Correspondence Course
Journalist travels the world
as a foreign correspondent

By Christine Murphy ’00

Everyone’s life adventures begin somewhere. For many Muhlenberg alumni, a campus organization or academic experience provides the inspiration, an introduction to a vocation that will provide lifelong experiences.

When journalist Barbara (Fretz) Crossette ’61 stepped onto the Muhlenberg campus in 1957, she was among the first 103 full-time female freshmen admitted, looking for a co-ed experience in previously uncharted waters. Planning to major in Romance languages, the Lehigh Valley native turned down her acceptance at Penn in favor of a scholarship and the promise of excellent teaching at Muhlenberg.

What she found at Muhlenberg was a bit of foreshadowing, a hint of what was to come in her professional life. The academic experience was, as she’d hoped, outstanding, but it might be the challenge of entering a previously all-male environment that has served her best.

“I used to joke that I learned at Muhlenberg all about the way men behave,” says Crossette, who joined the New York Times in 1973 and became the Times bureau chief at the United Nations in 1994. “I learned first-hand what it’s like to be in a place that was designed for someone else.”

Barbara Crossette ‘61, Southern China, 1984; Photo Credit: Annick Billard UNHCR

Crossette, who says she “drifted” into journalism when she joined the Muhlenberg Weekly staff, was fortunate to become friends with the older members of the Weekly staff.

Her rapport with those upperclassmen may have saved her the hazing that a number of the first women to attend Muhlenberg endured, and she emerged a talented journalist with good technical skills, and fearless when it comes to taking on new adventures. As a Weekly reporter, she was able to write about some of the gender issues on campus, beginning what would become a remarkable adventure as a premier journalist.

Drawn to travel, Crossette earned a master’s degree at the University of Colorado and then moved her young family to England, where she took a job with the Birmingham Post. It was there that she developed a knowledge base about the politics and culture of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, beginning her career as a foreign correspondent and creating a niche for herself as an excellent female reporter with foreign experience.

“All I ever wanted to be was a foreign correspondent,” says Crossette, who says she’s never been interested in the business side of media. “Journalism is different every day; it’s not a predictable life.”

The unpredictable adventure continued when she returned to the States and took a job with the New York Times. Crediting her experience with the Weekly, where she learned the technical side of printing and editing, Crossette says she felt right at home in the Times composing room. The deft ease with which she practiced her craft lent itself to increased responsibility at the Times, and in 1980 she was awarded a Fulbright teaching fellowship, spending six months teaching journalism at Punjab University in Chandigarh, India.

Four years later, Crossette was named the first female Southeast Asia bureau chief for the Times, working out of Bangkok, Thailand. Settling in and acclimating to the culture was a
challenge, but the journalist was up for it.

“I had to rely on networking and amassing background information from friends,” she says. “I read a lot and tried to get out of the major cities, exploring the more rural areas.” Now, she says, foreign correspondence is a lot easier than it was in the 1980s; Internet cafes, for example, are all over Southeast Asia and access is often free of charge.

Now a foreign affairs writer and columnist for UN Wire, an independent online news service published by the National Journal, Crossette spent seven years – 1994-2001 – as the United Nations bureau chief for the Times, and has written several books about Asian culture and politics.

During her Fulbright year in India, Crossette had studied Hindi. Her initial inclination toward languages, as she’d intended to study in college, hadn’t waned; she speaks Hindi, Thai, French and Spanish, and a little German. She’s now studying Portuguese in preparation for a six-month trip to Brazil, where she will serve as a Knight International Press Fellow (KIPF) beginning in September.

As a Knight Fellow, Crossette will train foreign correspondents and help with international news coverage at the country's largest newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo. The fellowship program, based in Washington, D.C., sends experienced American journalists abroad at the requests of foreign media organizations or journalism schools. KIPF officials review applications from those organizations first, choosing the most serious ones with stable situations. Fellows are selected from a group of highly qualified journalist applicants to match the organizations’ needs. This year, six journalists will embark on Knight fellowships.

“Barbara came highly recommended by former Fellows,” says Andrew Cohen, deputy director of the KIPF program, noting that although Fellows are based with a media outlet, they are encouraged to spread their skills to as many organizations as possible. “Folha needed a very high-caliber journalist and requested someone who speaks Spanish, and Barbara was perfect.”

The foreign partner organizations are responsible for helping the Fellow get settled, provide workspace and facilitate contacts with media outlets, but do not provide financial support. Rather, the Knight Fellowship program is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a Miami-based journalism philanthropy established in 1950
by the Knight brothers, founders of what is now known
as Knight-Ridder Newspapers.

The Knight Fellowship program does seem a perfect match for Crossette, who is as dedicated to teaching as she is to reporting. She has taught as an adjunct faculty member at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism as well as at Princeton University and Bard College. Last winter, she led an advanced journalism workshop for writers and editors from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Burma at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, on behalf of the International Journalism Foundation.

Forty years after her graduation from Muhlenberg, Crossette fondly remembers her days as a student and Weekly staffer. “The standard of writing at Muhlenberg was quite high,” she says. “You have to build on what you know.”

She’s built a remarkable journey so far.

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