A Dream Come True: Learning in Paris

Student in front of the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Samantha Cookinham, JMC '20 in front of the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower in Paris.
August 02, 2019


By Samantha Cookinham, JMC ‘20

When I was in high school one of the opportunities that drew me to GWU’s SMPA was the course “Globalization and the Media,” SMPA 3195 taught by Professor Lee Huebner, where you spend a week in Paris through an International Media Seminar

During the spring 2019 semester as a junior, I was able to take the course and spent spring break in Paris learning from journalists, executives, scholars, and government officials who provided a behind-the-scenes perspective on Paris, international media, and globalization. 

The course and time in Paris was a once in a lifetime experience. This was accomplished through  Professor Huebner and his vast experiences and connections in Paris. 

Professor Huebner was the publisher and CEO of the Paris-based International Herald Tribune for 14 years. The International Herald Tribune was the world’s first global newspaper and later had joint ownership by The New York Times and The Washington Post. The New York Times eventually become the sole owner and renamed the newspaper the International New York Times. Today the newspaper is integrated with its parent company and is The New York Times International Edition. He was also a board member and former president of the American University of Paris and was a special assistant to the President of the United States and deputy director of writing and research staff at the White House during the Nixon Administration. 

His plethora of knowledge and expertise in the international media world made the course engaging and allowed key course concepts and lessons to be taught with real life perspective. 

This continued in Paris with a hands-on experience, where I was able to apply what I had learned in the course throughout the seminar. 

To commence our arrival in Paris we took a boat cruise on the Seine River, allowing you to be fully immersed in the sights of Paris – from the Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral, love lock bridge, the Eiffel Tower, to the stunning architecture and Parisians waving to as you pass by. The experience was breathtaking and surreal. 

Student in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral and a view of the Seine River. 

Throughout the seminar we had sessions at the American University of Paris and I had the opportunity to experience what it is like to be a student in Paris while learning from guest speakers, panels, and field trips about journalism, global perspectives, and the media. 

Some highlights amongst the exciting list of guest speakers included Vivienne Walt, a noted foreign correspondent for TIME Magazine. Walt reflected on some of her notable TIME cover stories. One of them was her interview with President Emmanuel Macron of France and this was his first and only foreign press interview since becoming president. 

Other guests included bureau chiefs from The New York Times, Adam Nossiter in Paris and Alissa Rubin in Baghdad. We also spoke with Dana Thomas, a Paris-based cultural contributor to The New York Times Style section and other publications, who reflected on the beginning of her career at The Washington Post in DC, where she wrote for the Style section. 

Further, we were fortunate to learn from Jim Bittermann, Senior European Correspondent at CNN and former bureau chief for ABC News and NBC News in Paris. He invited us into his home and showed us some of the stories he had worked on, reflected on his career, and shared advice with aspiring journalists. In addition, we heard from fashion and culture journalist and professor at the American University of Paris Madeleine Czigler. She shared what it was like to interview fashion icons including Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour and showed her profile of Audrey Hepburn.  

Throughout the seminar each student introduced a speaker to the class by presenting a bio, including accomplishments in their career. I chose to present Harreit Welty Rochefort, a journalist and author. I started to read one of her books before traveling to Paris and I was thrilled to be able to meet her. She gave an insider’s account of the uniqueness of French culture as an American who moved to France. Harriet has written three books that take you behind the scenes of what it is like living in France – “French Toast,” “French Fried,” and “Joie de Vivre: Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing Like the French.” 

She was our first guest speaker as our sessions started at the American University of Paris. The insight she provided having once been an American in Paris for the first time like myself provided a guide of what to expect while in Paris, the best places to visit, and explained the differences between American and French culture. 

I also introduced guest speaker Elaine Cobbe, a CBS News correspondent based in Paris. I had connected with Elaine as an intern at CBS News and was excited to have her speak to my class. She provided insight about reporting from around the world, covering international events, and what it is like to report in Paris without a CBS News bureau stationed in France.

While in Paris, we also visited the leading French newspaper company Le Monde. There we were able to speak with the president Louis Dreyfus and sit in on the daily editorial planning meeting for the paper. Being able to have access to how a newsroom in France operates compared to newsrooms in New York and DC that I been in was incredible.

Other notable trips included a visit to the United States Embassy, where we heard from the spokesman and press counselor, as well as the leaders of the social media and disinformation teams. 

We also were able to tour the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), whose mission is “Building peace in the minds of men and women.” While at UNESCO we got to hear from Nolwazi Mjwara, a communications consultant with UNESCO’s World Heritage Center and learn about the history, the impact of the U.S. and Israel no longer being members, and the gardens that commemorate the member states. We even were treated to lunch in UNESCO’s dining room, which had the best view of Paris. 

View of Paris from UNESCO and UNESCO's meeting room for member states

To be able to visit these historic sites and acquire knowledge from award-winning journalists, authors, media professionals, government officials, and scholars was simply incredible. There was also time worked in the program’s schedule to explore the city, including a visit to the Palace of Versailles, Arc de Triomphe, and the Notre Dame Cathedral. Further, I was able to learn the history of Paris and apply it in classes and discussions with guest speakers throughout the week. 

Professor Huebner having lived in Paris for many years was the ultimate tour guide who was able to expose hidden gems within the city that you would not learn from anyone else. For example, he explained the history of the Flame of Liberty Monument, a replica of the flame in the torch of the Statue of Liberty. The Flame of Liberty was offered by the International Herald Tribune when he was the publisher and CEO of the paper, symbolizes the Frano-American friendship and has become an unofficial memorial to Princess Diana. 

Wide shot of the Flame of Liberty Monument in Paris and the Flame of Liberty with the Eiffel Tower in the background. 

Professor Huebner and his wife Berna’s experiences and connections in Paris is what makes this course truly special. Without the Huebner’s the course would not be what it is today. They went above and beyond to make sure students would experience and learn as much as possible in Paris, created unique opportunities, and even hosted a networking event with all the guest speakers on the program at their house. 

Professor Lee Huebner, Samantha Cookinham, and Berna Huebner in a Paris restaurant.

Throughout the course and seminar I was able to take what I had learned from previous SMPA courses and apply it to the class to expand learning possibilities. I encourage every SMPA student to take this course, as it opens your eyes to a new world, the media’s central role in shaping the changing global landscape, and impact America has on the world. You experience first hand the different relationships between the media and society in Europe and America and the impact of technological change which creates cultural tension and global connectedness. 

While in Paris I embarked on a journey of a lifetime and was amazed that I was able to visit all the places I had dreamed of while learning from an extraordinary number of guest speakers from around the world all within a short time. The combination of the course and seminar curriculum and actually being in the Paris met every expectation I had. It was magical, the air was filled with excitement, and the sites took my breath away. The experience was incredible and allowed me to grow as a journalist while exposing me to different reporting and career opportunities abroad.