NBC News correspondent and University of South Florida (USF) College of Arts and Sciences alumnus Kerry Sanders has the ability to share a story from the other side of the world while making you feel you were right there with him. But his interest in journalism and storytelling didn’t start halfway across the globe, rather it started in Tampa, Fla. during his time as a student at USF.
Sanders has spent the last 32 years as a broadcast journalist with NBC News but also had stops during his career at local and regional stations including Framingham, Mass., Jacksonville, Fla., Fort Myers, Fla., and Miami, Fla.
Moving around to various local stations wasn’t unfamiliar territory since Sanders’ time as a youth wasn’t permanently rooted in any one location.
Born in New York City, Sanders and his family moved sometime around second grade to Wilmington, Del., where they resided for a short while until they moved again, this time to Sudbury, Mass. During his time in Sudbury, where he lived during elementary school, Sanders became increasingly interested in following in the footsteps of his brother, who had lived in Peru. His mother, having grown up in Peru, felt the children in the family should have an opportunity to visit and experience the culture, but the political violence at the time made that impossible.
It was during this time that Sanders did finally travel internationally, but it was not to Peru.
Sanders had an aunt living in Orlando, Fla., who was teaching at a local high school at the time. To help facilitate his application and acceptance at a university, she offered to have him come take a mandatory (at the time) course called “Americanism versus Communism” to complete a degree from a Florida high school. This proved to be useful as he took the next steps to enroll.
“I probably chose USF for all the wrong reasons, but I'm glad I went there anyway,” he explained. “The school looked brand new and clean, and they had a good soccer team. I could, you know, kick the ball around with the soccer team.”
Sanders did eventually find further reasons to enjoy USF and the academic opportunities it offered, specifically in the College of Arts and Letters, which is now known as the College of Arts and Sciences.
“I wasn't sure what I wanted to study, but I felt pretty certain it was going to be something media related. [Arts and Letters] had some classes that you could take in mass communications, but essentially my degree was a liberal arts degree,” he said.
“When I graduated from USF in , I wasn't sure what I was going to be able to do.”
Sanders returned to the New England area and ended up getting a job working at a local newspaper – South Middlesex News, in Framingham, Mass.
“I was out in a remote office somewhere and doing these stories about water board meetings that I didn't understand why I had to cover it,” he explained. “Nobody in this town cares about it. [The board members] talk for hours about spending $300 on a new water pump. So, it was just like, ‘How do I make this news?’”
“While I'm learning to basically be a reporter and find something interesting, I got a phone call at the house from someone at the Florida Motion Picture Television Association.”
It was an opportunity Sanders had completely forgotten about during his time in Tampa.
“Apparently, at some point, while in my junior year, I put my name and phone number on a bulletin board that posed the question ‘do you want to work in television or movies in Florida?’”
“I packed up my life in my Toyota and told the newspaper ‘Adios!’”
The person on the other line had an opportunity at a local TV station in Jacksonville, Fla.
“I packed up my life in my Toyota and told the newspaper ‘Adios!’”
The job in Jacksonville paid $3.35 an hour, which was minimum wage at the time.
“I rented a room in the house of the only other person I knew in Jacksonville, which just happened to be my former advisor at USF, Marjorie Moe,” he shared. “I got the back room in the house, and I just folded up a blanket. I didn't even have a mattress. I was just sleeping on the floor, going in, and working at this TV station. And I loved it.”
Sanders had the opportunity to try everything during his time at the Jacksonville station.
“I got to go out and do my own stories and do stuff on camera for the weekend, I was learning to get the words right to go on the chyron, and I learned how to get times to the producers,” he said. “This is all pre-computer stuff.”
“It was double stopwatches and typewriters. There were people smoking in the newsroom and occasionally they'd have a bottle of booze in the bottom drawer of their desk. I mean, it was really kind of old school.”
After seven months at the station, he received another opportunity to work at WINK, a CBS station in Fort Myers, Fla.
“There were higher expectations [at WINK] because I was going to be a full-time on-air reporter.”
Sanders reflected on his first big on-air story.
“I still remember the first president that I ever covered. WINK sent me to Tampa and Ronald Reagan was giving a speech. Honestly, I was sort of overwhelmed. I mean, it was so much to imagine that now I'm this kid covering the president of the United States.”
