Entering a New York Times writing contest is like putting a message in a bottle: it requires an enormous leap of faith. Melissa Yasinow '06 took that leap earlier this spring when she submitted an essay to a contest held by Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. The grand prize winner would not only go on a ten-day journalism expedition with Kristof into the heart of Africa, but would blog about her experiences for the New York Times and MTV. Along with nearly 4,000 other applicants, Yasinow wrote why she would be the best person to travel with Kristof to Rwanda this summer. From among thousands Yasinow stood out in the crowd. Although she did not win the grand prize, Yasinow has earned the honor of being one of the top 13 applicants in the nation.
"This is not the last time you will see my name in a Times byline," she said.
A politics major, Yasinow described herself as "a New York Times junky." She also happens to be a big fan of Kristof's. "He's one of my heroes," she said. "He does amazing things. He goes into Pakistan in his free time and saves women who've been forced into brothels. He is a true humanitarian."
Yasinow's fascination with Rwanda was sparked by a course she took this fall titled The Rwandan Genocide in Comparative Perspective, taught by Catharine Newbury, Five College professor of government and professor of African studies. She has amassed a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of Rwandan history and is passionate about its future. As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors she has a personal interest in the Rwandan genocide. "There but for the grace of God go I," she said.
Yasinow grew up learning French from her Jewish grandmother. Her grandparents fled Poland and moved to France with family before settling in America on their own. "She wanted to make sure that her grandchildren spoke French so we could keep in touch with our surviving relatives," Yasinow explained. Coincidentally, French is the primary non-African language spoken in Rwanda, a former Belgian colony.
In her essay, Yasinow described an imagined day of the trip. It begins: "It is barely dawn as we drive from Kigali to Mount Rebero. Twelve years ago the dirt road would have been littered with the bodies of macheted children, but today it is covered with only a morning mist. Tomorrow we will visit the gacaca courts, the refugee camps, and the subsistence coffee plantations. Today, however, Nicholas Kristof and I are driving over blood-stained roads to pay our last respects to Rwanda's former Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana."
Not surprisingly, Yasinow has always enjoyed writing. This spring she took an introductory journalism course taught by Meg Murphy, visiting instructor of English. "She's one of the most influential professors I've had," said Yasinow. "She doesn't let you do anything by halves. It's like an editor-reporter relationship. She takes you seriously, even if you're a student who's never taken a writing course before."
Murphy in turn has been impressed with Yasinow's work. "Melissa's journalistic writing is shot through with the same intelligence, humor, and passionate engagement in the world that made her such a vital presence in class. She is an editor's dream. She welcomes discussion of her work, examines every editorial comment for its possibilities, knows when to hold to her own impulse and when to reshape a sentence or paragraph or story according to new thinking. She is a learner in the lifelong sense of the word, a trait shared by every journalist at the top of the field."
Yasinow won a Fulbright Fellowship to teach English in South Korea next year. She is looking forward to immersing herself in another culture and exploring Southeast Asia. Although slightly saddened by not winning the Times competition, Yasinow is incredibly grateful for having had such an opportunity.
"By selecting Melissa as one in a handful of finalists in a competition of more than 4,000 writers, the New York Times has launched Melissa's journalism career," said Murphy. "This distinction will win her interviews and freelance work at any number of publications. The journalism industry needs a young woman like Melissa, and, luckily, the industry's paper of record appears to know it. I look forward to watching Melissa move into the journalism world with the determined chutzpah that makes her such fun, and such a great reporter."