‘Career-defining’: How Saffeya Ahmed’s experience at VCU led to national journalism honors
When CNN researcher Saffeya Ahmed entered college, she did not have her life fully planned out. During her time at the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University, Ahmed found her calling and grew from an “undecided” student to a reporter for Capital News Service and an editor at The Commonwealth Times.
“I had to stay in-state; it was the best option for me, because I didn't know what I wanted to study going into college. Right out of high school, I didn’t know what kind of career I wanted to have,” said Ahmed, citing VCU’s wide range of majors as the reason for coming here.
This spring, one year after graduating from the Robertson School in the College of Humanities and Sciences, Ahmed was honored as a finalist for the MOEy Best in Show Award, the top national student journalism award of the Society of Professional Journalists. She was selected for her reporting for Capital News Service from more than 3,100 entries.
At the beginning, journalism wasn’t a focus for Ahmed. After a freshman year spent as “undecided,” VCU’s political science program initially struck her interest. However, the field’s standard roles didn’t align with her specific interests.
“I was trying to find a way to sort of find a job or field that works with political science, but wasn’t law or becoming a politician,” Ahmed said.
At the encouragement of a friend, she joined The Commonwealth Times, VCU’s independent student newspaper, as a staff writer in her sophomore year.
“She knew that I liked to write, and she was like, ‘Why don’t you come just try it out, and write a story?’ I had never even thought about journalism before, but I was like, ‘You know what? I’ll try it,’” Ahmed said.
After frequently reporting and writing for The Commonwealth Times, Ahmed declared herself a journalism major. Later on, she expanded her role by becoming the newspaper’s managing editor.
Reflecting on her education at the Robertson School, Ahmed sees her editorial role at the newspaper as “career-defining” and instrumental to her future.
“I would definitely say that working at The Commonwealth Times — especially as the last stint I had the last semester, when I had an editor role — definitely defined my journalism experience, because I was responsible for so much,” Ahmed said.
As managing editor, Ahmed worked with editors, writers, photographers and designers to create a weekly published newspaper.
“Student journalism definitely doesn't get the credit that it deserves, because these students work hard every day of the week with little to no pay to make the paper happen,” Ahmed said.
"Working at The Commonwealth Times … defined my journalism experience."
Now she thrives within the world of breaking international news at CNN in Atlanta. As a researcher for the international cable news channel, she is constantly writing and verifying facts and contexts for online and broadcast stories before publication. Though the current COVID-19 pandemic has limited her on-site work, Ahmed is taking the experience in stride.
“My work is very much focused on information about the pandemic, making sure that readers and viewers get accurate information. It's very interesting to be a part of that, just because I feel like it's not every day you’re a part of a news organization reporting on a pandemic,” she said. “It's like nothing I've ever experienced before.”
Since joining CNN last year, Ahmed has experienced numerous highlights in her young career. One instance is the story she wrote as a research intern in 2019, highlighting Nobel Peace Prize winner and activist Nadia Murad’s meeting with President Donald Trump to discuss her experience in ISIS slavery.
“She visited Trump at the Oval Office, and that was a story that really stuck with me, because I got to write about her,” Ahmed said. “I wrote about what exactly happened, so I really liked that story.”
Current events are a constant part of Ahmed’s research role, where she covers breaking news ranging from Britain’s racial divide to COVID-19’s effects on nursing homes — another story of which she’s especially proud.
“It was a deep dive into nursing home employees and the complaints that they filed with different depths across the U.S., and the allegations they have against the nursing homes,” she said. “I think that was really important, because it is uncovering a lot of problems with how the coronavirus is being handled.”
Reflecting on her time at VCU and the Robertson School, Ahmed encourages journalism students to trust themselves, pursue stories they believe in, and don’t lose hope based on the field’s competitive nature.
“There’s a lack of self-confidence and uneasiness about, ‘Am I good enough?’ and I think it's just, like, you have to keep being the best,” Ahmed said. “If you have a gut feeling that you should write a story or interview a person, you should do it — you can't let that story go untold. I think that's probably the best advice. Never give up, never stop pushing yourself to be better, and don't second-guess yourself.”