From the Royal Navy to Journalism

May 15, 2013

Aboard the frigate HMS Argyll, Christopher Harress (JRN’13) reported on humanitarian efforts in Sierra Leone and two major drug busts in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. But he wasn’t a journalist—at least not then. As a logistician in the British Royal Navy, he occasionally filled in for the officer who wrote the captain's narrative for superior officers back in London.

Describing himself as “the least likely person to join the military,” Harress, at age 17, accompanied a friend to the Royal Navy’s careers office, where he was convinced to take an entrance exam. For a young man trying to figure out what to do with his life after high school, the military had appeal.

“My mom is a free spirit kind of person, and I think I rebelled against that,” he said. “And I realized I wouldn’t have to worry about finding a job if I were in the military.”

Harress, a Scotsman was accepted to the Royal Navy in October 2003. “I felt valued,” he said. “I didn’t come out of high school with confidence that I could go to uni. I didn’t realize that until I joined the navy. It gave me control over my life.”

His commander aboard the HMS Argyll encouraged Harress to further his education, so he began a correspondence course in sociology through Open University, a British distance learning institution open to anyone who wants pursue higher education. His books were delivered to his ship off the coast of West Africa via helicopter. Harress knew he was ready for full-time study when, even at the end of a grueling 18-hour day, he was excited to open them.

After four years and a day—the extra day qualifying him for education credit in the United Kingdom—Harress left the Royal Navy. “I got home and was telling everyone about my experience in Sierra Leone and the drug busting,” he said. “People in my family are very quiet, except for me and Nana, who told me, ‘If you’ve got any doubts about what to do next, be a storyteller.’”

At Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland, Harress pursued a bachelor’s in journalism and landed an internship with the Edinburgh Evening News. He was writing “the horrible stuff, the fillers” when he took it upon himself to find his own stories. A soccer fan, Harress became particularly interested in a player from Benin, who was involved in a soccer academy back home in West Africa. “When I interviewed him for a profile, he mentioned that he had been accused of football trafficking,” he said. “I disregarded it in the moment, but soon a huge story opened up.”

Following the footballer’s inadvertent tip, Harress was once again reporting in Africa just weeks later. His school funded an investigative trip to Senegal, where Harress discovered that every year thousands of African children are brought to Europe and promised a shot at careers in soccer. But this rarely comes to fruition—they more often end up working illegally and “surviving on the fringes of society,” Harress wrote in the resulting story, “Football’s Slave Trade,” which was was published by FourFourTwo, a European soccer magazine. Harress graduated at the top of his class at Napier and was awarded the University Medal.

Harress confessed that he applied to Columbia Journalism School “just to see what happens.” He was accepted into the school’s competitive Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism and awarded scholarships from Columbia and the St. Andrew’s Society of the State of New York, a nonprofit organization that provides academic sponsorship, among other resources, to natives of Scotland. For a journalism student, this has been a big year for news in New York City. After Hurricane Sandy, Harress hitchhiked to Red Hook in Brooklyn to cover the aftermath. He also photographed the crime scene surrounding the Empire State Building after the shooting there last summer.

Harress, who has a dry, British sense of humor, lives in Harlem and quickly adjusted to life in New York City. “Sometimes I wear my kilt around Harlem and, rest assured, people are looking at me from across the street,” he said laughing. “Anyone who wears a skirt in Harlem must be insane—it deters robbers.”

Now 28, Harress will graduate from Columbia this month. He recently won an award from the Overseas Press Club Foundation for demonstrating promise as a foreign correspondent, but for the time being plans to stay in New York and work as a reporter, covering either politics or the culture of sports.

Though Harress' father, Phil, is his son's biggest supporter, he lives in Australia, and neither he nor Harress’s mother in Scotland can make it to New York for their son’s graduation. So Harress has devoted time to inviting celebrities, including Scottish superstars Sean Connery and Ewan McGregor, to Commencement. Though neither of them has RSVP-ed. “Now I’m saving a ticket for Bill Murray.”