Teniola Ayoola shared her takeaways after attending the dinner as this year’s GW-WHCA scholar.
Senior Teniola Ayoola became the third recipient of the George Washington University-White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) scholarship this April—and she never saw it coming. “I didn’t have a clue,” she told George Washington Today last month. “I didn’t even know I was being considered for it.”
Over the weekend, she joined some of the country’s most respected journalists for the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Although President Donald Trump did not attend, Ms. Ayoola said the event was a learning experience that allowed her to network with professionals.
George Washington Today reporter Julyssa Lopez caught up with her after the celebration to discuss highlights of the dinner, such as journalist Bob Woodward’s inspiring speech and comedian Hasan Minhaj’s blistering standup, and why freedom of the press is more important than ever under the Trump administration.
Q: How did you feel leading up to the dinner? What was the energy like when you got there?
A: I was very excited. Two of my good friends who attend the same church with me and are also Nigerian helped me get ready. Ufoma did my make-up, and my friend Demi was the photographer. I was excited to be wearing a dress from my mom’s shop in Lagos, Nigeria. She was very happy, too.
When I got there, everyone was excited. We had coordinated a place to meet beforehand so we met up, took photos and got introduced to other reporters, editors and journalists. I also met up with SMPA students on the red carpet and after the dinner.
Q: Who were you most excited to meet?
A: I was very excited to meet New York Times photojournalist Doug Mills. We met with the WHCA board for a luncheon on Friday, and that was when I had a chance to first interact with him. I also met him at the pre-dinner reception on Saturday. He gave me his card and offered a week of shadowing him in D.C.
I’m excited to become better at my craft and learn from one of the best in the world in the field of photojournalism. My interest in photography and storytelling is what led me to create Humans of GWU on campus, and I can’t wait to see what other positive contributions I can make in larger communities through photojournalism in the future.
Q: What do you think this dinner represented and meant to journalists broadly?
A: This dinner meant that the First Amendment remains the First Amendment, no matter who is in power and no matter how strong the efforts to undermine it are. The First Amendment celebrates freedom of the press, and the WHCD is a chance for the press and one of the people it holds most accountable—the president—to come to together and celebrate that freedom.
This president, however, has labeled the press the enemy of the people. We see a divide rather than unity when it comes to appreciating one of the most crucial pillars of our democracy. Nonetheless, just as this dinner went on successfully with over 2,600 guests, and just as we still had WHCA scholars selected to carry on the work of pursuing truth and reporting it fearlessly, the press will continue its work no matter the opposition, nationally and abroad.
Q: What were your main takeaways?
A: The United States has always been a beacon of light for democracy and for championing freedom of the press in other countries. For journalists, we understand that now more than ever, we need to defend that right, even when our president does not. We need to defend the right of a free press so that other countries continue to see it as crucial and indispensable to a well-functioning government and society.
Another main takeaway was from Bob Woodward’s speech. He said “Whatever the climate, whether the media is revered or reviled, we should and must persist. And I believe we will.” He was explaining that the more aggressively you pursue your work, the less people may like you for it, but so be it. We must continue in what we need to do.
To me, this means that in journalism, as we pursue the best obtainable version of the truth, we must know that it may come with risks and that some people may not want the truth revealed, but we must be ready to serve the public with courage and tenacity.
Q: What about the speech from comedian Hasan Minhaj?
A: Hasan Minhaj's stand-up stood out to me, not only because he is also an immigrant (or son of immigrants), but specifically on how he tied his jabs on news networks and the presidential administration to our basic right to free speech, which we were there to celebrate. His stand-up was important in conveying to the press and journalists how their current situation with the presidential administration shares similarities to what it means to be a minority in the United States of America. He said, “That's why you gotta be on your 'A' game. You gotta be twice as good. You can't make any mistakes, because when one of you messes up, he blames your entire group. ... And now you know what it feels like to be a minority.”