Before Alex Haley wrote Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, he was Chief Journalist for the U.S. Coast Guard.
In fact, the Coast Guard’s highest writing honor carries his name.
The newest winner of the Alex Haley Award is a J/MS alumna, Lisa Ferdinando of Alexandria, Virginia, who graduated in 1996. A petty officer 3rd class in the Coast Guard Reserve, she was just named Public Affairs Specialist of the Year for producing high caliber journalism products that enhance the visibility of the Coast Guard.
What’s unusual is that Ferdinando has been in her position only about a year, and the Haley Award is customarily given to public affairs specialists with much more seniority.
“It’s like a dream come true,” said Ferdinando, who writes features for Coast Guard publications and blogs and takes photographs. “This is the highest Coast Guard award in public affairs. It’s just an incredible honor.”
Her reserve work mostly takes place on the weekends, but Ferdinando’s fulltime job is also with the military. She is a civilian employee of the Army News Service, where she covers stories that are of interest to military people, their families, and retirees.
Some of the topics she writes about are difficult ones: suicide prevention, battle buddies recognizing warning signs of emotional distress, and preventing sexual assault.
Journalism training for this Mullica Hill native began at Rutgers, where she wrote for The Daily Targum. “I knew I wanted journalism as a career,” Ferdinando recalled. “I’ve always been a news junkie. I’ve always been curious as to what is going on in the world.”
After graduating she snagged her first job as a news assistant at the United Nations, then worked for ABC Radio in New York before getting a coveted position in the White House radio press office. She and her co-workers were responsible for then President Bill Clinton’s weekly radio address.
When the administration changed, she found a position writing for Voice of America, the official external broadcast institution of the United States government. During the 12 years she spent there, Ferdinando wrote about events on Capitol Hill and traveled widely throughout the United States, covering politics and political conventions.
After that stint she jumped to the Army News Service and made the decision to enlist in the Coast Guard Reserve.
“I felt that there was more I could do in my life,” she said. “I wanted to expand the community service I had been doing. I wanted to make a commitment month to month and year to year.”
Although she was older than the average age at Coast Guard boot camp, she found that that didn’t matter. Ferdinando took to military training and culture right away. The Coast Guard also sent her to media school at Fort Meade in Maryland to take a refresher course in feature writing. She said she is not afraid of being deployed – if it comes to that.
Now she drills at the U.S. Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore. She is rarely without her camera. On a recent Sunday the yard was foggy, and Ferdinando noticed the 1936-era Coast Guard tallship Barque Eagle looming out of the mist.
The dreamy pictures she shot that day were part of her portfolio for the Haley Award.
Majestic and ethereal, the photographs may have just clinched the award for her.