World of Difference: Vivian Sequera
“I had thought it was more like Hollywood — rich, clean, safe.”
Vivian Sequera, 1994 WPI Fellow from Venezuela and Associated Press reporter
by Frank Jossi
On Vivian Sequera’s desk sits a framed photograph showing her and three WPI colleagues sitting peacefully in canoes on the Boundary Waters outside Ely, Minn., in the summer of 1994. It’s a picture close to her heart. She talks to one of the women, Argentinian journalist Elisabetta Pique, a couple of times a month by phone, and a few years ago she attended the wedding of German Ilka Piepgras, now studying at Harvard.
“We looked so good, all of us there,” the 35-year-old native Venezuelan says with a laugh. “It makes WPI look like a 30s-something program for women.”
In many ways, Sequera reflects the changing demographic of WPI in the 1990s as more and more women, around the world, entered journalism and distinguished themselves. And many who participated had previously traveled to the U.S. Even if they’ve never been to the U.S., many WPI Fellows know what the country looks like from exposure to CNN and Hollywood movies. Sequera lived in Montreal for two years and had visited Miami and New York.
In Latin America, “everyone has a big picture of the United States. It’s not an unknown world; it’s not like coming from Bulgaria,” she says. “For us, the history, the food and clothes are similar. We’re the backyard of the U.S. empire. I remember the Chinese journalist asking what is dressing on a salad. We [Latin Americans] know all about that.”
Still, the WPI program offers a rich contrast between how the media portray the United States to the world and how it really is. “I had thought it was more like Hollywood—rich, clean, safe—you know, a melting pot, one huge place,” she recalls. “What I learned is the U.S. is a very different place, east to west, north to south. In Minnesota it’s different than Miami. It’s not good from my journalist point of view to make a general statement about what America is or what Americans are. I think that’s dangerous.”
Like many other WPI journalists, Sequera learned that the U.S. State Department’s policy on particular issues may not find much agreement from Americans. “My experience with normal people [her host families] who took care of me for a week or so is that sometimes they agreed with the government and sometimes they didn’t. What the government says is not always what the people think.”
One of Sequera’s most vivid memories is of visiting the New York Times, the citadel of American journalism. “Everybody was astonished. It was like going to the Vatican….We complained about it but everyone wanted to work there,” she says, chuckling. “We asked a lot of questions about international [news] reports of the New York Times, telling [the editor], ‘Hey, that’s not really the truth.’ It was like we were talking about a tabloid.”
Living with journalists from a variety of countries proved an intense and fascinating experience. Sequera says she learned a great deal about two international hotspots from Gordana Knezevic, a newspaper editor in Bosnia, and Bonaventure Ndikumana, a broadcast journalist from Burundi who had strong opinions about Rwanda.
“Where else can you get more information in the world?” Sequera asks. “Talking about China [with a Chinese journalist]; [or] the marvelous experience of being with a woman who was the director of the only [surviving] newspaper in Sarajevo–Gordana Knezevic was a master in explaining every detail about that war. It was incredible, every trip was a lesson. Someone from Burundi would give a speech about what was going in Rwanda or Burundi; someone from Sri Lanka would explain what is going on there; someone from Pakistan would explain why they have these bad relations with India.
“For four months [during the WPI program] you listen and listen and it’s like being in college, like studying again.”