Diane Handal, M.S. Columbia School of Journalism '99, is a New-York based Palestinian journalist, mother, and grandmother. Prior to her current role as writer for the NGO Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), she worked at the Associated Press and held roles in teaching, banking, fundraising, and international business. In addition to her M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University, she also holds a B.A. in Education from Dunbarton College in Washington, D.C., an M.A. in Psychology from Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I.
Our Ghada Jerfel facilitated Diane's interview for our May Alumni Spotlight edition.
CAAA: Tell us a little about yourself
Diane: My name is Diane Patricia Joanne Mary Theresa Victor Handal. I am the mother of two children, four grandchildren, and a Palestinian journalist who writes for an NGO in the Middle East, Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA). The group focuses on humanitarian programs for people of the Middle East, refugees and others in need. It was perfect in its location and its mission.
I am first generation Palestinian. My parents were born in Bethlehem in the West Bank. The Handal family is believed to be descendants of the Frankish crusaders due to their Roman Catholic faith. This chapter of my life as a Palestinian journalist was a way to help refugees and others find human dignity by amplifying their voice through their stories, from the West Bank and Jerusalem to Amman and Beirut. You can hear one such story here.
Currently I am writing my memoirs, studying Arabic, auditing classes at Barnard, and traveling with my two granddaughters. I recently took my granddaughter Lola to Tunisia. She learned about Islam and the traditions of Ramadan. She loved the people most, and the genuine kindness of perfect strangers.
CAAA: What led you to journalism?
It was a long and challenging journey with many stops along the way: teaching, banking, fundraising, international business, and then, journalism. My children had finished college so, I only had myself to support.
I was working at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in the Department of Surgery during “hospital merger mania” in New York. I suggested to the chairman that he should reorganize the department. I had survived three mergers in the corporate world.
I suggested he hire a consulting firm. He chose the smallest of three firms, two women at Booz Allen, who decided my job was expendable.
But, when that door closed, a very interesting window opened a year later.
I was in jury duty and the foreperson and I had lunch. She was a journalist and had gone to the J school. I looked at her and said, “I have always wanted to learn how to write.” I have no idea why I said that. She told me that I should go to Columbia. I said, I am not smart enough and, I am too old. She listened and said, “so try.”
I applied, took the news test, did the essays, got the recommendations and, I was accepted.
But, I was still not sure this was a good idea.
On the first day of school, in the fall of 1998, I found myself in a classroom with all 28-year olds. I was 54. And, I was scared.
CAAA: Who were some mentors along the way?
After the class, I went up to the professor’s office, LynNell Hancock. I told her I couldn’t do this. As I said the words, tears started streaming down my face. Prof. Hancock gave me some tissues and told me to sit down. She spoke to me for twenty minutes. Her words and her kindness reassured me.
Prof. Hancock convinced me I could do this. She opened the door that day to a profession I love. And, I will always be grateful for her.
CAAA: What was your favorite class at Columbia?
Prof. Hancock was my Reporting Writing I (RW1) teacher. It was the most important class at the J school. If you failed that course, you were out.
We were assigned one story topic each week on different subjects like politics, religion, education. We had to knock on doors, find the interviews, and write the story. I chose Brooklyn Heights as my region.
Having worked in banking as a loan officer, I had done a lot of “cold calling.” I loved meeting people and selling myself. And so, knocking on doors was familiar and fun.
CAAA: What was your favorite place on campus?
I love the historic brick walkway (1897) of College Walk and the cherry trees that bordered each side with twinkling white lights that dazzle through the winter.
CAAA: How has your heritage impacted you?
That year at Columbia was one of the most challenging for me but also, one of the most valuable personally. As the only girl in a Palestinian household raised with three very smart brothers, I never felt good enough, never smart enough. Columbia was a school I never thought I could get into, never mind that it was ranked number one in the country.
My brothers went on to some impressive schools for business and law degrees. But, what I didn’t realize until my own graduation was that I was the first one in my family to graduate from an Ivy League school. And, I was the Palestinian daughter!
CAAA: Tell us more about your career journey after graduation…
I had two part time jobs: writing business stories for the N.Y. Herald Tribune and working at the U.N. on their website.
Then, in the fall, I saw an opening on the J school’s job site at the Associated Press. I interviewed, was accepted, and my first position was answering phones on the National desk for $25,000 a year. Then, the September 11th attack happened. The newsroom was insane. I learned a lot that day about AP and its journalists. I was in awe.
At AP, I worked on weekly news stories on each of the fifty states, a page we did for USA Today. I was the print supervisor in Graphics. I wrote obituaries for the library AP kept on the rich and famous, reading their fascinating biographies beforehand.
The journalists at AP were smart, funny, kind human beings from all over the word. My friendship with Kathy Gannon, a bureau chief based in South Asia, led me to travel to many places I would never have gone on my own: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Yemen, Iran, India.
I left AP after six years and moved to Beirut to study Arabic at the American University of Beirut and travel in the region. I had always wanted to live overseas in that part of the world and it was this venture that led me back to my Palestinian roots.
CAAA: How can the Arab Alumni Association serve its community and particularly those in journalism?
The CAAA can be instrumental in mentoring journalism students, exposing them to Arab cultures, and encouraging them to amplify the voices of those who would not otherwise be heard. There is a great need in the Middle East.