VES to NBC: An Odyssey in Film

Independent filmmaker finds calling in broadcast journalism

As the modest Lisa Hsia ’80 tells the story, it has all been a happy accident— her career path to success, that is.

The current Vice President of NBC News, Hsia, who supervises the production of shows like the Today Show and Dateline NBC, concentrated in Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard and swears that the acquisition of her executive post was “never something I set out to achieve” but rather “something that fell in my lap—[the product of] right timing, right skill set, and a person who believed in me.”

In fact, even when given the chance to speak about what she has done during the past 25 years—a task prone to self-aggrandizement—Hsia, a mother of one, displays humility, freely abasing herself and hesitating to accept credit for her ambition and accomplishments.

But though Hsia’s countenance may project a shy confidence, it cannot be doubted that she possesses a tough core, one that helps her endure the sometimes cutthroat climb to the top in the world of broadcast journalism.

A CAREER CHOICE CLICKS

Like many an incoming freshman at Harvard, Hsia arrived on campus clueless about her passions.

“I thought I was pre-med,” Hsia says of her first days within the brick walls of the Yard. But she was quick to stray from that path.

Like much of the trail that led her to the top, Hsia says even the discovery of her calling was serendipitous, coming only when she “fell into a photography class freshman year and it clicked.”

“I discovered a passion for the visual image that I’d never been in touch with before,” she says.

Before long, Hsia was pursuing documentary filmmaking classes at the Carpenter Center and serving as Photo Chair of The Harvard Crimson.

Hsia recalls a college life defined by the demands of the presses at 14 Plympton St. and says she spent much of her free time at school capturing football games, demonstrations against apartheid, and all things newsworthy on film. In fact, her prowess made a lasting impression on classmates near and far.

“Complete strangers still come up to me and say, ‘I remember you—with the long hair and the grey pants with the black stripe on the side taking photos.’ I guess I must have only owned one pair of pants or something.”

But while Crimson work instilled in Hsia the practicality of journalism, she says it was Agee Professor of Social Ethics Robert Coles—a Pulitzer-Prize winning writer, child research psychiatrist, and documentarian—who truly inspired her.

Hsia wrote in an e-mail that Cole’s humanist perspective, interest, and genuine efforts to understand the lives of diverse children through research, writing, and photography deeply impacted her. Indeed, Hsia credits him for introducing her to the very senses that led her to declare her journalistic calling.

“Those are the same qualities that attracted me first to journalism—telling the stories of human beings and the issues affecting them,” she says.

She may have garnered inspiration in Cole’s classroom, but Hsia reports that she learned and thrived most in Harvard’s “non-academic world.”