Kimberly Dozier, the former CBS News correspondent who survived a Baghdad car bomb attack in 2006, delivered the keynote address at the commencement ceremony of Stevenson University on Friday, telling graduates to pursue their dreams despite facing doubts, and even death.
Dozier, who is currently a correspondent on intelligence and counterterrorism for the Associated Press, returned to her Stevenson, Md., roots, having graduated from St. Timothy's School, to share her harrowing tale of covering the war in Iraq for CBS from 2003 until 2006, when insurgents detonated an explosive device that killed an American serviceman and two of her colleagues.
Before introducing Dozier, Stevenson President Kevin J. Manning left students with the thought that "the most important events in life are the ones we have no control over."
Stevenson graduated 498 students at its Greenspring campus, where spokeswoman Glenda LeGendre said students are encouraged to follow their paths, not just jobs, through "career architecture" programs. LeGendre said that Dozier was chosen as the speaker because "she's a living illustration of who and what we are."
Dozier shared her experiences dating to when she was a 20-something looking to break into a high-profile journalism job at The Washington Post, where she was inspired to go overseas after a publisher told her that her youth demanded a specialty that would make her stand out.
That suggestion led her to Cairo, Egypt, where she landed her first front-page story in a national publication, opening up doors for her to work freelance with other U.S. media outlets, including The Baltimore Sun.
"I was a beggar — I worked for everyone," Dozier told the chuckling crowd. She later would garner the attention of national television and radio stations.
Shortly after the war started in Iraq, Dozier said she naturally began "covering when the bombs would go off" and found a passion for telling the story of the war.
In May 2006 — just as her bosses back home were becoming concerned about the increasing risks — Dozier and her CBS crew members were being guided by Army Capt. James Alex Funkhouser and his Iraqi translator when a car bomb detonated, leaving Dozier as the sole survivor of the team.
After she underwent a dozen surgeries, CBS didn't want to send her back to Iraq, but Dozier said, "I knew I needed to get back to my tribe."
Dozier was able to go back to the Middle East when she returned to print journalism, where she told her students, "I got my soul back."
"When I went back to Afghanistan, I saw people from Iraq and they said, 'Welcome home,'" she said. "I knew I hadn't let a terrorist's car bomb stop me from my life's work."
Even students who were familiar with her story said they were pleasantly surprised by the impact of Dozier's speech.
"I actually went in thinking it was going to be a boring speech, but I was surprised," said Eloise Hanley, who graduated from Stevenson with a bachelor's degree in paralegal study. "Our theme was 'a future for those who dream.' She followed her dream, obviously, no matter what."
Parents agreed, saying that Dozier definitely reiterated the value of perseverance, even though her story wasn't one that most students could directly relate to.
"What she's done is inspirational, but I'm not sure it was a salient message to the kids unless you want to be Wonder Woman like she was," said Paul LeBlanc, who traveled from Boston to watch his daughter receive her degree in nursing.
But Bernadette Dunn of Columbia said that Dozier's speech was "amazing."
"She shows all she had to go through, but she keeps on striving. A lot of kids think they can just go out and get their dream job, but she shows that you have to work for it," she said.
Dunn's son, Sean, who graduated with his degree in business administration, said that he learned a simple lesson from Dozier's story: "Just stick with it."
Overall, students said, Dozier's story was extraordinary but ended with a line of encouragement that they said is familiar and universal.
She assured them that they would undoubtedly hit walls as they pursue their passions, "but I got through it, and you're going to get over it."