“I really couldn't believe that this was work, because I was having so much fun and enjoying it. It was so different from working with newspapers,” he explained. “What I enjoy so much about television is it's a team effort and there is a lot of camaraderie. I guess I caught the news bug. I really enjoyed it.”
After more than three years in Fort Myers, Sanders took a job at WTVT in Tampa, and his first big national break was just around the corner.
Sanders was covering the Gulf War and felt it was a great opportunity to reach out to MacDill Air Force Base and see if he and his crew could do some “boots on the ground” reporting. He and his crew received approval with what was initially a three-day visa, they headed out with a group of Marines.
“We never left,” Sanders said. “We stayed right there through the liberation of Kuwait.”
Sanders explains that while he was on a Navy ship in the North Persian Gulf, a British gunship had shot some Iraqi go-fast boats, of which now 54 individuals occupying the boats were now in the water. The vessel he was on picked them up, and they became the first Iraqi prisoners of war during the Gulf War.
While a CNN correspondent had been sent to Baghdad, Sanders, as a local reporter, was sent to report from the Navy ship that had just picked up the prisoners of war.
“I guess it was the right place, at the right time,” Sanders said. “Because it was such a big story, it was picked up and aired on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, and PBS NewsHour. I mean, it went everywhere.”
Following his tenure with WINK, and his sudden success on several national broadcasts, Sanders received another opportunity with WTVJ in Miami.
“Shortly after I arrived in Miami in 1991, I had the opportunity to lead segments for weekend nightly news. That is the real big moment that kind of changed everything,” he said.
Sanders was one of the first reporters on the scene during the ValuJet Flight 592 plane crash that ended up in the Everglades. His coverage of that event and other national news stories helped establish his position at NBC.
As he looked back on his proudest professional achievement, he paused.
“I went to the North Pole, where I spent 15 days on a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker. I can't say I was proud that I was able to survive those days with the Russians, but I'm very proud of the fact that we went up there to talk about global climate change, long before people were talking about global climate change. I'm also proud of my attention to Florida's ecology and the efforts to protect it,” he said.
A brief silence followed his last response.
“It's an interesting question to use the word ‘proudest’ because truthfully, my proudest achievement is that I was able to continue reporting. It's a very competitive industry and it's very hard to stay in it,” he said. “The fact that I could stay in it through to the day I wanted to leave is really a proud moment.”
As Sanders enters the next phase of his life in retirement, he shared what he thinks his next steps will be.
“I will probably find my way back to either reporting or storytelling, but first, I'm first just going to make sure I relax and use some time to put my feet up,” he said. “I’ve reported from every state in the U.S. and 65 other countries. As a [correspondent], you're on the road all the time.”
Since Sanders left USF back in 1982, much has changed about the university, the campus, and higher education in a more general sense. He recognizes that the opportunity he had to attend college may not be attainable for some individuals.
“My idea to establish a scholarship [at USF] started when I was over in Iraq during the Second Gulf War,” said Sanders.
“Our war-time translator, who was a young girl, only 19 or 20 at the time, had her life threatened because she was an Iraqi working with the Americans. They had marked her for death and tried to kill her several times,” he said. “As we were leaving the country, I and another colleague said, ‘You know, this is wrong. We can’t just leave her here to try to survive. They're after her for helping us. We need to help her.’”
Sanders then made a decision that would impact not only the life of his wartime translator, but many other students that came after her.
“I established a scholarship at USF that she could apply for. The scholarship was written in a way at the time where it would be a foreign national who had come from a war-torn country, and who had worked with news reporters in those countries,” he explained. “Anybody who fits that category could apply. And of course, she applied, and she got it.”
The Kerry Sanders NBC News Fellowship scholarship has since broadened, and many other students have been able to take advantage of the opportunity to advance their skills and knowledge in pursuit of a career in mass communications.
Sanders has also helped elevate USF’s national reputation for its expertise in a variety of fields – interviewing faculty members and even featuring USF programming, such as in a story that broadcasted last year on the growing Esports industry.
Sanders then offered some words of advice.
“The one thing journalism gives you is the opportunity to be dropped in anywhere, so don’t be afraid to go up and talk to people and get their story, so you can share it with others,” Journalism gives you an opportunity to experience life in a way that nobody else will.”
“News doesn't happen Monday through Friday or nine to five. It has to be something that you want to do, and you're rearing to go do, and you're not afraid to go try it,” he said.
He then had a quick chuckle and proceeded to give his most significant piece of advice.
“The only time you need to worry about is your deadline.”