At a Tuesday talk, author Sheryl WuDunn opened with humor.
“I planned every single second of my life,” WuDunn quipped, and then proceeded to recount the various unforeseen shifts that shaped her career. During the Timothy Dwight Master’s Tea, titled “A Path Appears: Why Should We Change the World?”, the writer emphasized the importance of seizing life’s chances as they come, even if they diverge from one’s projected plans. WuDunn was the first Asian-American winner of the Pulitzer Prize, which she received in 1990 with her husband Nicholas Kristof for their coverage of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Currently a business executive, lecturer and writer, she most recently won the Visionary Leadership Award at New Haven’s annual International Festival of Arts and Ideas, given to “a leader whose trailblazing work is impacting the world,” according to the foundation’s website.
The writer opened her talk with discussion of her initial plans to study medicine at Cornell, before noting that she ultimately majored in European history. After graduation, she began a career in banking, an experience she said proved valuable insofar as it taught her about “the real world and how it works.” After a period as a banker, she moved to China with her husband, using the trip as an opportunity to explore her long-standing interest in journalism. While in Beijing, WuDunn began working for The New York Times, reporting on the beginnings of democratic change in a then-communist China.
While traveling in China’s countryside to research the spread of urban democratic movements into rural areas, WuDunn and Kristof discovered that the country’s one-child policy and emphasis on male children led to a missing population of females — baby girls’ births were going unreported, accounting for around 30 million “missing” females. Investigating this phenomenon worldwide, WuDunn and Kristof later discovered an estimated 60 to 100 million missing women and girls, which led them to write “Half the Sky,” a best-selling book that incited global awareness about women’s rights.
“We wanted to focus on solutions, because most reporters tend to write about the bad news, probably because that’s what news is,” WuDunn said. “But we were trying to say, look, there are so many solutions that people aren’t writing about. We found so many ideas that people were implementing.”
WuDunn also offered advice to students interested in pursuing a career in journalism, drawing on her memories of reporting at Tiananmen Square.
She urged budding journalists to draw on their own creativity to develop unique reporting angles. “When you’re in this kind of environment, there is no recipe,” WuDunn said. “You have to figure out where the story is going. As a journalist, you need to ask yourself the questions, ‘What do people want to read? What do people want to know about? What angle do I write from?’”
WuDunn’s talk was well-received among members of the audience, who were impressed by her adaptability throughout her career.
Timothy Dwight Master Mary Lui said she hopes that students looking to pursue journalism at Yale would find inspiration in WuDunn’s unique path and her determination to create social progress around the world, highlighting the way WuDunn’s writings consider the various paths toward social change and the responsibility of the individual to contribute.
Mary Lou Aleskie, the executive director of the International Festival for Arts and Ideas, said that she thought WuDunn’s professional trajectory serves as a positive model for students.
“To be able to have in your grip the soul of humanity through history and the functionality of business and a global view is a great example for any Yale student to think about how to build a life forward, or a path forward, as she suggested to us,” Aleskie said.
Irene Chung ’17 added that she was interested to hear how careers can have such versatile trajectories.
“I think this is a really important lesson for me, along with many other Yalies, because we’re so stressed about what we’re doing after our graduation, but we should keep in mind that it’s just the beginning,” Chung said.
This is the sixth year that the International Festival of Arts and Ideas is presenting the Visionary Leadership Award.