One of the happiest moments of Justin Kenny’s life was the day he
learned he had been accepted to Marymount University in Arlington. For a Rhode
Island native interested in journalism, it seemed like the perfect college: a
small liberal arts school with a communications department, next to the nation’s
capital. Still, his lackluster grades had him worried.
“To me, you will always be that tall, skinny kid … whose byline was all over the Blue Banner, (the school’s student newspaper).”
“The admissions officer
very diplomatically told me, ‘I still can’t believe it happened, but you were
accepted today,’ ” recalled Kenny.
Two decades later, the now award-winning journalist returned to
his alma mater to deliver the annual Marya McLaughlin lecture Oct. 19. His
former professor, Dr. Janet Fallon, presented him with the award.
“To me, you will always be that tall, skinny kid … whose byline was
all over the Blue Banner, (the school’s student newspaper),” she said. “He was
an example of someone who was highly motivated, self-disciplined, reliable
(and) responsible. It is no accident that he is where he is today.”
Kenny began as an avid sports reporter, but eventually switched
his focus to international news. During college, he interned both during the
summer and during the school year at different news outlets. “There I felt for
the first time a strong sense of obligation to shine a light on the world’s
conflicts and humanitarian crises,” he said.
He graduated in 1996 with degrees in English and mass media
communications, but still had trouble finding a job. Encouragement from his
professor, Paul Byers, led him to stick with his dream career. Eventually, he
found work as a freelancer, then as a producer, and finally as an editor.
The pinnacle of his career was working as the foreign and defense
editor for the “NewsHour” at PBS. It was there in 2015 that Kenny won a Peabody
Award for his work on Europe’s refugee crisis. The same year, he won an Emmy
for outstanding business and economic reporting for a piece on the Chinese
takeover of a Virginia-based pork business, Smithfield Foods. He won another Emmy
for investigative journalism by exposing dangerous gold-mining conditions in
But the grueling hours at his job kept him away from his wife,
Jennifer, and their children. After much deliberation, he left the position and
started his own production company “Small Footprint Films.” He continues to do
what he loves, on his own schedule.
After the lecture, Marymount communications students peppered Kenny
with questions, including, “Do you need to speak foreign languages to be a
foreign correspondent?” and “Do you have to pay for your own airfare?”
Kenny advised them all to follow their passions. “Don't let
setbacks define you,” he said. “They happened when you were 18, and they’ll
happen when you’re 65. Learn from them and move on.”