Chris Dawson
Chris Dawson

A Seat at the Table

"One thing that Coker gave me was the belief that I have a seat at the table. I have a voice. And because I believed it, others did, too."


As a producer for CNN Special Projects, Chris Dawson ’93 is in the business of telling other people’s stories. But in order to do that, he had to find his own voice first.

Dawson has built an objectively impressive career as a journalist. In 2011, he received the ShelterBox USA Global Media Award for his coverage of the earthquake in Haiti. In 2013, he received InterAction’s Award for Excellence in International Reporting for his work informing U.S. audiences about humanitarian affairs. This May, he gave the Coker College 2014 commencement address and received an honorary doctorate of letters.

With that list of credentials, some might be surprised to learn he never formally studied journalism. In fact, his story begins as a psychology and drama double-major at Coker. “I was a Head Commissioner, played soccer for the Cobras and took COW Days more seriously than most,” he says. “I tried to make contact with the ghost Madeline Savage. And I had way too much fun at the Cobra Den and the Boathouse.”

But what drew him to Coker—and what helped him find success as a journalist—was the broad liberal arts education that defines the Coker experience. For example, he recounts how studying Islam in world religion helped him cover conflict in the Middle East. Or how, in writing about the anniversary of the JFK assassination, he recalled knowledge from history class. “I have direct memories of professor Mal Hyman on stage at Davidson Hall, with other experts in the field, explaining the theory of the magic bullet,” he says. “And that taught me to question everything, which is at the root of journalism.”

Most importantly, Dawson values the intense discussions and debates that built his confidence. “You cannot be passive at Coker,” he explains. “You have to be active. And that empowered me. Every class that I attended, because of the way it was taught, I felt that I had a voice.”

In fact, it was a Coker professor who first noticed the power of Dawson’s voice—hearing him shouting across the quad, she admired his projection and encouraged him to audition for the fall theater production. After graduation, he briefly worked as an actor in Atlanta before moving to Los Angeles to chase a dream of becoming a television producer. Eventually, after settling down with his wife and son back on the east coast, he landed his first position with CNN in 2004.

It was a winding career path, as he freely admits. But through his struggles and tough decisions, Dawson relied on the sense of self he developed at Coker. He tells the story of how, as a low-ranking employee in his first job working at CNN, he showed up at an executives’ meeting and boldly volunteered his ideas, kick-starting his 10-year career at the major media powerhouse. "One thing that Coker gave me was the belief that I have a seat at the table,” he says. “I have a voice. And because I believed it, others did, too.”

In the end, that belief led him to the project that has made his career—CNN’s Impact Your World. From natural disasters to humanitarian crises, Impact Your World covers stories of great need. Dawson became the Lead Producer in 2007, and over the next four years, he built the project into an award-winning, cross-platform initiative for CNN, CNN International, HLN,, CNN Mobile and CNN Radio.

But Impact Your World does more than tell stories. Whether it’s by donating money, volunteering, or spreading the word, Impact Your World connects those who need help directly to those who can give it. The underlying goal, Dawson says, is to both inspire and empower his audience. “If the viewer is only receiving bad news, then they’re left with the feeling of being, in a way, a victim of the events of the world," he says. "By giving them an opportunity to take action, we hopefully are making them realize that the stories aren’t finished yet.”

There is certainly plenty more to come in Dawson’s story, as well. “I still feel like I haven’t done my big thing yet,” he says. “I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to get there, but I’m just going to keep pushing ahead.”

Which, of course, is exactly what he told the new graduates to do in May. In his commencement address, Dawson encouraged Coker’s newest alumni to blaze their own trail, persevere through difficulties and strive to become change agents to lead us into the future. How can they do that? By listening to their own unique voices.

“When I look back at my college days, learning who I am was my most important accomplishment,” he says. “It has been by looking inward, at who I am, where I have found my compass and found my way. And that was the greatest gift I received from Coker.”



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