Sarah Cohen was four years old when she started at The Park School. She was enrolled in the pre-kindergarten program while her older sister went to their neighborhood public school in the Town of Tonawanda. It wasn’t long before her sister, Rachel, joined her at Park.
“My sister came home one day from public school crying because she had flunked a math test,” Sarah recalls. “And the teacher told her, “That's okay because girls don’t do well in math.’ My mother got so furious, she pulled my sister out of public school and we just stayed at Park.”
Her mom’s decision apparently worked out well for Sarah, who graduated from Park in 1975, then went on to graduate from the University of North Carolina with a degree in economics, and later earned a Master’s in journalism from the University of Maryland. Cohen received a Pulitzer Prize while working at The Washington Post and today runs a Computer Assisted Reporting team at The New York Times. (Rachel Cohen also graduated from Park, class of ’71, and became an accountant after attending the University of Pennsylvania.)
Cohen’s career didn’t exactly follow a master plan. After earning her Bachelor’s degree at Chapel Hill, she worked as an economist for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. She was good at her job, but a series of promotions she was offered made Cohen question whether that was what she wanted to do long-term.
She found an adult education class in public relations that required her to take an introductory course in journalism.
“I took the reporting class and I thought, ‘Oh, this is fun!’” says Cohen, who decided to apply to graduate schools in journalism. After Maryland, she worked for newspapers in Tampa and St. Petersburg, FL, before moving on to The Washington Post.
In 2002, Cohen and two other Post reporters received the Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s highest honor. They produced a series of articles that, according to the Pulitzer citation, “exposed the District of Columbia’s role in the neglect and death of 229 children placed in protective care between 1993 and 2000, which prompted an overhaul of the city's child welfare system.”
After a dozen years at the Post, a new opportunity beckoned: to become a professor at Duke University. She became a Knight Chair in the Sanford School of Public Policy.
If you know anything about college basketball rivalries on Tobacco Road, you can imagine the mixed emotions that this Carolina Tar Heel felt upon taking a job at Duke.
“I had to park in the same parking lot as Coach K,” she says with a laugh, referring to Duke basketball coach Mike Kryzewski. “That was very difficult.”
Cohen started a project at Duke called the Reporters Lab.
“We tried to find ways to adapt some of the interesting new methods that are being used in the humanities and social sciences, and some of the big data things, and use them in investigative reporting,” she says.
A year or two ago, The New York Times approached her about working for them. She joined The Times in August 2012.
“My whole attitude toward these things is just say yes when something sounds good,” says Cohen, sounding like a true Parkie. “If you look at the trajectory of my career, it’s been that attitude that Park always instilled in us – the idea that if you could read and write very well, and if you knew how to learn, you could do whatever you wanted.
“It's that kind of confidence,” she continues, “that it's ‘okay, I don't know exactly how to do this but ...’ you're not stuck always doing exactly what you thought you were going to do. I think it’s the amount of freedom that Park let you think you had – whether you did or not.”