It’s an early morning in late April, and CNN anchors Poppy Harlow and Pamela Brown are packing their bags for the day and saying goodbye to their husbands and kids. Instead of heading to a bustling New York television studio or a government building in the heart of Washington, DC, as they have for most of their careers, both women are going to school.
With backpacks stuffed to the brim and stacks of assigned reading for the train rides to campus, Harlow makes her way to Yale, where she will soon finish her year-long Master’s of Law program, while Brown journeys to George Washington University for her respective part -time Master’s course. Although the two had spent their lives surrounded by the law—from growing up in households of lawyers to routinely reporting on Supreme Court decisions on primetime—it wasn’t until last year that either actually considered attending law school.
“I always sort of wanted a law degree, but I didn’t know how to make it work because I only really thought of the traditional JD, the full three-year beast,” Harlow says. “But then someone brought up this program to me, and it sort of fell in my lap as something I should try.” With two kids under the age of seven at home, the longtime anchor wondering if she would have the time or energy to take on something so ambitious, but then she thought back to her interview with the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg three years earlier. “I figured, well, she did it with a toddler and while her husband had cancer, so I’m just going to try,” Harlow recalls. “I decided I should just apply, even if I probably wouldn’t get in.”
A few months later, she was pleasantly surprised to receive acceptance to Yale, but with a new challenge now in her life, Harlow was not convinced going to law school and spending so much time away from home would be the right move. “My daughter was having some health issues and had been diagnosed with pediatric scoliosis, so I was waiting for her next set of scans to see if she would need a brace and what that would look like for our family,” she explains. “The reality is, when you’re a mother, that comes first. So, if my daughter was going to be in brace starting in the fall, I was not about to go to New Haven every day.” Luckily, the scans came back okay, and just before the fall semester began, she decided to pull the trigger.
Like Harlow, Brown had always had a strong interest in the law and had even planned on going to school for it, but after graduating college, she quickly fell into a career in political journalism and began working at CNN, so she cast her legal dreams to the sidelines. “It was just so nonstop that I never thought, maybe I should pursue this,” she says. “I honestly just realized during the pandemic that there would never be a perfect time, but my schedule did open up in a way that made it more doable since I now work weekends and have two days off during the week, so I thought maybe I could do something part-time.”
Brown started looking online to see what her options were in DC and came across GW’s program, which stated in the description that it was catered to journalists. “I felt like it was meant for me, and I remember sitting with my husband and the kids that morning while I was doing this research and telling them that I had just found this perfect program,” she adds. Two weeks later, Harlow announced her plans to attend Yale, and Brown felt more inspired than ever. “I called her up to talk about it, and she was so encouraging, so I just did it and applied it,” she remembers.
After receiving her acceptance to GW, however, Brown had similar reservations about having less time with her family, especially since her kids were both just toddlers at the time. “I already miss time with my kids on the weekends because I work weekends,” the anchor says. “So, I thought about how I could do this in a way that wouldn’t take away too much family time.” But since starting her program in January, Brown has made it a priority to minimize any overlap or conflict.
Both women were also tasked with fitting school into an already busy work schedule. For Harlow, whose Yale program is full-time, this meant taking an official break from anchoring. “Before I even applied, I went to CNN and told them that I was really interested in doing this and asked what they thought,” she recalls, noting that the company was completely behind her and said they’d find a way to make it work. “I do think that’s such a lesson for employers in this moment when we have the great resignation and so many people are sort of rethinking their careers—if your employee says they want to do something that will benefit them in their job, I think the default should be ‘we can make it work.’”
After getting in, it became clear that Harlow would have to step away from “CNN Newsroom” for the school year, but it was offered a solution to other problems, like the network’s need for anchors on holidays. “Since I have holidays off from school, I can do that,” she explains. Harlow also took the opportunity to film a new show for CNN+, the short-lived streaming service, on her free days during the fall and winter. “So, just because you can’t do your exact job doesn’t mean there’s not something else you can do.”
