A dream come true: my days at the POLITICO Journalism Institute

Sara Varela


About six months ago, as part of our Observer Workshop Series, POLITICO’s senior editor in Florida, Sergio Bustos spoke to the Observer staff. Although it was a typical workshop, he would also present me the opportunity of a lifetime.

After hearing my background as a Venezuelan student who’s been involved in politics from a very young age, he said “you have a unique perspective, you should apply to this program.” He was talking about the POLITICO Journalism Institute (PJI), a program designed to bring minorities into the newsroom.

The two-week program, in its fourth year, had allowed a group of 12 young reporters to immerse themselves in reporting politics from the heart of politics itself: Washington, D.C.

Thanks to Sergio’s encouragement, I decided I would apply. The application looked easy enough – a resume, three clips, two letters of recommendation and a writing exercise.

Sergio had warned me that they were very selective of whom they picked: usually Ivy League students. But a month later, I received an email saying that I had been selected for PJI and I was shocked.

I arrived in Washington and was amused by how pretty the city is. That night we went out for dinner all together – I was inspired to see how different we all were and how it had all played a part of each of us being in that room.

The next night, after a full day of workshops, we had a welcome reception at POLITICO’s headquarters in Arlington, VA. Almost everyone from the newsroom was there and they were excited to meet us!

We met our mentors that night. I was the first PJI student to be assigned to the video team – and also the first community college student in the history of the program.

My mentor was Beatrice Peterson, one of the five members of the video team. Over the next eight days she didn’t only guide me through the process of creating an amazing clip, but also gave me priceless professional advice.

The next four days we had classes about writing, sourcing and interviewing. The goal was to prepare us for the following week, when we would be left to fend for ourselves to work on the story we chose.

Besides the classes, we did a special, journalist-oriented tour of Capitol Hill, with a special focus on the Senate side, guided by Seung Min Kim, one of POLITICO’s Senate reporters.

On Sunday, we went to a taping of Meet the Press with Chuck Todd. After the taping, Todd was gracious and kind in giving us time to ask questions. My hand was the first to go up.

I was curious to learn how he handles interviewees that zigzag around his questions – that day he had interviewed Scott Pruitt, EPA’s Administrator on Trump’s pulling out of the Paris Accord.

Regardless of the time we had with Todd, just the opportunity to watch a taping of MTP was incredible.

I think this year’s PJI class was luckier than all before us. We were in Washington during probably the two busiest weeks in news. The first week was all about the Paris Climate Deal and the second was all about former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony. We had the opportunity to see what a really busy newsroom looks like. It was eye-opening.

My second week in D.C. was the most valuable and rewarding learning experience of my entire life. I had chosen to do my story on the deportation of U.S. veterans. Sure, it was an ambitious topic but almost no other publication was really talking about it. My mentor helped create a list of sources whom I could contact on both sides of the aisle.

Sadly, the seven Republicans I reached out to denied to comment. However, the story was coming along – I had four on-camera interviews with Democrats and I had statements from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the VA.

I had four days to work on my story. Thanks to the craze about Comey’s testimony, my mentor was too busy to go with me for my interviews. I had to go by myself to the offices of the Representatives and though I was nervous, it went even better than expected. Being new to D.C., the fact that I could do such a thing by myself felt huge.

I had my story ready about an hour before deadline. I had produced, shot and edited a 2 minute 30 second video, and wrote a 500-word piece. After 10 days of hard work, I had produced a clip that was published by POLITICO.

Participating in PJI was the most valuable learning experience in my life thus far and I’m beyond thankful for everyone who made it possible.

But being a PJI graduate isn’t only something for me to include on my resume. It’s also a experience that I bring home with me and that taught me several lessons to implement in the Observer’s newsroom.

It made realize that, as editor-in-chief, it’s my job to encourage my staff to be the best they can be and that with my experience I should guide them towards learning the necessary skills for their careers.

Being in POLITICO’s newsroom also taught me that journalism is evolving rapidly and that here at the Observer we’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

And after PJI, my goals for this newspaper and for my personal career are more ambitious. If there’s one thing that this program taught me is that in this field, and in success, passion is key in your success and whatever you put your heart to is reachable if you’re willing to work for it.

If you are an aspiring journalist, the best advice that I can give you is this: expose yourself, be out there letting people hear your name. Look for opportunities and internships. I heard it from people not only at POLITICO but at the Washington Post and the New York Times that if you want to make it in this industry, networking is almost as important as talent.

As this new school year starts, I am thrilled to go back to work and apply everything I learned during the most wonderful 10 days of my professional and personal life.

I’m beyond thankful to the whole POLITICO team for taking the time out to meet us, mentor us and just allow us to report from their newsroom as peers rather than students.

To read the story I did for POLITICO go to http://www.politico.com/story/2017/06/08/lawmakers-fight-for-deported-us-veterans-239334