When confronted with a difficult moral situation, or facing a struggle against injustice, what would you do?
That’s the question John Quiñones posed to the more than 2,000 financial aid professionals gathered in San Diego, CA for the 2017 NASFAA National Conference on Monday. During his keynote address during the opening session, Quiñones, host of the TV show "What Would You Do?" and a veteran journalist of ABC News, shared the story of how he overcame obstacles throughout his life to achieve his dreams and work to illuminate injustice through his work as a journalist.
But it’s not just those in the news media who shine a light on difficult situations and work with those who are struggling, he said. Financial aid administrators act as “catalysts for change” through the work they do, Quiñones said.
“My heart goes out to each and every one of you,” he said. “For you, this is not just a game of dollars and numbers. … Sometimes you yourselves find yourselves in those ethical gray areas. That's because you're catalysts for change. You rescue these students by taking the time to listen. You are literally changing people's lives.”
A native of San Antonio, TX, Quiñones said he grew up in a family where none of his immediate relatives had gone to college. In fact, it wasn’t until he started the first grade that he even began to learn English. But he said both of his parents knew the value of an education. After spending a summer as a migrant farm worker with his family, Quiñones said his father asked him, while they were looking out on rows of tomato plants to harvest, if he wanted to do this the rest of his life, or go to college.
So when he returned home to start high school, Quiñones said he approached his teachers about taking Advanced Placement courses, and how to prepare to take the SAT and the ACT. But some of his own teachers would say, that while it was great to have a dream, perhaps he should consider other vocational options instead of college.
“I wanted to go to college, and my own counselors and teachers did what people do on [“What Would You Do?”],” he said. “They judged me by the color of my skin and the accent of my voice.”
With the support of his parents, helpful resources from the Upward Bound program, and the encouragement of an inspirational teacher, Quiñones found his way to St. Mary’s University, and eventually to Columbia University’s School of Journalism. After being accepted to the graduate program at Columbia, Quiñones said he “knocked on every financial aid door at that school, pleading with them,” before ultimately receiving a fellowship that helped him pay for school.
Later on in his career, Quiñones made a point to pursue challenging assignments often focused on social injustices, such as going undercover in a Chicago restaurant that had been refusing to pay its undocumented workers, or as an undocumented immigrant crossing the border.
“The journalist, he’s like the person with the light or the candle [in a dark room],” Quiñones said. “He or she can shine it on the darkest corners of this room to illuminate injustice.”
But no matter how hard you work to fight for what you believe in, Quiñones said, you will always encounter obstacles. He recounted the time when an exclusive interview with a foreign leader was cancelled, and he had the break the news to his then-boss, Peter Jennings.
Jennings, he said, told him that disappointments would come again throughout his career, but that he shouldn’t worry.
“Don’t worry, young man,” Jennings told him, “about speaking to the movers and shakers of the world. Talk to the moved and the shaken instead.”
But more than anything, the message Quiñones said he wanted to leave with the crowd was the importance of doing the right thing, and listening to the “little voice in the back of your head” that makes you want to step up and do something.
“The real test of a man or woman's character is what we do when we don't think anyone is watching,” Quiñones said.
Publication Date: 6/27/2017