Brown’s program at GW, on the other hand, is part-time, so she never doubted whether she’d be able to continue her weekend anchoring duties; instead, it was a question of how she’d balance the two. “Once again, Poppy made it really easy for me because she paved the way,” she says. “And before I even approached CNN, I spoke to her to hear her experience.” Brown was certain that law school would only be a value-add for her employer, so she very much presented it as such, and they were in full support. “My show was always going to be my main focus, but they said that as long as I could keep up with those responsibilities and stay afloat with two young kids, I should go for it,” she adds.
Harlow and Brown always knew that their law programs would offer invaluable insight for their jobs at CNN, but once immersed in their classes, they were both surprised to learn just how much real-world application their lessons had. “The classes I’m taking are so relevant to what I’m covering,” Brown says, thinking in particular of a national security class that’s been dedicated to covering the war in Ukraine, from the role of the UN to whether Vladimir Putin has committed war crimes.
At the same time, law school has been a humbling experience for the anchors, who weren’t sure what to expect of their classmates, many of whom were a decade their junior. “I call them kids because they’re in their mid-20s to early 30s and I just turned 40, but they’re really geniuses,” Harlow remarks of her fellow students. “I just sit there and think, ‘you’re going to be a Supreme Court Justice, you’re going to be president, you’re going to be a senator,’ and it just blows my mind how bright they are.”
But the brilliance of the people sitting next to Harlow and Brown in their classrooms was nothing compared to the surprise of being back in the classrooms themselves. “It’s kind of surreal to be back in that setting, being called on by a professor and studying for exams,” Brown explains. “I really thought that was all behind me after I graduated from college, and even with law school always kind of at the back of my mind, I didn’t think I’d actually end up back in a classroom.”
For Harlow, it’s not so much going back to school nearly 20 years after finishing college that’s thrown her for a loop; instead, it’s going back to school as a parent. “I think being a parent in law school shapes my perspective even more than, or at least as much as, being a journalist,” she says. “How I feel about certain issues or laws is reflective of my perspective as a parent, whether it’s in criminal law, in civil procedure, or in constitutional law. So, that has been surprising to me, in an interesting way.”
There have also been plenty of smaller but equally unforeseen adjustments, from carrying an actual backpack to the role reversal of student life. “It’s so hard to now be in a position where someone is putting me on the spot and asking questions that I have to answer because usually I’m the one asking questions,” Brown says. “Going into it, I was a little insecure about that and worried about getting called on and not giving a smart answer—but I’ve been called on many times at this point, and my professors have been nothing but encouraging.”
And as much as they both expected the encroachments on family time, Harlow and Brown have been pleasantly surprised by the bond that going back to school has allowed for with their children. “My son really likes that he goes to school with his backpack and mommy goes to school with his backpack,” Brown says. “And it’s actually been a fun thing to share with my kids that mom’s doing the same thing, and it’s helped encourage them to get ready for school, knowing that after I take them to school, I’m going to school too.”
For Harlow, law school has meant tangible changes for her kids, especially her six-year-old daughter, but it’s also giving her the opportunity to set an example as a strong woman. “My mom went and got her doctorate when I was a little girl, and I was and am so proud of her,” she says. “So, being able to discover and explore what was so meaningful for her in addition to being a parent has really enabled me to do the same for my own daughter.”
At 40 and 38 years old, respectively, Harlow and Brown both feel like their lives—and careers—are still just beginning, but their experiences thus far have given them a new perspective on life and learning, one that they not only took with them to law school but have enhanced while there. As Harlow graduates from Yale, she reminisces on a favorite John Steinbeck quote and shares it with Brown, ahead of her second semester at GW: And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good. “I spent all four years of college trying to be perfect, and I think I missed out not only on a lot of joy but also on so much learning for the love of learning,” Harlow says. “But I did this because I wanted to, because I love it—even if I didn’t love the hours at times—and I love what it’s taught me.”
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