Award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien gave more than $500,000 to the Pardee RAND Graduate School to support underrepresented minority students or first-generation college graduates. She named the scholarship after her parents, Edward and Estela, who inspired her.
Soledad O’Brien was a little kid struggling to learn how to ride a bike when her father told her something that has guided her ever since. “You’re the kind of person who doesn’t give up.”
She’s an accomplished journalist now, the owner of her own media company, the host of her own syndicated talk show. She has more than 1 million followers on Twitter, where she calls out dishonesty and doublespeak from government officials and fellow journalists alike. And she still thinks about those words from her father whenever she hits a rough patch in life.
It’s what inspired her to give more than $500,000 to the Pardee RAND Graduate School. The gift will support scholarships for underrepresented minority students or first-generation college graduates.
“I can’t overstate just how important it is to have people around you who believe in you and value you and push you to do things and cheer you on,” she said. “I gave this gift to support young people who want to come to RAND and make a difference.”
O’Brien won her first major journalism award, a Peabody, for her coverage of Hurricane Katrina for CNN in 2005. She has since won Emmy awards for her reporting on race, the earthquake in Haiti, and the 2012 presidential election, as well as another Peabody for her coverage of the BP oil spill. The National Association of Black Journalists named her the journalist of the year in 2010.
She’s the author of two books, the founder and owner of Starfish Media Group, and the host of the weekly public-affairs show Matter of Fact. She serves on the Pardee RAND Board of Governors and has also been a RAND trustee since 2015—drawn in part by a RAND study on racial profiling in Oakland, Calif. The study looked at traffic stops during daylight saving time, when officers could see the people they were pulling over, and after, when it was too dark. It found some mixed evidence of bias.
“A good story in journalism is always about taking a data set and then figuring out: How do you bring that data to life by telling stories,” she said. “What are the facts? What are the good studies you’re using to illuminate an issue, a problem, a solution, a challenge? That’s an important part of what RAND does, and it’s what we do in journalism.”
Her father, Edward, an Australian who came to America on a Fulbright scholarship, died in February 2019. Her mother, Estela, died 40 days later. She was Cuban by birth, and used to tell her children that education is one of the only things that nobody can take from you. They were a mixed-race couple before the Supreme Court even recognized mixed-race marriages. They would appreciate the opportunity to help students from diverse backgrounds, O’Brien said.
She made her gift to Pardee RAND in their name.
“When you invest in education, you change people’s lives,” she said. “You change their lives, certainly, but you also have the opportunity to change lives in every community that they touch. My parents really embodied that. You just can really move the needle on things in a big way.”
You can, she said, start to build a pipeline—to bring people from diverse backgrounds into positions where they can apply their life experiences to some of the toughest issues we face. That’s as true in research as it is in journalism, she said: Getting more voices into the conversation starts with education.
She’s seen that firsthand. Since 2011, she and her husband, Brad Raymond, have helped young women go to college through their PowHERful Foundation. Failure, she said, is a young person with goals and dreams who can’t get there just because of money. She donated scholarships to Pardee RAND because of what success looks like: a young person who didn’t have to give up.
“My parents were really good about investing in people with their time and their cheerleading, and I hope that this gift does that,” she said. “I still hear my dad’s voice whenever something’s just not working out: ‘You’re the kind of person who doesn’t give up.’ He’s right.”