Every year New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof announces his latest “Win-A-Trip” contest. The contest is open to students around the United States who want to travel with Kristof as he reports on location in Africa. Kristof, an incredibly influential voice where poverty is concerned, offers to take the student he chooses around Africa, investigating topics like AIDS, war and malnourishment.
When I first read about the contest, I thought: “I HAVE to apply for this.” I immediately began crafting my essay for the contest. The guidelines ask for a story that is no more than 700 words about why you would be the ultimate travel companion for Kristof on this reporting mission. Past winners have included journalism students, medical students and high school teachers. I spent a long time crafting and editing my essay and, unfortunately, didn’t win. I thought my essay was pretty good, so here it is in original form, just as it was submitted to Nicholas Kristof. I hope future applicants will read this essay and think of a new strategy to help win that elusive trip with Nick! Good luck to you all!
My Essay for Nick Kristof:
Sweat the Small Stuff
by Leah Olson
An old tooth changed my life.
In 2007, I visited Cambodia to learn more about the Khmer Rouge genocide. Some reports said 1.5 million people were killed, others said 3 million. Either way, it was impossible for me to conceptualize these enormous numbers.
“One million,” I thought. “Just how many is that?”
When I toured the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh, I walked past the memorial full of skulls and discarded clothing and past the mass graves. Near the edge of the fields I spotted a human molar, yellow and half buried in the dirt.
I picked it up and held it in my palm. This tooth, a tragic reminder of one of the darkest periods in history, came from a single mouth. The statistics instantly became a gruesome reality. I couldn’t comprehend one million until I could comprehend one. Witnessing the details, firsthand or vicariously through storytelling, is perhaps the best way for humans to understand each other.
Details make inconceivable issues tangible. They engage our emotions, help us relate and feel empathy. Without the details, it’s easy to be indifferent.
I began writing seriously three years ago when I moved to Nepal to work in a hospital and first observed people living in poverty. When the sun disappeared behind Kathmandu’s jagged skyline, I found myself wandering the alleys, watching women line the streets and rickshaw drivers settle into their vehicles for a night’s sleep.
As the weeks passed, I noticed dark piles of tangled limbs and torsos in corners of the city: sleeping humans, many of them young boys. I soon learned a startling truth: they were addicted to huffing glue.
Every time I passed a child holding a brown paper bag to his mouth, I wanted to write about my anger but I knew that spouting statistics about drug addiction and poverty would do nothing to convey the grim scene. Instead I focused on the details of the boys’ lives: discarded tubes of Dendrite glue, crumpled paper bags and torn T-shirts. I found that my attention to detail provoked a profound emotional response from many readers of my blog.
I am studying journalism and Japanese at the University of Oregon. I’ve been studying Japanese for over fifteen years. I chose journalism because I thrive on crafting stories and I know that stories, not statistics, are what inspire outrage, hope and change. A story about the millions who have died from malaria is not as powerful as a story about how the disease has affected one person.
I have traveled extensively in South and Southeast Asia, writing along the way. I’ve worked at a hospital in Kathmandu, witnessing many of the country’s public health issues, like tuberculosis and hepatitis A. I’ve traveled in the Nepali countryside and seen villages that have suspiciously few young women, many of whom have been trafficked to India. I’ve worked on a small Thai farm with Burmese refugees. I’ve seen many of the problems in developing countries, but I’ve also talked to people who are working on the solutions.
I am an insatiably curious writer, blogger, reporter, photographer and videographer. I have more than three years experience with writing, blogging and photography. As an electronic media student, I’ve shot and edited videos on a deadline. I have worked as a writer and associate editor and am currently the multimedia director at the University of Oregon’s student-run multicultural magazine, Ethos.
Journalism is changing, and so are the means by which to captivate an audience. This reporting trip with Mr. Kristof is an opportunity to encourage readers, especially members of my generation, to be interested and involved in the developing world. In conjunction with compelling stories, breathtaking photographs and well-executed videos, we should be continuously using new media throughout the trip to connect with a new audience.
For me it was a long-forgotten tooth that made genocide tangible. Not everyone has the chance to travel to developing countries, yet, in the age of globalization, every world citizen needs to understand both its human triumphs and tragedies. I am confident that a better tomorrow is possible, but first, people need to see the details, one tooth at a time.