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When Opportunity Knocks

Northern Arizona University alumna Celeste Headlee knows how important it is to be open to opportunity. As a news anchor and radio host, for example, she has to find good stories, ask the right questions, and pay attention to issues that matter to her listeners. In a broader sense, though, Headlee has reaped the benefits of keeping her options open. After all, her journey to the upper echelons of national public radio began in Flagstaff when Headlee, a music major and new mother, took advantage of being in the right place at the right time.

"I happened to be at KNAU, where my mother was being interviewed about my grandfather [William Grant Still, who is also known as 'The Dean of African American composers']," she says. "I saw a former classmate of mine and she said, 'Celeste, do you want a job?' So they trained me to do weekend classical music hosting, and after I had done that for a while, it turned out that they needed someone to do cultural reporting. I said, 'Tell me how to do it - I'll learn.' The next thing you know I was hosting All Things Considered and within a month of training as a reporter, I had my first story on national public radio and just never looked back."

In front of a national audience

She never did look back. Headlee gradually took on new and growing responsibilities within the national public radio sphere until she gained national recognition in 2009 as co-host of The Takeaway. In that role, Headlee and co-host John Hockenberry drove the content: they presented story ideas, suggested interview subjects, and conducted interviews.

"When it comes to topics of discussion, I'm kind of a diversity girl," says Headlee. "I'm African-American, Jewish, and Native American, and I have often felt that the approach to covering so-called 'minority issues' was so anthropological.” The Takeaway gave her the opportunity to present the news in a way that made sense to her.

When The Takeaway changed formats, Headlee took advantage of relationships she developed with PBS World to move into an anchor role. “The Takeaway was changing to a one-hour show and moving to later in the day, so it was already undergoing some changes. I figured it was a good moment to move on,” she says.

She also returned to NPR as a back-up host for All Things Considered and Tell Me More, the latter which is aimed specifically at a diverse audience. “It’s a perfect fit for me,” Headlee says. “Diversity will forever be a focus of my work.”

The university impact

Headlee's penchant for seizing good opportunities began early in her career. When she arrived at the Flagstaff campus as a freshman, she only planned on staying for a semester, as she had received a full-ride scholarship to Oberlin College in Ohio, but wasn't allowed to start as a mid-year student. After five months at Northern Arizona University, however, she called Oberlin and turned down her scholarship. Headlee found a new home.

"I loved NAU so much - it was just the right place for me, and the right environment," she says. "The most important thing is to find the college or university that's really going to help you grow personally. It's a mistake to choose a university based on their ratings or how prestigious their name is. You have to find the place where you feel focused and where you feel like you're going to be nurtured."

For Headlee, her time in Flagstaff fit the bill completely. After earning her degree on a full music scholarship—which she received after never having had a voice lesson in her life—Headlee received a full scholarship to the graduate program in music at the University of Michigan.

Her music training has certainly not gone to waste, either: she is a professional opera singer in her spare time. But Headlee, whose journalistic work has defined her career thus far, has learned much during her decade-long journey to the top. One of the most important lessons she has learned, in fact, has everything to do with waiting for an opportunity.

"[As a journalist], don't be afraid of silence," she says. "The best answer you're going to get is one that comes after [an interview subject] has thought about the question. So don't rush to fill that silence. Sit back and wait for it."

If you’re interested in a career in journalism or media, check out degrees and programs offered by the School of Communication.