MU graduate student Casey Parks was riding her bicycle in Wichita, Kan., when she received the phone call.
New York Times columnist and recent Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof called to ask Parks if she would accompany him on a trip to Africa, so young people can see the developing world through the eyes of one of their own.
Originally from Jackson, Miss,, Parks said she never thought she would be given an opportunity like this. Nearly 4,000 students across the United States submitted essays on why they deserved the chance to travel abroad with Kristof.
Parks said a friend suggested she apply. She did, knowing a lot of people were pining for the same opportunity.
“I wrote it in 15 minutes, not thinking I had a chance ... I just wrote what I was feeling at the moment,” Parks said.
A few weeks and three interviews later, her spontaneous essay won her the trip.
Kristof and Parks will head to Africa in September for about two weeks. Parks will blog about her experiences abroad at nytimes.com and also do a video blog for mtvU.
“I have a feeling it will change me completely,” Parks said.
In the meantime, Parks’s life has been temporarily altered. Parks said that since the news was announced, she has been on the phone constantly with reporters and has been in touch with old friends and other finalists offering her congratulations. She has also received fan letters from fellow Mississippians thanking her for representing them in a respectful and dignified way.
Parks said of Kristof: “I want to learn how to be fearless like he is.”
Fearlessness might be a quality Kristof and Parks already share, said Donna Ladd, editor of the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss., and Parks’s editor and mentor.
“Casey is an amazing young woman,” Ladd said. “She’s such a dynamic person, and when she writes she puts it all out there ... she’s fearless.”
“Kristof is a terrific journalist and he’ll be working with a great protege,” said Dean Mills, dean of the MU School of Journalism.