New York Times contributing writer, journalist, and bestselling author Pamela Druckerman ’91 spoke on October 2, sharing how she built her career as a freelance journalist. Her talk, “Writing the World: A Colgate Alumna on Her Journey From Clueless Undergraduate to Parisian Journalist,” sponsored by the political science department, Career Services, and the Maroon-News, coincided with a workshop with Maroon-News staff earlier in the day.
According to Druckerman, she came to Colgate in the hopes of becoming a spy. Despite majoring in philosophy to hone her analytic skills, she quickly realized she was not spy material. She was, however, able to determine what her strengths actually were by partaking in several study abroad trips. In the spring of her sophomore year, while studying in Osaka, Japan, she realized she loved investigating differences between cultures.
“There is really nothing like your first time living in a foreign country,” she said. “Your senses are on fire, and you notice everything.”
In Japan, women who had to quit their jobs after getting married, salary men who worked for one company their entire lives, and couples who barely socialized with one another intrigued Druckerman. The differences in perceptions about how life was meant to unfold fascinated her.
“It was a very romantic culture, but differently romantic. There was a soap opera about a couple who met once and never met again but pined over each other for the rest of their lives. In Japanese terms, this was the height of romance,” she said. “I would have called it a failed relationship.”
The following spring, she studied abroad in Mexico on a social justice–oriented philosophy and religion study group run by Marilyn Thie, now professor of philosophy and religion and women’s studies emerita. She met Mexican factory workers and studied working conditions at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“It was fascinating to learn about foreign languages and cultures, but what these study abroad trips really showed me was that there’s an American culture, too, and I had it,” she said. “Even in my private life, choices I thought I was freely making were very much determined by my culture.”
Once back at Colgate, Druckerman realized her love of travel, politics, writing, and exploring new cultures could all culminate in a journalism career. She went on to obtain a masters in international relations at Columbia University and was hired as a financial journalist covering the emerging Latin American market for The Wall Street Journal.
“I could earnestly say in my job interview that I was fascinated by the Venezuelan auto parts industry. It was sad but true at the time,” she said. “I don’t think anyone else could make that claim, so I got the job.”
It was in this position that Druckerman received all of her journalistic training: learning how to identify a story, do investigative journalism, and get the facts right. She spent much of her time in Latin America, and while in São Paulo, Brazil, for a few months, she wrote her first piece for the arts section on taking samba lessons while there.
“It was a series of small, humble, true observations about my life. I’m pretty sure nobody read it, but it was the first piece I’d ever written that really lit me up inside,” she said. “It was closer to the kinds of observations I’d been able to make on Colgate study groups.”
After six years, Druckerman was laid off when The Journal downsized, and she ended up moving to Paris with a British journalist she had met in Argentina. She didn’t speak French and hadn’t had a particular interest in France, but was pleasantly surprised that she found la vie quotidienne, daily life in France, especially exotic.
Finally able to devote herself to writing about culture, Druckerman published her first book, Lust in Translation, about fidelity and infidelity around the world. She then had her first child in France, and realized how culturally informed parenting is. By blending her own experience with social science research and expert interviews, she produced the New York Times bestselling book Bringing Up Bébé.
“Through parenting, I could look at all sorts of policy issues: maternity leave, high quality public daycare, and universal public preschool,” she said.
Since 2013, she has been able to talk about these cultural differences and their implications as a New York Times opinion columnist.
“I write implicitly about the myth of American Exceptionalism, the idea that we are the best at everything and the way we run schools, build cars, organize healthcare ought to be the standard in the rest of the world,” she said. “We’re realizing now that’s not the case, and we have a lot to learn from other countries.”
Druckerman spoke of journalism as a noble profession that always comes with a moral vision, and cited it as a critical component in protecting democracy. She also gave students tips on being successful journalists, encouraging listening and obsessiveness and admitting that doing routine work gets easier but doing one’s best work never does. She ended her talk with a piece of quintessential advice, drawing from a common French adage.
“Vouz-avez trouvé votre place. Somewhere in the world there is place shaped just like you,” she said. “May you all find your place.”