Alumni article

Derek M. Norman grew up in Connecticut. He quit high school in 2008 and worked a variety of jobs there. Realizing “the importance of education,” he got his diploma in 2012 and immediately enrolled in Guttman’s inaugural class, moving to New York City. His first two years were rough; he was older than his peers and out of practice when it came to studying and schoolwork, hurdles that resulted in academic probation. With the support of “really wonderful faculty,” he was finally able to make it all click and commit to his own success. By exerting great effort, he learned he could trust himself to overcome new challenges. In 2015, he earned his associate degree at Guttman.

In 2017, Derek graduated from Brooklyn College, where he majored in journalism, minored in global studies and became managing news editor of the campus newspaper. On the advice of a professor, he applied to The New York Times as a news assistant. He completed clerical tasks like printing out daily budgets and answering phones. Grateful to be there, he soaked in as much knowledge as he could, working in the same room with some of the smartest and most experienced people he’d ever met. Eventually, he began reporting. Then reporting more. Then writing. After a couple years of hard work, he began writing and reporting regularly on the New York section desk. He joined two teams investigating the toll of COVID on county jails, state prisons, federal detention centers and local public health departments – work that contributed to the coverage that won the Times the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service. 

In 2020, while working full time, he began night courses at John Jay College of Criminal Justice toward a master’s degree in human rights, which he completed in 2022. 

We decided to ask this accomplished Guttman alum some questions he’s likely posed to individuals he interviewed for the numerous New York Times articles he’s written and contributed to over the years. 

You say you love to travel. Is there anything you did as a tourist that you probably shouldn’t have? (“Don’t Try This on Vacation: Learning from Other Travelers’ Mistakes”)  

This isn’t necessarily a wrongdoing, but when I first started traveling, I made very quick, impulsive trips and didn’t spend too much time researching the places beforehand. I was just too eager to dive in. And because of that, there’s a handful of wonderful details that I’m sure I missed along the way.  

This is going to sound nerdy, but now before I travel to a new place, I like to read a history book about that place before I go. The experience is so much more rich and fulfilling when you recognize the names of the streets or the names on the sides of buildings or the history of a site you are visiting. I like to know how history and culture shaped a place to how it exists today. 

Conversely, I think hesitation restrained me a bit in my early days of traveling. Just buy the ticket. Leave your worries or expectations back home and allow a new place to reveal itself to you. Go on that day trip. Talk to locals often. Try the local dishes. Brush up on the language and don’t be afraid to sound like an idiot trying to speak it. Embrace the good and the bad and allow it to shape you. This, after all, is what traveling is all about. 

How do you spend a typical Sunday? (“How a #BlackLivesMatter Leader Spends His Sundays”)  

As much as possible, I try to embrace my free time. I’ll go for a hike and wander down by the water. Maybe read or play guitar. I try to spend a Sunday catching up with friends or spending the day alone riding my motorcycle. I also try not to check my phone often. 

I think having a day to unplug and lean heavily into the “life” side of work/life balance is so important, otherwise we tend to just fall into routine and another weekend turns into another week, another week into another year, and before you know it, we feel overworked, stagnant, or unfulfilled. Life is so much more than our routines or our jobs. 

We all need a day to feed the soul. Whether that means letting it rest or waking it up with adventure, both are important. And Sundays are a good day for either. 

Do you know if your story about the unavailability of naloxone in NYC neighborhood pharmacies resulted in it becoming more available? (“Hours on the Phone, in Pursuit of a Life-Saving Drug”

I actually don’t know. But I think one of the incredible things about journalism is that just telling the story could make a difference. Maybe naloxone was or wasn’t more widely available after that story was published, but no matter what, it brought the issue to light. And there’s power in that, I think. 

How would you describe your spiritual calling? (“It’s Never Too Late to Follow Your Spiritual Calling”)

I’m still trying to figure that out. But I’d like to think that it would be something that helps or connects people.  

I moved to New York City because I wanted to be a firefighter but ended up in journalism. I got a master’s degree in human rights because I was thinking of shifting careers to doing humanitarian work, but now I’m doing audience work on international news, trying to ensure our team’s reporting reaches as many people as possible. I don’t think I know yet what my true calling is. I think the few that really do know are very lucky. But I’ll keep trying new things until I figure that out. 

If I can eventually reflect back upon my life and confidently tell myself that I contributed to the collective human experience in a positive way, then I’ll know that I’ve answered that calling – whatever it may be.