The power of underachievers

Those of who worked with Sue Snyder weren't surprised that she was part of the team that won the Inquirer's Pulitzer Prize for reporting on violence in Philadelphia public schools. She works harder than almost anyone. In a business where being cranky is a common personality trait, Sue is always a pleasure. Her kind, straightforward manner undoubtedly helps her win sources.

For any parents out there worried that children must be high achievers from the moment they enter preschool, read Sue Snyder's story and calm down.

What follows is a copy of the graduation speech Sue gave not too long ago to the journalism school at her alma mater, Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She is proof that attitude, a strong work ethic and a sense of humor can overcome mediocre SAT scores and the occasional hangover.

Here's the speech:

First, congratulations to each and every one of you for reaching this important milestone in your lives. Our editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, Bill Marimow, has TERRIFIC advice for such A special occasion: Savor it.

And I pass that advice on to all of you today. Savor this moment. Cherish your achievement. Be proud. BE VERY PROUD.

The theme of my speech is simple: Anything is possible if you care enough, if you work very hard and if you persist.

I Don’t come from an affluent family. I didn’t have a lot of advantages. I was the first person in my family – and, ultimately, the only person - to go to college.

I didn’t score well on my SATS – that revered predictor of college success. I still remember my LOWLY score because it used to haunt me – 970.

At that time, there was no writing portion, so it was 970 out of a possible 1600. DISMAL. What the Heck was I going to amount to?

Many of my friends – well, almost all – scored HIGHER, and many HEADED to "elite" private colleges.

But what I’ve learned in this life is that another measure is far more important than SAT scores that tend to label you as a teenager.


That is: How much do you WANT to succeed?

How hard will you work for THAT SUCCESS?

Will you persist even in your darkest moments?

On that particular scale – the scale of the heart, that is - I EARNED a 1600, a perfect score.

And it WAS, with that score in mind, that I embarked on my career as a journalist.

 Twenty-seven years ago, I found myself sitting where you are today…

Hung over as Hell.

Just kidding.

I don’t think I drank much on graduation eve, though I was known to have QUITE A BIT OF fun during my COLLEGE days -- THAT IS when I wasn’t riding my POWDER BLUE SCHWINN bicycle all over Indiana, conducting interviews for freelance stories for the town newspaper, The Indiana Gazette.

I’m sure my esteemed journalism professors, Randy Jesick and Pat Heilman, could tell you a story or two. PERHAPS that is why Randy, WHEN ASKED ABOUT MY LATEST AND HIGHEST HONOR, told THE PENN: “Nobody could predict the Pulitzer Prize was in her future.”

Although I must say, Randy, Pat and my other IUP professors prepared me well and taught me early on the importance of taking my class assignments seriously, as seriously as if the stories I wrote would wind up being published in the local newspaper. And indeed, by the time I graduated from IUP, I had two series published in local newspapers, one on civil defense and the other on trends in elementary education.

(Here I ad libbed about my professors at IUP, their dedication, etc. Also talked about an astronomy professor, theater professor and poetry professor who were great.)

But back to graduation day, 1985. There I was, with a journalism degree and a head full of dreams about how I wanted to change the world, how I wanted to move the masses by telling the most important stories of the day.


My dream was to work for my hometown newspaper, the Allentown Morning Call, the same paper THAT I had delivered when I was in high school. I walked the streets of my neighborhood during those dark, quiet mornings, dreaming and hoping that one day I’d work AT THE CALL.

And, indeed, eventually I would get TO THE MORNING CALL and spend nine rewarding years covering the very schools I attended, REPORTING and writing about how to make THOSE INSTITUTIONS better.

But the only job I could get upon graduation was at a little weekly newspaper in Cooperstown, N.Y. So I moved there, lived right across the street from the Baseball Hall of Fame. I was the only reporter AT that paper, The Freeman’s Journal, and I did ABSOLUTELY everything – took the pictures, covered the village board MEETINGS, school board MEETINGS, HELPED LAY OUT THE PAGES, EVEN COVERED high school sports.



I soon discovered that all-nighters were not just for college students.

My annual salary was $10,400.

I furnished my apartment with lawn chairs.

And so the dream began.

But journalism is more a passion than a profession, and early on – until I paid my dues - I knew it would feed the soul more than the stomach.

My soul has lived large.

I’ve done many things I never would have done had I not been a reporter. LIKE spendING a weekend IN NEW VRINDABAN, WEST VIRGINIA with A COUPLE HUNDRED Hare Krishnas. They were thinking of starting a commune in Northeastern Pennsylvania, so I went to see what they were really all about.

I’ve also had a lot of fun along the way. Like New Year’s Eve, 1996. I bet a group of friends $25 – roughly the cost of a good case of beer at the time - that I could pretty much get any word or phrase in the paper that I wanted to, probably within 24 hours. One guy shot back, I bet you can’t get “hyperkinetic troglodyte“ in the paper.

I smiled and said, "Sure I can.”

Of course, FIRST, I had to find out what THAT meant.

A hyperactive caveman?

Ok, really, it means NOTHING.

The next day – New Year’s Day – I proposed a story to the editor on New Year’s resolutions.

The story began: "It's that time of personal reassessment, gallant goal-setting and playful promises: the New Year's Resolution. Unveil the new you. That's the challenge."

Had to set the mood for what I was about to do. So I interviewed a 10-year-old at Chuck E Cheese. I went to a bar, a local jail. MY favorite INTERVIEW, though, was the guy I caught going into an adult book store.

