Chandelis Duster recently welcomed a brief break from her hectic workday in the nation’s capital.
“I’m in the middle of the newsroom, and it’s bustling today,” Chandelis said, apologizing for the excessive background noise.
The Florence native, who’s not quite 30, is living her career dream of working at a major broadcast media outlet.
Chandelis’ mother, Ethelene Duster, is the former deputy director of Lauderdale County Emergency Management Agency. Ethelene said she likes to believe she is a contributing factor in Chandelis’ success so far in her young life.
“I raised my daughters to know if there’s something they want to do, they can do it,” she said. “I told them, can’t should not be in their vocabulary. I taught them to have faith and believe in themselves. I told them to take the character the Lord gave them and aim high. It’s not so much that Chandelis is overly ambitious, she just aims high. I told my girls, whatever you be, be the best at it.”
Ethelene said Chandelis has never been shy and she believes her daughter is in the perfect career for her personality.
“It’s not so much that she wanted to be the center of attention, but she liked to be in the middle of things that were happening,” she said. “She’s more or less always had that demeanor about her. She’s always been a go-getter and a people person.”
Chandelis’ first love
While a student in high school, Chandelis discovered a passion for theater, which led to her pursuing journalism.
“When I was at Florence High School, that’s when I really got into the arts,” she said. “My theater teacher, Donnie Bryan, was also my English teacher. I wanted to get out of the creative writing elective I was in because I was horrified of writing. He told me I would be good in theater. I’ve had a love for theater ever since then.”
Throughout high school, Chandelis was active in theater. She was inducted into the International Thespian Society and still carries the membership card in her wallet. She served on the Alabama Thespian State Student Board and started developing leadership skills.
“I really thought I was going to take the path of acting,” she said. “It didn’t turn out that way. I had offers from schools but it was just too much money. Plus, my mom didn’t want me to be an actor poor on the street. She told me I had to go to school for something else.”
As a freshman at Troy University, Chandelis took her mother’s advice and declared broadcast journalism as her major. She briefly held on to her dream of being an actor by keeping theater as a minor.
“I always liked broadcast journalism, even growing up,” she said. “I always watched Oprah — I’ve always had this kind of flair for the news. While I was at Troy, I realized acting was not what I wanted to do.”
As a sophomore, Chandelis moved to Virginia to be closer to her older sister after her brother-in-law was deployed to Iraq.
“I transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University,” she said. “I really took up journalism there. While there, I decided my passion was radio. I love radio. I wanted to be an on-air radio personality.”
Her first internship was at Shoals Radio Group in Tuscumbia. The next semester, she did an internship with another radio group doing promotions and programming. In 2010, as a senior at VCU, Chandelis interned with yet another radio group doing promotions for several different stations with all types of music formats.
Two and half years later, Chandelis hit a bump in the road. The radio group where she was working started making changes. Some of the changes didn’t sit well with her, and Chandelis found herself questioning whether she belonged in radio.
Chandelis left radio.
“That whole experience, even though I suspected company politics were at play, it hurt,” she said. “It made me really re-evaluate what I wanted to do.”
She said it took time and it was a difficult lesson to learn, but eventually she took her passion for broadcast journalism and shifted her focus from radio to television.
Shift to DC, television
“It (broadcast journalism) was in my blood,” Chandelis said of her decision to go to graduate school.
Even as a kid, Chandelis was fascinated by Washington, D.C. At 9 years old, while a student at Shoals Christian, she took a school trip and her class met with elected officials on Capitol Hill.
When she started researching graduate schools, she discovered American University in Washington, D.C.
“My mom and I went up to visit it,” she said. “I loved the campus. I loved where it was. It is directly down the street from NBC News Washington headquarters, where I am right now.”
Chandelis saw graduate school as her fresh start and entered into an 18-month program at American University.
“That was 2014,” she said. “My grad school program really solidified me on the TV side. They threw us out there to the wind. I was covering hearings on the hill. I covered a Supreme Court case. It terrified me.”
Although she recalls being intimidated by several of her early assignments, Chandelis said it was literally trial by fire and each assignment strengthened her skills.
“I did well in grad school, and that fueled my passion even more,” she said. “I thought for sure I would get an internship at a TV station but that didn’t happen. By the time graduation rolled around, I didn’t have anything lined up.”
