When Betsy Sullivan (BA 1974, MA 1976, Russian and Eastern European Studies) applied for her first job in journalism after graduating from Yale, she was in competition with 300 applicants who all wanted to be a file clerk for The Inter Dependent, an international affairs monthly.
“I got the job because of my degree,” she says, “and was quickly promoted to reporter.” Three years later, she joined The Plain Dealer, Ohio’s largest newspaper, where she covered the banking industry, labor, suburban politics, the Cleveland police and the county courts before becoming an editorial writer and then the paper’s European correspondent, foreign correspondent, and editorial page editor.
“My study of Serbo-Croatian while at Yale, as a second language after Russian, enabled me to get a summer language fellowship based in Zagreb that took me all over Yugoslavia between my junior and senior years. It was the primary reason I got the job as European correspondent at The Plain Dealer: I spoke the language, understood some of the history, and had friends there.”
She embarked on her master’s degree program “with specific professional and personal goals in mind. I think it’s important to think through your goals before you start graduate school, but once there I would encourage those of you in PhD programs to stick it out – yet at the same time to be fearless in allowing yourself to consider possible professional outlets for your interests and skills that may not necessarily be an academic track, or a traditional academic track. It’s never too early to start making contacts, testing the waters in the business or professional world, and trying new things that may tell you whether a specific professional goal might be right for you,” she says.
Sullivan currently serves on the Graduate School Alumni Association board, where organizing and moderating a panel at the annual career mentoring event “has been very gratifying. I think it fills a significant niche for current students as well as faculty, in terms of encouraging them to think a little outside the box about career options.” She volunteers her time for the GSAA because she “loved Yale Graduate School and wanted to give back, beyond my strong support of the Slavic languages, literature, history and economics departments.” In 2004, she was one of the speakers at the Graduate School’s reunion conference for Russian and Slavic Studies.
Sullivan has circled the world twice. In 1985, during a three-month journey through China on a Gannett Journalism fellowship, she was one of the early Western travelers to reach Tibet. As European correspondent for The Plain Dealer in the 1990s, she covered the Balkan wars and the breakup of Yugoslavia. Her 1990 article predicting the end of Yugoslavia was one of the first to foresee that bloody outcome. In 1994, at the height of the Bosnian war, she was held for 72 hours by the Bosnian Serb Army. In the late 1990s, Sullivan became the paper’s foreign correspondent and in addition to reporting, she wrote two columns a week: “Eye on the World” and “America Abroad.” She chronicled the post-Cold War transitions in Russia, Germany, and Eastern Europe, and has reported from Israel, the West Bank, Northern Ireland, Cuba, Turkey, and the two Koreas. “My time reporting overseas underscored for me the importance of conveying that firsthand view of world events, including wars, ethnic discord, and the deconstruction and reconstruction of nation states, to readers back home. There’s no substitute for having lots of reporters on the ground to make sure that these situations are seen and recorded in their full complexity, including the human dimension,” she says.
In 2003, she rejoined The Plain Dealer’s editorial board as an associate editor specializing in foreign affairs and continued as the paper’s foreign affairs columnist. She became the editorial page editor and leader of its editorial board in 2009. That is the “best job in journalism,” she says. “You get to write, opine, research, investigate, go out in the community and do basic reporting and then turn it into an editorial campaign aimed at improving the life of your city and region. You get to lead a department and, very exciting in today’s journalism environment, you get to explore new ways of making your editorial voice heard and new ways to interact with the readers and get diverse voices in the community involved in civilized debate. I love it.”
A few months ago, after almost 34 years at The Plain Dealer, Sullivan became opinion director of Northeast Ohio Media Group, a digital startup that represents The Plain Dealer, cleveland.com, and Sun News. She continues to direct The Plain Dealer’s editorial board as well as the editorial board of cleveland.com. Northeast Ohio Media Group, launched in August 2013, serves over 1.3 million readers in print and online.
In addition to her work and volunteer efforts for Yale, Sullivan participates in a mentoring program for middle-school students and, since 1979, has played violin with the Cleveland Women’s Orchestra, believed to be the oldest continuously operating all-women’s orchestra in the world. She has a 16-year-old son, J.W. Parker, who loves creative writing but has expressed no interest in becoming the family's fourth-generation journalist.