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Learning Curves: Christiane Amanpour

From her sister's mistake in choosing a path, the journalist found hers.
By Christiane Amanpour
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Christiane Amanpour is CNN's chief international correspondent. She has covered the breakup of the former Soviet Union, the Balkan wars, and recent crises including the Darfur genocide and the terrorist bombings in London, where she lives. Among her achievements are nine Emmy Awards.

Christiane Amanpour outside the war zone:

I came into journalism by way of an accident.

As a girl growing up in Iran and attending boarding school in England, I wanted to be a doctor. To get into medical school in England, however, you have to earn grades of a certain level, and I didn't. After graduating from secondary school, I sank into the limbo of young-adult angst, working at a bar and taking the morning cleanup shift to avoid dealing with drunken customers.

Then, as I was wondering what to do with my life, the revolution happened in Iran. This was 1979; I was fairly young and politically unaware, having lived a sheltered childhood, and suddenly my country rocketed to the center of world attention. My parents still lived there. Month after month, images of protests, the hostage crisis, and other tempestuous events came pouring out of my homeland.

At the same time, my younger sister enrolled in journalism college in London, and quickly decided to withdraw. The college refused to refund her tuition. Money was tight for my family, with our assets locked up in Iran, so I took my sister's place rather than waste the investment. I figured I'd just mark time. Yet at that college on Fleet Street, I got my first taste of what this whole new world of journalism could be.

What I remember most is being given a tape recorder and a microphone and sent out into the street to get "vox pops," or man-on-the-street interviews, asking people to describe their experience of various events. Though none of it was big news, I felt intimidated at first. I didn't know how people would react to me. I lived in fear of asking a dumb question. But I soon came to find these interviews deeply interesting, because I struck up relationships, however brief, with people. This is the bedrock of what we do as journalists -- we have to know how to talk to people, draw people out and draw their humanity out. I have always tried to focus on human stories, to get behind the headlines.

While I learned these basics of journalism, the first Islamic revolution in the world raged in Iran, and I was intimately involved. World events, if you're caught in the middle of them, can either flatten you or lift you up. This lifted me up.

Within a single semester, I decided to be a journalist. I thought the most serious thing you could do if you wanted to start a new life and be successful was to follow the playbook of all those people who go to the United States, so I enrolled at the University of Rhode Island and earned a journalism degree in three years. I worked summers at BBC Radio and conducted man-on-the-street interviews during the race riots in the Brixton area of London, building on what I had learned in school. After a brief assignment at the NBC affiliate in Providence, I took my first job at CNN in 1983 as an assistant on the international assignment desk.

My "vox pops" training in London didn't prepare me for the job of journalism, though it did give me a sense of what to say to those "men on the street" in Brixton. The moment of going to that journalism college, for me, was more significant than college itself. From that little mistake that my sister made in choosing her career path, I found mine. I suppose the lesson is that you can never tell what will come up in your world that will change and shape your whole life's journey.

People often ask me what gives me the courage to venture into war zones and disaster areas to get a story. I believe many experiences shape a person. One of mine was riding horses competitively from age five. My teacher, a colonel in the Iranian army, was very tough -- there was no mollycoddling. If I fell off or got kicked in the stomach, he put me right back on the horse. That teaches you fortitude. I also had several teachers -- a biology teacher in secondary school, for example, and a Shakespeare professor in college -- who infected me with their love of learning these difficult, complex subjects.

As a mother, sometimes I'm alarmed, really alarmed, at how much our children learn from us -- everything from the way we talk to how we act and think. Our influence, however subliminal, forms the basic scaffolding of who they will become. Teachers, too, hold that subtle, powerful sway, though many don't get to see the full result of their contributions.

Everywhere I go in the underdeveloped world, when I ask people what they want to be, they say "a teacher" or "a doctor" -- the two most respected professions. When I go into classrooms, whether they're ramshackle, makeshift classes in some slum in a city or a nice rural location, the kids are just wide eyed. All they want is knowledge and information. I really regret that in our first world, where we have the money and ability, we treat teachers like third-class citizens and pay them like fifth-class citizens.

For me, the combination of my early experiences equipped me with determination and a capacity to see the humanity in people from far-flung places, even in the worst of circumstances. So, when my professors sent me out with that microphone, and when the Iranian revolution drew me to observe critical events around the globe, I was ready to seize the opportunity.

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