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NBC Capitol Hill Correspondent Kelly O’Donnell gives students career advice

Get your foot in the door and keep the door open.

This was just one piece of career advice given to Medill students by Kelly O’Donnell (SESP87), NBC News Capitol Hill correspondent. She visited the McCormick Foundation Center to speak with students about how to take advantage of internships and opportunities to get ahead in their careers.

O’Donnell’s path to NBC stemmed from a combination of a go-getting attitude, hard work and a healthy dose of luck. While reporting on a prison riot for her hometown television station in Cleveland, Ohio, circumstances brought the piece to the attention of national outlets, and before she knew it, she had offers from CBS and NBC.

While the prison riot story was her key to the big networks, O’Donnell, a graudate of Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy, said she never would have gotten the chance to report that story if she hadn’t taken every opportunity she could. Any internship or work opportunity you get, take it, O’Donnell told students.

“I was lucky enough to spend each Christmas and each summer interning [during college], and I was able to go back to that same station and actually [fill in as reporter] at times,” O’Donnell said. “Had those internships not happened, this career would not have happened.”

Getting that first internship is difficult, but once you get it, complete the basic required assignments but also continuously introduce yourself to the people at the station, she said.

“Being on this side of it now, having met hundreds and hundreds of interns and desk assistants, honestly I am more inclined to ask for the help of someone whose name I know than to embarrass myself not remembering so-and-so’s name,” O’Donnell said. “It’s just human nature, so take that burden off their plates. Tell them who you are."

A great way to improve reporting is by finding a seasoned reporter/mentor and deconstructing their stories, she said.

“We are passive consumers of news… and we provide a service where people can just drink it in: read it, watch it and be informed,” O’Donnell said. “You want to do more than that…know the building blocks of that story, why they were put together…[and] begin to feel the rhythm of how pieces come together.”

Failure is a constant when starting a career in journalism, but digging into your mistakes and learning from them will guarantee improvement, she said.

“You have to keep doing it and doing it and doing it,” O’Donnell said. “There are ways to dissect your work after the fact through getting feedback…or looking at your own tapes and [figuring] out what happened. The moments that are ugly and awful—you learn a lot from them and get better [constantly].”

O’Donnell’s visit is part of Medill’s effort to bring respected and experienced journalists to meet with students and offer professional advice. The next upcoming speaker is Ben Solomon, video journalist for The New York Times. Solomon will talk to students about his time working internationally and covering the Arab Spring in Libya and the Ebola outbreak in Liberia on Monday, Nov. 24 at 5 p.m. in the McCormick Foundation Forum.