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Hoda Kotb '86 reflects on her Virginia Tech experience

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Hoda Kotb '86 sits down for a one-on-one interview with Dawn Jefferies, senior producer for strategic initiatives, to reflect on her time at Virginia Tech and how being a Hokie continues to impact her life. Kotb, a graduate of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, is the co-anchor of NBC News' TODAY and the co-host of TODAY's fourth hour.
Dawn: Thank you for doing this. It's so exciting that we get to give you your medal and honor you. Hoda: I'm just happy to be sitting with you again. Okay. Let's just start for one quick second because I think it is like, I feel like life is full circle all the time. Don't you kind of feel that way? Dawn: It happens at times, yes. Hoda: It's like you meet someone at one point in your life and all of a sudden you come back around. How many years ago did we meet, probably? Dawn: It must have been 10, 15.... Hoda: 15. Both: Maybe more. Hoda: Maybe more. But it is fun. I'm so happy to see you. Dawn: It's so great to see you and it's nice to be working at your alma mater because I know Virginia Tech is so special to you, Hoda: It's like, it's one of those things that, sometimes you wonder when you make a decision in your life, why did I make that choice? Like was it something that I just did because I live near Blacksburg, I mean, we lived in Northern Virginia and that was a school close by or was there something else at play? And I feel like there was something else at play. I felt like I was supposed to go to Virginia Tech. And there's something about the school, there's something about a huge school that feels intimate which I didn't know as possible. There's something about the ability to be yourself in a school like that. A lot of times you feel like you have to fit into a mold, but Virginia Tech was always different to me. Like you be you, you do you, and you're welcome here. And that's just kinda how I always felt about it and choosing it was one of the best decisions I've ever made in my lifetime going to Virginia Tech. Dawn: What impact has Virginia Tech had on you and helping you get where you are today? Hoda: I think it taught me all kinds of skills, not just the stuff you learn in classrooms, which I think is fine but easily forgettable because life is like that. You're like, what did I learn in that course? What was that? Those things were important, but it taught me how to learn, that it was important to be curious. Like all of those things that have played into my life as a journalist. So many of the aspects of college life taught me leadership skills. I was a pledge trainer at my sorority, I was somebody who always loved to rally people. I feel like I'm a cheerleader. That's one of my favorite things to be and Virginia Tech allowed me the space to do that. Not professionally for the school, but just in my own way. And I feel like I learned through trying to organize things, organize groups, how can we fix this and fix that? And it taught me skills that serve me to this day, things that are far beyond the books and the pulling all-nighters with the hot pot. Dawn: Did you do a lot of those? Hoda: Oh, girl, You have no idea. you have no idea. I was the all night person. They were like there she goes again. I was having fun all week and then it was like, it's tomorrow. Okay. So I'd get the pot of coffee, I'd get the hot, I get everything. I'd have it all out, I'd have my highlighter, I'd have all my stuff and then I'd get busy into it. But I was definitely a crammer. Dawn: It's funny that you mentioned enjoying being a cheerleader because in so many ways, you are such a cheerleader, an ambassador for Virginia Tech. It's so exciting to see you just last week posting a photo with your Virginia Tech hat and this morning when we were out on The Plaza, we met Al Roker. When he found out we were from Virginia Tech, he started going Hoki, Hoki... Hoda: Hoki, Hy! Techs, Techs, V.P.I. ! I know, I taught everybody. They know the song. [♪ background music playing ♪] "Welcome back to TODAY. It is good to have you with us on a Monday morning." "Can I say something? Can I sing Hoki, Hoki, Hy! Techs, Techs, V.P.I. !" "Well, you're going to. We know you're going to. We know it by heart now. We know the Hokie cheer." Hoda: Let me tell you something. When you see a VT, a Hokie shirt, a baby with a Hokie onesie on, I didn't realize that many people from Virginia or or who went to Tech came to The Plaza. But The Plaza is like, it illuminates and there's some kind of kinship like there can be 400 people in The Plaza. The minute I see a Hokie shirt, I'm like a beeline right to them and everyone's like, wait, we're over here. I'm like, Yeah, yeah, yeah. First you though because there is a connection. I know they've walked the campus. I know they know where the duck pond is. I know that they've been on the Drillfield. I know that they've screamed at the games for the Hokies. It's like we get each other even though we haven't met each other. And there's something so cool about it. And I love that there's a gathering spot that we can all kind of be in community. Dawn: We, as in Hokies talk about UT Prosim and service a lot. What does that mean for you and how you go about your work and serving others because you are so compassionate and people feel like they've known you forever. Hoda: I feel like service, and that is such a perfect mantra I think to be of service, and I'm trying to teach my kids that too because I feel like what, we're only here for a minute. That's it. We're here. We're on this earth. We get to do the good things. And then we go. Like that's what we have is this moment and I feel like being of service is something I try to remember daily. And sometimes it's not such a big thing like going to a soup kitchen or something. I think sometimes it's small things and I've taught my kids some things that we try to do for fun sometimes. And we'll be in a restaurant. and I'll say to my kids, who should we surprise? And say, who get a surprise? What do you mean? I said, we're going to find somebody and let's, let's take care of their little, their meal. So are my kids were like, can we choose? I said, Yeah. So they choose somebody