After a Painful Loss, Graduate Begins
New Career in Journalism

May 13, 2010Bookmark and Share
Artis Henderson
Artis Henderson
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Columbia Journalism School was never part of her plan.

Four years ago, Artis Henderson was an Army wife living with her mother in Florida while waiting for her new husband to complete a tour in Iraq. They were married on July 1, 2006, and Miles, an Apache helicopter pilot, was deployed three weeks later. He wanted to be a teacher and a coach, and while Henderson didn’t know what she’d end up doing, she said, “It was a testament to how amazing Miles was that I was willing to put my career on hold.”

Four months later, Henderson returned home from work to find a solemn officer and a chaplain waiting at her front door with the news every military spouse dreads. A sandstorm. A helicopter crash. No survivors.

That first year, she recalled, “I was so overwhelmed. I didn’t think I could breathe.” She stayed in her job doing public relations for a local non-governmental organization and tried to come to terms with her husband’s death.

This May, Henderson, 29, will be graduating from the Graduate School of Journalism, headed to a far-off assignment in West Africa for the Associated Press. Becoming a journalist had been a “pie in the sky” dream for her, one that she had postponed when she met and married Miles. After his death, however, she said, “The worst thing imaginable had happened, so I gave myself permission and started thinking, ‘What would I do if I could do anything?’”

She had lived in France while studying international relations and business at the University of Pennsylvania and had considered a foreign service career, so travel was a strong interest. But she had never thought of being a journalist.

Then one day, Henderson saw an ad in her local paper, the Fort Myers News-Press, for a blogging competition. Her writing samples got her to the finals, and for two weeks, she and two rivals squared off in a daily blogging competition judged by online readers. The readers picked her.

“I couldn’t believe that I had won, and that I would be paid to write,” said Henderson, who had been preparing for a trip to Cambodia at the time. The editor suggested she write a travel piece, which later ran on the front page of the paper’s travel section. And that’s when Henderson’s journalism career took off.

She wrote for other local business outlets, and persuaded the editor of Florida Weekly to give her a column on relationships. A friend suggested applying to Columbia’s journalism school, but she doubted she’d get in. “I thought I didn’t have the experience,” she said. She started last fall, concentrating on magazine writing.

Henderson credits two professors in particular for inspiring her to pursue her biggest dream, to write a book. Chip Scanlan, a visiting professor of journalism who taught her writing and reporting class, encouraged her to apply for a much-coveted spot in Professor Sam Freedman’s book-writing class. She got in, and Freedman helped her develop an idea for a book—part memoir, part reporting—about military widows in Iraq and Afghanistan, profiling the widow of Miles’ copilot and five of her friends. “Certain things about my loss I can’t touch,” she said. “But I can see it through them.”

Scanlan, her reporting professor, said of Henderson, “As a writer, she is gifted and one of those who seems born to the art and craft. I expect great things from her, and I think we will see them very soon.”

After graduation Henderson will embark on just the kind of foreign adventure she dreamed of; she applied for, and won, an Overseas Press Club scholarship and landed an internship in the Dakar, Senegal bureau of the Associated Press. She also received a Rotary Scholarship that will help fund study at a local university in Senegal after the internship.

Henderson described her year at the journalism school as life-changing, and credits the students and faculty for helping her grow as a writer and reporter. “Before I came here, I was feeling in the dark,” she said. “Now I have a clear sense of how to craft and pitch a good story.”

She draws inspiration, too, from her late husband. After Miles’ death, Henderson said she found a letter from him that told her to follow her heart. “I feel that he’s been with me every step of the way,” she said.

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