UTEP Students Learn from Sam Donaldson

By Lisa Y. Garibay

UTEP News Service

Students in Richard Pineda’s Political Communication class have a special guest popping in throughout the semester. Unlike many people involved in politics, this guy has quite a lot of substance and expertise to share with the lucky ones who get to interact with him.

“Dr. Pineda invited me some time ago to come this fall and talk about politics to his class of very bright students on three occasions and I jumped at the chance,” said Sam Donaldson, veteran newscaster for more than 50 years and former White House chief correspondent who has covered every national political convention since 1964 (except for the 1992 Republican Convention in Houston).Veteran newsman and UTEP alumnus Sam Donaldson, left, is co-teaching a political communication class with UTEP's Richard Pineda, Ph.D. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News ServiceVeteran newsman and UTEP alumnus Sam Donaldson, left, is co-teaching a political communication class with UTEP's Richard Pineda, Ph.D. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service

Last week, Donaldson made the second of three appearances as a guest lecturer for the class, and will make his final visit in late November. He’s proud about knowing his stuff, even if he had to make mistake to earn that knowledge.

“I enjoy politics. I like politicians. I’ve followed politics in this country for well over 50 years. I may or may not know much about it because I’m often wrong in some of the prognostications I make based usually on what happened before. Some political reporters – and I’m one of them – fall in the trap of trying to use the last election as a framework for what you think is going to happen in the next election. Of course, that’s always the wrong thing to do.”

The opportunity to hear a living legend not only speak about his achievements but also his missteps and cautions to budding news reporters is the result of a special bond UTEP has with many alumni, including Donaldson.

“Texas Western was a much smaller college, of course, and I came here because it was the college in this region,” he recalled. “I was not ambitious in the sense of saying, ‘I’ve heard of Harvard, I’ve heard of Yale, I’ve heard of all of those great schools’ – staying home was just fine with me.”

He recalled that the only class he ever failed was during his tenure at UTEP: trigonometry, which taught him a lesson about completing homework requirements seriously and fulfilling obligations.

“I think I got a pretty good education here for the day. Many of the things that have stayed with me as far as formal knowledge, like history – it was my minor and I love it, or literature – I know enough that people think I have some sort of education, and I got it here.”Sam Donaldson speaks to a political communication class. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News ServiceSam Donaldson speaks to a political communication class. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

Throughout the semester, Donaldson has tried to tie together his appearances by bringing students’ focus back to fundamentals of politics, an understanding of which is critical to delivering impartial and accurate news.

“As a future campaign manager, it’s very interesting to see somebody who has been in that field telling us what his experience has been and what we can do to improve,” said Paulina Lopez, a corporate communications major. “Also, it’s a great opportunity for our department to be showcased and to shine.”

Audrey Westcott, a multimedia journalism major, agreed. “For an aspiring journalist to have someone who’s been there, at the top and in the big leagues, to come back and give his opinion and take his time to teach us is just an awesome experience.”

Donaldson – a 1955 graduate of The University of Texas at El Paso with a degree in Telecommunications and a 1976 UTEP Distinguished Alumnus – has worked hard and passionately throughout his career and his list of accolades is testament to that: former anchor for ABC News, including two appointments as chief White House correspondent; Broadcaster of the Year award recipient from the National Press Foundation in 1998; named Best Television White House Correspondent in the Business by the Washington Journalism Review in 1985 and Best Television Correspondent in the Business from 1986 to 1989; and winner of four Emmy Awards and three George Foster Peabody Awards. He also hosted “ This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ,” the first regularly scheduled Internet webcast produced by a television network.

For all that he has achieved, Donaldson came from humble beginnings. Some of the aspects of his upbringing might hit close to home for many UTEP students. His father passed away before he was born, so his mother raised him by herself, making many sacrifices to ensure her son’s success.

