First Daniel Pearl Intern Chosen: Vauhini Vara

Vauhini Vara

A Stanford Daily editor majoring in international relations has been chosen as the first Daniel Pearl Memorial Journalism Intern.

The internship was established in November to commemorate the work and ideals of Pearl, Stanford graduate and Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent who was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan in 2002.

Vauhini Vara, 20, a junior who is minoring in economics and creative writing, was selected from among 21 applicants for the position. Vara will work in a foreign bureau of the Wall Street Journal this summer.

Applicants for the internship were judged not only on their journalistic abilities and potential, but on the degree to which they exemplified the work and ideals of Pearl: a commitment to explaining different cultures to each other, an emphasis on the stories of ordinary people rather than those in positions of power, and a focus on the dignity of individuals.

In an essay written as part of the application process, Vara described a four-part series on East Palo Alto that she had written: “The experience taught me an important lesson: Journalism is about people. It’s about allowing real human beings to tell the journalist what the story is, instead of the other way around.”

Vara has been on the staff of the Stanford Daily since her freshman year. She has had previous internships at the Denver Post and Stanford magazine. She is from Mercer Island, Washington.

Applicants for the internship were evaluated by a committee of Communication Department faculty members. The final decision was made by the Wall Street Journal. Pearl, a 1985 graduate of Stanford’s Department of Communication, was kidnapped in Karachi on January 23, 2002, while working on a story retracing the steps of “shoe bomber” Richard Reid. A month later, on Feb. 21, his captors released a videotape of his slaying. He was 38.

Other People’s Stories

By Vauhini Vara

A year ago, I received a mass e-mail from an editor at The Stanford Daily. Plans had begun for a luxury Four Seasons in East Palo Alto, the e-mail said. It wouldn’t merit an extensive story, just a few rah-rah quotes from the company’s PR department and a member of the city council. “I’ll take it,” I wrote back. It seemed easy enough, and it would be refreshing to leave campus for a change.

A few days later, I drove to a city council meeting in an East Palo Alto library and was met by a dozen picketers in the parking lot, rallying against the town’s police department. Hundreds more sat in chairs inside the meeting room, waiting to raise their own concerns. When I approached one woman to speak about the Four Seasons project, she raised an unimpressed eyebrow: What, you want to know if I’ll stay at the Four Seasons? Sure. Right. She turned away.

I changed my approach. “Well, what else are people talking about lately?” I asked. This, it turned out, was a question she was quite willing to discuss. We spoke about the corrupt police department, the struggling school district and the impact of upcoming construction projects on the city’s economy. She spoke with energy and passion, and I listened carefully, occasionally jotting notes down. Later, she introduced me to her friends, fellow East Palo Alto residents, who had even more stories to tell. This army of citizens lacked a PR department and had no official spokesperson, but their sincerity made their stories real. The four-part series on East Palo Alto that ran a few weeks later was made of some of the most interesting, exciting conversations I had ever held with strangers. The experience taught me an important lesson: Journalism is about people. It’s about allowing real human beings to tell the journalist what the story is, instead of the other way around.

Since then, this understanding has informed every piece I’ve written, most recently as an intern at The Denver Post’s business desk. For a Sunday profile of a Denver-based burger joint, I spent an afternoon eating fast food with grease-fingered regulars. When assigned a story on high apartment vacancy rates, I wrote about the experiences of a delighted apartment- hunter and a forlorn landlord, rather than filling an entire 15 inches with numbers. And when the owner of my favorite coffee shop told me that business was suffering, his story became a centerpiece feature.

This goal of translating numbers into stories about people is one that Daniel Pearl achieved remarkably well. A story about the suffering Persian rug market in Iran became a tour of the town with the world’s largest handmade rug. A story about Bank of Credit & Commerce International, “the most infamous rogue bank of the 1980s,” evolved into a conversation with an ex-BCCI banker who nobody would hire. When I read Daniel Pearl’s work, I am most impressed by his respect for the people he writes about — his trust that their story is the story. When I think about how his life ended, I am most struck by his passion for the work of journalism. I plan on spending my life learning to write stories like the ones Pearl wrote. If given the chance, I’d be honored to start by interning this summer at the Wall Street Journal.