"I quit smoking," he said, when asked for his resolution as he disappeared inside the door. "I got to get in here now."

So, at the end of the story, I felt it was only fair to disclose to readers MY(EMPHASIZE) New Year’s resolution:

To get “hyper kinetic troglodyte” in the newspaper.



There’s that 1600 talking.

THAT $25 was mine.

I should note, HOWEVER, that this was not FOR The Philadelphia Inquirer.

On a more serious note, I’ve had the chance to tell the STORIES of many courageous people: LIKE THE 7-year-old girl who inspired everyone around her as she fought bone cancer, AIDED by her fierce belief in God. That was the first time I spent months on a story, TRULY getting to know the girl and her family.

Her name was Amber.

Amber eventually died of heart failure, and THE STORY WAS AMONG THE HARDEST I ever had to write. I can still say that 24 years later. I had to leave the newsroom and sit in an isolated office as I composed the story on deadline, the tears flowing almost as fast as the words.


As an education reporter at the Inquirer, I was one of nine reporters around the country invited to the White House for a roundtable discussion with President GEORGE Bush, THE SECOND, early in his presidency.

There I was, at a table with the president of the United States, ONLY 15 YEARS AFTER I LEFT OAK GROVE.

But most importantly over my 27-year career, I’ve had the chance to make a difference, just AS I hoped – perhaps no more so than over the last two years as co-leader of the Inquirer reporting team on school violence.

I had covered the PHILADELPHIA SCHOOL district for nearly a decade and knew it well. I had many sources from classrooms to offices, from law enforcement to counseling centers.

For 20 months, I, along with FOUR OTHER REPORTERS, did VIRTUALLY no other assignments other than investigating, FROM EVERY ANGLE, the CITY'S EPIDEMIC of school violence.

There were many late nights, many sleepless nights, times when I had to miss family functions, emotionally grueling moments. One day before publication of the series, I had a dream that one of our facts was wrong. I checked and indeed, it was wrong. So that’s what it had come to – I was even working when I was sleeping. But the good news is – we got it all right by the time of publication. No corrections.

There were times when we couldn’t possibly see how the stories would unfold or how we would get all the information we needed.

But then we thought ABOUT Tamika, a BRAVE, RESILIENT 12-year-old girl who had been molested in a school cafeteria.

After months of bullying, TAMIKA didn’t feel there was anyone she could trust, so she fled the building and went home. There, TAMIkA poured her heart out in a poem and drew a picture of a face FLOODED with tears. I’ll never forget sitting on the couch beside Tamika in her home when she told me and a colleague ABOUT the cafeteria attack, WHERE students wedged their hands under her shirt, tried to fondle her breasts, THE ASSAULT so scarring, SO TRAUMATIZING that she thought of killing herself.

SHE TOLD US: "It made me feel like: End it all right there."

Because of stories like that, we knew we had to keep going.

And as we worked, our newspaper - as well as many other newspapers around us - were facing extraordinary challenges.

There was another ROUND OF layoffS, another ROUND OF tearful goodbyeS to colleagues who shared our passion and dreams.

The paper WENT UP for sale again – and we didn’t know what that was going to mean for us.

Even our iconic headquarters WERE sold to generate revenue.

Yes, we were even losing our home.

But we kept going, and the school district, along with city and state officials, finally took action.

The district created a special committee on safety. The state appointed a safe schools advocate to help victims of violence in the Philadelphia schools. Students like Tamika and her family now have someone to turn to. The district changed the way it reports violent incidents and began disclosing more information on its web site.

Our work was validated, long before April 16, the day of the Pulitzer announcement.

SOMEWHERE during my career, I think it was during my years at The Morning Call, I started to think about reaching that rare pinnacle OF SUCCESS most journalists dream of. My colleague Dylan Purcell – who conducted all of our data analysis for the project – did the math. Only 0.001 print journalists win a Pulitzer in any given year.

It was mid-March when rumors started spreadING that our project was a finalist for the Pulitzer in public service, considered the most prestigious award in journalism. We heard, AS FINALISTS, we were up against the BEHEMOTH OF JOURNALISM – The New York Times – and the Miami Herald. It seemed almost inconceivable that we could actually win.

On Monday morning, April 16, the day of the announcement, my colleague Jeff Gammage called me at home. HE SAID our editor had asked our colleague John Sullivan – another reporter on the project who had since left the paper and city – to fly to Philadelphia as soon as possible.

THEN, it hit me.

Oh my God, they think we won.

We might actually win.

As I stood in my apartment, I thought of my days here at IUP, riding my POWDER BLUE SCHWINN to those interviews.

I thought of Amber.

I thought of Tamika.

I thought of those dark, quiet mornings as a high school kid with a bad SAT score and very big dreams.

Six hours later, the entire newsroom gathered around my desk.

EVERY I-phone and camera in the place were trained on me and the rest of the team.

At 3:05 p.m., it became official. We won the Pulitzer. The Super Bowl of journalism.

I’ll never forget that moment. It changed me.

It was the moment the world became ever so smaller and my arms ever so longer.

IT was at the moment THAT I truly learned that anything – any dream – is within reach.

For ALL of us in the 1600 club.

And today, I invite each and every one of you to join me, whether you’re going off to work at a newspaper or a public relations firm, or looking to achieve some personal goal.

Thank you.

And again congratulations to all of you ON ACHIEVING THE FIRST OF MANY, MANY DREAMS TO COME.