While in graduate school, Chandelis kept in contact with a VCU alumni who mentored her as an undergrad.
“He had recently retired from 'Nightly News,'” she said. “He had been with 'Nightly News' for 30 years — his name is Jeffrey Blount. We would go to lunch, and he would go over my college reels. I call him my NBC dad. He told me about the NBC DA (desk assistant) program.”
Chandelis had a friend working as a production assistant at NBC who put her in contact with the right person. She describes the desk assistant program as being an 18-month program with 13 rolling spots — slots are filled as people leave.
“I applied at just the right time, someone was leaving,” she said.
Chandelis was having lunch with her mother when she got the call with a job offer.
“The first thing out of her mouth was, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re going to work with Lester Holt,’” Chandelis said. “She’s a big fan. It was such a big turning point for me.”
As a desk assistant, Chandelis worked with different departments at NBC. She has worked with Lester Holt and "Nightly News," she has also worked as a production assistant with MSNBC.
“I got to run scripts for heavy hitters like Mike (Brzezinski) and Joe (Scarborough) of ‘Morning Joe’ and Andrea Mitchell,” she said. “I got to work with ‘Meet the Press.’ I got to go out and do some producing on the hill for MSNBC.”
On the weekends, desk assistants rotated shifts covering the White House.
“Here’s my favorite part of my career so far,” Chandelis said. “It was my turn, and I was so nervous. President Obama decided to go golfing in Maryland. I got to ride in the motorcade. That whole experience was so surreal.”
During that assignment, Chandelis felt as if things had come full circle for her.
“I went to the inauguration the first time President Obama was elected,” she said. “I was out on the National Mall. I never would have thought seven years later I would be sitting in a presidential motorcade. Even when I think about it now — did I really do that?”
Thirteen months into the desk assistant program, Chandelis accepted a position as an associate producer with NBCBLK.
“Associate producer is an interesting title,” she said. “I do a lot of reporting and writing. I love going out on assignment. I was out there on inauguration day covering the Black Lives Matter protest. I covered the Women’s March on Washington.”
Not only did Chandelis’ mother break ground as Lauderdale County EMA director, her father, Joe Duster, was the city of Florence’s first black firefighter.
When asked if she feels as if she’s breaking ground with her career at NBCBLK, Chandelis said she’s not there, yet.
“It’s still early on,” she said. “It is scary — my first job ever working in television was at network. I’ve been here, it’ll be two years in November. I always wanted to be on TV, but I thought I would start local and bump my way up. That’s the way a lot of people do but it didn’t work that way.”
Although Chandelis is a small-town girl living her big city dream, she’s still aiming high. She knows her early success is the exception rather than the rule and she doesn’t take anything for granted.
“I don’t feel as if this is just work,” she said. “I’m learning. I’m in an environment where I can stop somebody like Chris Matthews and ask him a question. I get so much guidance. Kristen Welker has given me so much advice. I have to say, I have colleagues who work at other places and the environment here is very supportive.”
She enjoys challenging herself but doesn’t feel an overwhelming sense of competition. She feels like a small fish in a small pond with big fish.
“I feel like I am my own competition, especially as a woman of color,” she said. “In this industry, on the network level, I’m always thinking about how I can be better. I want to be good at not only writing my stories, but building and maintaining relationships with my sources.”
She pushes herself. Sometimes, she said, she pushes herself too hard but feels fortunate to have people around her — even in management — who keep her on track.
“I can go and have a meeting with our bureau chief, who’s African-American, and he is encouraging,” she said. “Not only does he tell me what I’m doing right, but he tells me where I need to tighten up. I appreciate that and it has made me so much better.”
Chandelis is glad she didn’t let one bad experience early on in her career sidetrack her from being a journalist. She’s actually grateful for the experience because it taught her about trust, forgiveness and perseverance.
“The thing I learned from both my parents is to forgive those who hurt me,” she said. “I didn’t do it for them, I forgave them for me. And, I moved on. I am thankful I was able to put that in the past and keep moving forward.”
Ethelene Duster said her daughter may be young, but she has fought for where she is in her career. She especially admires how her daughter never lets anything get her down.
“If at first she doesn’t succeed, she’s going to keep on until she gets what she’s aiming for,” she explained. “She learns from her experiences and she loves to experience new things. I’m quite sure she still has big things to do.”