Redan High School student Xan-Rhea Bilal, 16, said she found out about CNN’s seventh annual Leadership Unplugged conference by walking into the right place at the right time.
“I happened to walk into a teacher’s classroom and she had the details about it on her smart board,” Bilal said. “Literally on the last two days before the deadline I rushed and got all my stuff together and I’m here now.”
Bilal, along with Arabia Mountain High School student Lydia Briggs, 17, and Chamblee Charter High School student Kobi Warner, 16, attended the annual conference June 25-29 at Georgia Tech.
This year, 75 students were chosen from more than 700 applicants to participate in the conference, which engages students in a week-long series of training sessions and discussions focused on media skills. Throughout the week the students attended hands-on workshops led by CNN executives and journalists.
Warner said his counselor encouraged him to apply for the conference because she knew he liked a challenge—75 out of 700 sounded like pretty tough odds to him so he applied.
“I’m a car enthusiast and I like to read car reviews. That might be my job one day, writing for a car magazine, so I thought this would be a great opportunity to network and get some hands-on experience,” Warner said.
The presentations and workshops that Bilal, Warner and Briggs attended ranged from topics such as diversity, ethics in media and show production. Panelists for the conference included Bill Galvin, senior vice president of business development and sports programming for CNN International; Christi Paul, anchorwoman for HLN and In Session on truTV; and Parisa Khosravi, senior vice president for CNN Worldwide.
Bilal said many of the journalists she met told her she, and her fellow students, were getting a rare opportunity to meet in-person with executives, a chance even they didn’t have on a regular basis.
“I really loved the panels,” Bilal said. She attended a panel discussion where Khosravi spoke about her struggles to become a journalist—Bilal was inspired by her words.
“She was saying that her teacher told her she couldn’t do this and look where she is today—I get that a lot,” Bilal said. “[Khosravi] said, ‘Don’t listen to them and follow your dreams—you got here so who says you can’t go the whole way.’ That really stuck with me.”
Briggs, who was on the fence about what career she wanted to pursue before the conference, said she is interested in both broadcast journalism and medicine. However, after spending several days at Leadership Unplugged she made up her mind.
“Listening to everyone’s day-to-day stories and how much they like working for CNN has really helped me realize that being a broadcast journalist is my field…they love what they do,” Briggs said.
Warner, who is interested in criminal justice, said some of the most valuable advice he received was from a CNN News producer who had obtained theology and sociology degrees in college.
“You don’t have to major in journalism. You can major in something that you’re passionate about and use it to your advantage in your job,” Warner said. “I’m going to study criminal justice.”
Bilal, who plans on majoring in international studies and Arabic in college, said one thing she never thought of before is the impact the news can have in the United States and abroad. She said she never realized how some of the decisions the producers of CNN make can affect national security.
“There are big decisions they have to make like at CNN International, whether or not they’re going to send a reporter into a war zone. I didn’t realize how much these big decisions they make on a daily basis can affect people,” Bilal said.
“But I’m sure I want to be a journalist and I’m grateful to CNN for this opportunity. It kind of boggles my mind—we got to live on Georgia Tech’s campus for five days and meet people we wouldn’t ever dream of speaking to.”