This year, the Distinguished Lecture Series turned its lens to journalism.
John Quiñones, ABC news correspondent and host of the Primetime show What Would You Do?, served as Amarillo College’s 2015 Distinguished Lecturer.
He spoke Feb. 24 about his life, career and AC’s theme of the year, moral courage, at the Globe-News Center for the Performing Arts.
Quiñones has been involved in journalism since he was 14 years old, when he started reporting for his high school newspaper. Since the beginning, Quiñones said, he has had no option but to face multiple obstacles because of discrimination.
One instance he recalled was when he started thinking about continuing with his education and going to college. His advisers discouraged him while giving him other options.
“Some of my college counselors in my barrio school would look at me and say, ‘You know, John, that’s great that you have this dream of going to college, but we think you should try wood shop or metal shop or auto mechanics,’” Quiñones recalled. “They presumed that because of where I came from, because of my family, because no one in my family had gone to college, I was not college material.”
Even with everything against him, he said he never took “no” for an answer and persevered by knocking on doors and never giving up.
The hard work has paid off.
The boy who started out as a son of migrant workers and spoke no English now has a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.
Nursing major Daisy Almanza attended the lecture and said she felt inspired by the lecture.
“He came from the bottom, and he made it all the way to the top,” Almanza said. “I felt like if he can do it, anybody else can do it.”
During his lecture, Quiñones recalled a conversation he had with his father one early morning in a tomato field in Ohio.
“I’ll never forget being on my knees on the cold, hard ground at six in the morning with my father, Bruno, and here I am looking at a row of tomato plants that for a 13-year-old boy’s eyes looked like they went for miles and miles,” he said. “My father said, ‘Juanito, do you want to do this for the rest of your life, or do you want to get a college education?’ It was a no- brainer.”
Roy Bara, owner of La Fiesta Grande restaurants, said the experiences Quiñones discussed brought back memories of his own, because he also worked in the fields as a child.
“I was picking cucumber and hoeing cotton, so I can relate to that,” Bara said.
He said he sees Quiñones as someone to look up to.
“He’s a great role model, especially for our college students nowadays, because I believe in education,” Bara said. “Education is the key to success for every student.”
Quiñones has been working for ABC more than 30 years and has received multiple awards over the course of his career.
While he recognized that there are problems in the journalism industry, he said journalists do many things right.
“The journalist is the one with the little light,” he said. “They can shine it into the darkest corners of the room to reveal the injustices.”
These are the stories that matter, he said. And he’s made a career of jumping into these stories, winning seven Emmy awards along the way.
His stories include an investigative report regarding the journey undocumented immigrants endure when crossing the Mexican border into the United States. To get the true story, Quiñones first crossed the border into Mexico and then paid a smuggler to get him back into the United States through the Rio Grande.
He then made his way to Chicago and found a job as a dishwasher at a local restaurant, where he investigated the plight of undocumented workers in the States.
He’s also investigated instances of human trafficking and child slavery and completed coverage of the Congo’s virgin rainforest.
In 2010, he was the first journalist to get an interview with a survivor of the Chilean mining disaster.
Quiñones is most known for is his Primetime show, What Would You Do?
It consists of filming ordinary people in situations that test their character as they are faced with ethical and moral dilemmas.
“Because I do this show, people presume I have my finger on the pulse of American morals and ethics,” Quiñones said. “What we provide is a slice of life. What happens in that one restaurant on that one day when we happen to be filming?”
What it does give is an indication of where morals and ethics are leaning in the country – certainly not the whole pie, but a slice of the pie, he said.
Quiñones said he believes the good people outweigh the bad and that each episode is an opportunity to prove it.
“Just when you think no one is going to speak up and come to the rescue, along comes a hero, and in every single scenario, a hero will eventually step up – sometimes many heroes, but at least one,” he said.
“They do it in such a beautiful, valiant, inspiring way that it restores your faith in humanity and society.”
Though he’s seen grand instances of moral courage on and off the show, he said it doesn’t take a large gesture to practice it.
All it takes is a person stepping up when their heart tells them it’s the right time, regardless if they’re the first or the last, Quiñones said.
He also shared his view of the future.
“I don’t think we should give up on where this century is headed,” Quiñones said. “Ethically and morally.”