Between the Lines: July-August 2008

August 1, 2008

In my many dealings with students and former students, I haven't received many e-mail updates like this: "Still in Delhi, supposed to arrive tomorrow although a bomb went off at the Kabul airport yesterday."

That came from the Afghanistan-bound Jeff Stern '07, whom I first met when he was a sophomore. Stern was taking my seminar on magazine journalism. It was clear from the start that having him in class would be a challenge, the sort of challenge that would change the thinking of student and instructor alike. Through sheer persistence, on one class-related matter after another—exceeding the specified length for writing assignments, selecting topics that seemed unmanageably ambitious—he would simply wear me down.

One of the stories that Stern produced for class, on a Durham baseball league for at-risk youth, evolved into a front-page article in Durham's Independent Weekly. For the same publication, he spent time living among the homeless. He made his subjects tangible characters—even as he exposed the public indifference that had pushed them to the margins of society. Stern won Duke's Melcher Family Award for the piece; the award recognizes the best published student journalism.

Writing in this issue, Stern shares his impressions as someone steeped in Afghanistan. As he was preparing to make the trip, he was asked, endlessly, "Why go there?" He would always respond that Afghanistan was, simply, the most story-rich place he could imagine.

At some point, Stern will have to struggle with mundane matters like landing a secure job. One of his e-mail notes pondered whether wearing "nice jeans, button-down shirt, tie, and blazer" would impress an interviewer—not an unusual concern. Stern's trajectory is hardly typical, of course, except for an intellectual adventurer keen on learning about how lives are lived under the rudest, rawest, and most interesting circumstances.