in after they choose that person, I, we do it. and then the kids always say, should we go tell them? And I always say no, we can't tell them. That's the magic. That's the magic trick. You don't tell them, you just let it be. So, I asked, I remember I asked my friend Maria Shriver about service and I said your kids are so of service. You spent your life of service. How did your parents teach you about that? And her mother started the Special Olympics and her father started the Peace Corps. So they know about service. So I said How did they teach you? And she said they never ever mentioned the word service. They just did it. They just did it. And I didn't forget those words. I thought don't tell your kids how to be of service. Show them. Don't tell your kids to be polite. Be polite. Don't tell your kids to hold the door, hold the door. They'll see you doing it and they'll do it. So I think I tried to work it into everyday life every way we can because I feel like that's really we're here to serve. That's it. That's all. Dawn: Might we have two future Hokies? Hoda: If I have anything to say about it because they're like, "Are we winning the basketball game, Mom?" I'm like, we're winning. Okay. This is who we're rooting for. Look, they go, this is mama's team. I go no, this is our team and trust me, they have Hokie gear. They've got it all. We have our days where we wear them to school and in life. So, yeah. Dawn: the news business has changed so much in recent years. What do you tell aspiring journalists who are coming up in the School of Communication right now and want to do what you do? Hoda: I think it's a very noble profession, the school, of being a journalist. I think there's an enormous responsibility. I think that it is a profession that needs the best of us because I feel like the world is fractured and the world is filled with people who are going nose to nose and toe to toe. And I feel like we need young people with more open hearts and who have more, just a greater vision. And I feel like we're kind of counting on this new group of journalists to step in. And it is a place where not through activism, but just through observation and listening, where you can really make change. I interviewed Jane Goodall yesterday, and she is a, obviously, a world-famous scientist. She's 89-years-old. She introduced people to chimpanzees all around the world. And I asked her how she is having conversations with big oil companies when she is an environmentalist or with opposing views. And she said, "Oh, I do it all the time." I said how. She said, when you talk to somebody and their heart opens up a little bit, there's room. Now we can talk, now we can find common ground. So, I feel like it's important to have that, especially in this setting. The world is doing this and we need people who, who have a more openness about them. I mean, journalism is not an easy profession. You will move, you will bond and sever with friends. You will get paid money that is not enough to pay your bills, as you well know and as I well know. But if you're doing it for the right reasons, then you've made the right choice. I always loved that saying, you know, find out what you love and figure out how to get paid for it. Because the pay is important but what's more important, after your bills are paid, is being able to wake up and say, I'm doing something I love, I'm making a difference. I'm this, this work matters. It's not about making a buck. Dawn: What do you love most about what you do? Hoda: What I love the most about my job is probably that I feel like I do get to lighten the load for people. I feel like it's heavy. Life is heavy. People have jobs, bills that you can't pay, children who are ill, children with just all the issues that people go through life. And for a minute, if you can put down the heavy backpack just for a minute and just exhale and take a breath, I feel like we get a platform and you could use it to throw more tough stuff at people, or you could use part of it just to say, I got a little place for you here to rest. I'm going to give you something that's gonna make you feel better. Because I think life's about where you fix your gaze. Like you could ride down the street in New York City. On this side of the road, you'll see three homeless people and say, Oh, New York is terrible. On this side, you'll watch someone helping an old lady across the street and someone handing someone a dollar, they dropped. Now, which New York are you looking at? You decide. So I fix my gaze. I'm not going to, I know that's there. I'm not going to ignore it, but that's not where I'm going to fix my gaze. I'm going to fix my gaze on things that are helpful and good and changing and realize that that is part of it too. And I think it's important to know just where you look. Dawn: And what is most challenging and how do you work through that? Hoda: Probably listening to someone else's pain. I think that that's really a hard thing to do because they're going through what they're going through and they're handing you kind of their heart in their hands and asking you to hold it. And so you're holding it and you're thinking to yourself like how is this person going to continue with whatever loss they've endured? And it's hard. So I try my best. You know, I try my best. I think that's the toughest part, trying not to bring everything home because you want your kids to know that life is very beautiful and it is, even with all the pain. Dawn: But your compassion comes through. And I just wanted to mention to you how much it meant to our community. I know that you couldn't be there for Commencement, but when that message came up, It was, the impact was so great. They were so appreciative. You have such a special place at home. It is home and everyone feels like you're home with them. Hoda: Oh my God, that makes me feel so good. Well, I feel at home there too. It's like there are very few places where your heart can rest and you're like, yes, this is a puzzle piece that fits. I feel that way about Virginia Tech. I feel really blessed to have gone and to be able to represent, you know, throughout my adulthood and I'll continue to do it. And my kids will too if I have anything to say about it. Dawn: I hope you get back there soon. Hoda: Thank you. Dawn: Thank you.