Like most college students about to graduate, Jackie Congedo was crossing her fingers in May that she would land a job in her chosen field. As a broadcast journalism major, she knew the competition for on-air slots would be intense.
Yet two weeks before earning her bachelor's degree cum laude from the University of Maryland, College Park, the Glenelg High School graduate was offered a plum position working in Washington, the eighth-ranked news market in the country.
Congedo, 21, is a reporter for WJLA-TV's NewsChannel 8 and ABC-7, which share a studio in Arlington, Va.
"To start your career in a major city like Washington can be very scary," said Sue Kopen Katcef, lecturer/executive producer and one of Congedo's former professors at College Park. "A mistake there can be career-ending.
"But Jackie has the smarts and the talent to handle it," added Kopen Katchef, who teaches at the university's College of Journalism and at UMTV, the college's television station. "She has an effervescent personality and a special aura about her."
The daughter of Linda and John Congedo, Jackie said she would have gone almost anywhere to get her foot in the door, and her professors told her to expect to do just that.
"Now I wake up every day amazed that I am working in Washington," Congedo said.
Alex Likowski, WJLA news director, said her familiarity with the area was a plus, but not the deciding factor, in hiring her.
"Jackie has natural talent at a very young age," he said, adding that she is the youngest reporter the station has ever hired. "She is destined for glory."
Congedo has a mature voice with a slightly deeper timbre and speaks with the rhythmic inflections and composure of a seasoned broadcaster. She learned to sing before she could talk and has been a vocal student throughout her life. She was a mezzo-soprano in the university's a cappella choir, the Faux Paz, which she also directed for two years.
"I always had the singing thing going on, and people often told me I should major in voice," said Congedo. She sang in the Peabody Children's Chorus in Baltimore and went on at Glenelg High to lead the madrigal choir, perform in plays and sing with the jazz band.
"Jackie was a real go-getter and a leader," recalled Nancy Buckle, Glenelg's music teacher. "I really think there's no stopping her, no matter what she decides to do."
Despite the accolades, Congedo said she was "too practical" to envision a musical career and decided to minor in voice and major in biology. Serious about science, she studied abroad in the rain forest of Belize during the winter term of her freshman year.
A semester later, she was still taking voice classes but had switched her major to broadcast journalism.
"I knew I wouldn't like being stuck in a lab all day," she said, "and I recalled how I loved being a part of GMTV at Glenwood Middle School."
As one of the student anchors for morning announcements, Congedo displayed "such a self-confident and outgoing personality," said Donna Sanders, middle school counselor. "I tell people Jackie got her start here at Glenwood."
As a college student, Congedo followed a rigid course schedule and took to heart her professors' advice to go after competitive internships. She interned at WJLA, did a stint at CBS Network News as an International Radio and Television Society Fellow and later returned to WJLA. She graduated with a 4.0 grade point average.
Lee Thornton, chairman of broadcast journalism at the university, said Congedo's internships clearly proved to WJLA that she was "a real gem."
"Jackie has 'it,' and I knew she did the minute she walked into my class," continued Thornton. "She is well-equipped to report on the multiple platforms of journalism, and that's what journalists need today. I am a big fan of hers."
Since beginning her career in July, Congedo has covered Montgomery County for NewsChannel 8, a cable station that is broadcast in Washington and in suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia. She carries a television camera, tripod stand and microphone to her cable assignments and not only films her subjects while interviewing them, but films herself introducing and closing her segments.
"I've always been artistic and imagine my job as a big crafts project, where I get to do everything and then pull all the pieces together," she said. She began contributing to ABC-7 about a month ago but doesn't do her own filming for those reports.
The true lure of the profession for Congedo lies in the opportunity to make a contribution to society, she said, and in the challenge of staying on top of local events.
"My mom says I am a born performer, and that my career is a natural extension of that," she said. "But I don't consider myself as performing; I'm just comfortable in front of the camera and want to be involved in the issues confronting our viewers."
One issue that the newly minted reporter recently covered involved a Montgomery College student with epilepsy.
"I broke a story about parents protesting their son's inability to drive as a valid reason for college counselors to recommend that he drop out of an off-campus class," she said.
"It wasn't that the school was trying to exclude him, but they didn't feel compelled to offer him transportation, either. There was no precedent for this situation, and there were strong opinions on both sides."
After the story aired, Congedo said that she was pleased that school officials contacted her to say they felt her report was fair. Then, just recently, she learned that the college has agreed to provide transportation for the student to attend the class.
"Knowing that my work can make a difference is very gratifying," she said. "For a day or two, I am involved in somebody else's story, somebody else's life, and I am grateful for the chance to put that story up for public debate on television."