate of Sacramento State to have received his or her first Sac State degree since 2006. Harrison is a principal human resources consultant for the California Senate Rules Committee.

Learn more about each of this year’s Distinguished Alumni Award winners at csus.edu/news/articles/2017/4/18/sac-state-to-honor-seven-with-distinguished-alumni-awards. To learn more about the awards and see past winners, visit csus.edu/alum/programs/daa.

And if the above video has you pumped for Commencement, you can learn more about the event at csus.edu/commencement.

Washington Post reporter says Sac State student newspaper ‘got me out of my shell’

Washington Post reporter Kristine Phillips got her start in journalism as a member of Sacramento State’s student newspaper, The State Hornet. Photo: Danese Kenon/Indianapolis Star

When Kristine Phillips ’10 (Journalism) arrived as a student at Sacramento State in 2008, just two years removed from immigrating to the United States from the Philippines, she was admittedly shy and self-conscious about her English. That changed when she took a couple of journalism classes, which led her to join the student newspaper, The State Hornet.

“I met people with the same interest in journalism, people my age, and that got me out of my shell,” Phillips says.

Today, she is a general assignment reporter at the Washington Post, covering everything from immigration to politics to crime. Most recently, she has written about Taiwan banning the eating of cats and dogs, the Anne Frank Center’s response to White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s comments about Adolf Hitler, a gun rights bill passed in Iowa, and an 11-year-old boy who killed himself after his girlfriend faked her death.

Phillips, who previously worked at the Indianapolis Star and the Oregonian, says that while the general assignment beat can be challenging because she often is learning on the go about the topics and issues she covers, she appreciates the opportunity to work at one of the country’s most prestigious newspapers.

“I love coming to work knowing that I’m surrounded by talented people, people who are basically at the top of their career,” she says. “I work in the same building as people who are the best in their field.”

She also is working at a time of immense change in the journalism industry. The expansion of digital and social media channels means her story is not intended just for print audiences. The video, social media, graphic and digital teams all will look at what components can be added or how else it can be shared. For that reason, she encourages current journalism students to learn as many skills as possible.

Something else that has changed is a presidential administration that is openly hostile to journalists and a political climate in which distrust of the news media is high. Most reporters are accustomed to getting criticism or “hate mail,” but as a woman of color, Phillips must also deal with uglier messages filled with racist and sexist remarks.

“Sometimes I just have to get away from my computer and get away from everything, gather my thoughts,” she says. “But after a while, you learn to not let it get to you, because these are people who don’t really know you, so why let them affect how you feel?”

In addition to diversifying their skill set, Phillips says current journalism students should try to get as much practical experience as possible, whether it is by working for the student newspaper as she did or by landing internships.

“Editors care less about where you graduated or what your GPA is,” she says. “They care more about the work you’ve done so far and the quality of clips you can provide.”

Through it all – the hate mail, the learning on the go, the 12-hour days that mean most of her spare time is spent catching up on sleep – Phillips looks to her mother, who came to the United States ahead of the rest of her family, for inspiration.

“She was the breadwinner of the family, and she moved to the United States to support us so we were able to go to good schools,” she says. “She spent several years separated from her children to work, and I don’t think that’s something that anyone would have the strength to do. I wouldn’t be where I am now if my mom didn’t make it possible or give me the opportunities to do it.”