“I was fortunate to be raised by a mother who told her relatives at the time I was born that she was going to raise me and give me every advantage she could,” Donaldson said. “I was raised on a farm in southern New Mexico, but she thought that the schools in El Paso were better than the schools in the nearest little town to the farm. So beginning with kindergarten, she drove me to El Paso, a distance of 25 miles each way every school day. Now that’s nothing with modern automobiles and highways – we’ll drive 25 miles to get a cheeseburger and think nothing of it – but in those days that was a lot of distance. When I went to grade school, after school while the other kids were playing in the schoolyard or doing whatever they did, I was either being driven back to the farm or I was going to speech lessons, I was going to shop to learn how to use a forge and make ironworks, I was going to piano lessons – I’m a terrible pianist, but as long as she could make me go, I had to do it. She wanted to give me all of these advantages, which I didn’t understand at the time, but I think over the years, I certainly have understood what a leg up … she was able to give me as a single mother living on a farm.”

Donaldson continues to be impressed by the progress manifesting at UTEP on many levels, not just the physical growth of the campus and its facilities.

“This school is representing the people in this region of the country and it’s doing it so much better than when I went to this school. I look at the growth that goes hand-in-hand: the growth of the students who come here and who have the opportunity to get an education, and the growth of the physical plant and the faculty. I just think that so much is impressive about The University of Texas at El Paso. I’m very proud of this school and I’m very proud to have gone here.”

He also mentioned just how far telecommunications has come since his student days. “We didn’t have a television station in this town until 1954; I was going to graduate the next year,” he recalled.

“When I talk about people in my business – radio, television, communication – over the years, I say it’s a wonderful thing if you want to be in this business, if you want to be a reporter, if you want to be in print journalism or broadcasting. You’ll have a great life, you’ll see interesting things, once in a while if you’re lucky you’ll be able to sit down and say, ‘The story I wrote or the story I did helped people – it actually changed something in a good way!’ But I say to them always, ‘You can do that at any level. You can do that if you’re from El Paso and stay in El Paso and work in this community. If you go to Dallas, fine; if you want to be national in the sense of working for a large national organization or work in Washington or New York, do that. If you want to be a foreign correspondent, do that. But you can be successful and important from the standpoint of your readers or listeners or viewers no matter where you do it.”

He talked about how young people have phrased their goals as wanting to be the next Katie Couric or Brian Williams and says that is not the real measure of success to him. He’s more interested in people being true to themselves and working hard to do what they do best, not imitating someone else.

“Students are smart today. They care today. They’re activists for the most part today. They need to make their grades today to be able to compete and get a job and they understand that, as opposed to my day when we were just old slogs who went along and it didn’t matter so much,” he said with a laugh. “They understand it and they are smart. I say and mean it that I am so fortunate that I don’t have to compete on an entry-level basis today with the students in Dr. Pineda’s class because they are smart and they know things!”

What has Donaldson gotten out of being a teacher? “It’s fun!” he said enthusiastically with a genuine grin spreading across his face. “I hate to say it that way because it sounds like I’m trivializing something that’s important. But for me, it’s a real charge; it’s a lot of fun to say to young people who are so bright, ‘Let me tell you some things that I’ve seen and some mistakes that I’ve made. Let’s talk about whether there’s anything here that you can use as you make your way.

The fact that Donaldson enjoys teaching is evident when watching him in the classroom. He’s ebullient and emphatic, often thumping his hand on the podium for emphasis. He takes questions from the students and solicits thoughts from them when they are hesitant to speak up, making for a lively discussion on both sides. He shares his memories of major historical events, from the Iran hostage crisis and its effect on the Carter-Regan election to the events of 9/11 boosting George W. Bush’s rating. He uses football analogies, breaks out into song, shares hilarious personal anecdotes, and admits to going way off tangent quite often.

Students asked questions addressing the electoral college, what the biggest gamechanger has been in this election, immigration, campaign fundraising, and the possibility of a Latino becoming president. Donaldson answered them all with sincerity and thoughtfulness.

For the last question, he threw it back at the students, inquiring, “I’m not a working reporter anymore who’s out in the field on a daily or weekly basis; I don’t know all the bright young people in both parties who may be that first Hispanic-American president of the United States. But he or she is out there, and it will happen, and not only in your lifetime, I think – why don’t you try it yourself?”