ABC Congressional Correspondent and USC Annenberg alumna Rachel Scott.
Photo by Vince Bucci

Rachel Scott charges USC Annenberg grads to look beyond obstacles and find opportunity

With a career trajectory at ABC News from production associate to White House correspondent within only four years, many would assume that Rachel Scott’s rise to the top ranks of journalism is an unalloyed success story.

So a main theme of her commencement message to USC Annenberg’s Class of 2022 may have come as a surprise. She spoke about how to deal with failure.

“Graduating from this university remains one of my proudest accomplishments — but it almost didn’t happen,” said Scott, who earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2015. “In fact, 11 years ago I was rejected from USC.”

The setback stung at first. Fortunately, it also inspired a change in her perspective and intensification of her efforts. Both were essential to her achievements in the time since.

“Though I couldn’t see it at the time, that rejection letter was actually pushing me closer to new opportunities, to a dream I had not yet realized,” Scott said. “And when I finally got into this great university as a transfer student, not only was I thankful; I could better align my steps with the path I wanted to pursue.”

That path would lead Scott to tell the stories behind some of the most indelible moments of the last few years. In 2019, hours before then-President Donald Trump was first impeached by the House of Representatives, she interviewed his vice president Mike Pence. When Trump contracted COVID-19, she led coverage. On her first day in her current role as ABC News’ congressional correspondent, Jan. 6, 2021, she was in Washington, D.C., to report on the attack on the Capitol. Importantly, she laid bare the disparities in the way some law enforcement responded to those insurrectionists compared to the violence visited upon Black Lives Matter demonstrators — protests she had covered from the front lines in 2020.

Scott addressed 1,025 doctoral, master’s and bachelor’s degree graduates in communication, journalism, public diplomacy and public relations, who gathered on May 13 at McCarthy Quad. One key bit of counsel: have courage in the face of seeming defeat.

“My Trojan Family, do not be ashamed of failure,” she told them. “Be grateful for the direction it is pointing. Do not be terrified of rejection, but fear missing the blessing that is waiting for you in the wings because you’re so focused on looking backward.

“11 years later, I wouldn’t trade that rejection letter for anything.”

Scott recounted her comeback from disappointment. She studied harder and reaped better grades than ever before, while seeking internships urgently and prolifically. At age 19, the hard work paid off with a White House internship that helped to set her course.

“I sat in on presidential interviews,” she said. “I watched White House correspondents challenge the press secretary. It’s where I fell in love with political journalism.”

Later in her remarks, she heralded the potential for journalists to change the world. One historic example was coverage of the brutality inflicted on civil rights demonstrators in 1965 Selma, Alabama, words and images that helped turn popular opinion and lead to voting rights legislation. She also touched upon the contemporary case of journalists documenting the atrocities inflicted on Ukraine by the Russian invasion.

Indeed, she urged her fellow USC Annenberg alumni, “We can all be in the business of changing the world.”

That sentiment echoed in a challenge issued by USC Annenberg Dean Willow Bay, whom Scott paid tribute to as “a mentor who has pulled out a chair for me when I felt like I didn’t have a seat at the table.”

Bay advised the graduates to use the valuable skill of listening, and told them, “Take all that you have heard — and all that you will continue to hear — to press for meaningful change, for a more just and equitable world, and for the future you deserve.”

Scott was introduced by another prominent alumna, Shawna Thomas, who earned her master’s degree in broadcast journalism from USC Annenberg in 2006 and today serves as executive producer of CBS Mornings. Her remarks included the announcement of the Paramount Latinx Diversity in Journalism Scholarship, a new resource for Hispanic students that was established by CBS News and its parent company.

In addition to Scott’s reflections on creating opportunity in the wake of loss, she shared another formative experience. After graduating from USC Annenberg, she attracted a job offer as a reporter in Fayetteville, Arkansas — and turned it down in favor of her first, “bottom of the ladder” assignment with ABC News in New York City. Although the spurned news director scoffed at her choice as the biggest mistake of her early career, that move was crucial to the accomplishments that followed.

Accordingly, Scott advised graduates to take risks, even if the way forward is unconventional.

“My fellow Trojans, let my story serve as evidence that you can shake things up,” she said. “Sometimes our decisions are so clouded by the status quo, we talk ourselves out of a great opportunity, convinced the best option is the safest one, the most practical, the one with the best track record.

“Today, I challenge you to question what is driving your decision,” she continued. “And if it’s fear of doing something different, get out of your way.”