Former NBC Editor Patrick Rizzo Once Reported on Environmental Issues. He Is Returning to CUNY to Address Them.

August 11, 2021

NBC's Rizzo returns for his Ph.D.


Patrick Rizzo (Photo courtesy of Rizzo)

By Lida Tunesi

This fall, Brooklyn College graduate Patrick Rizzo is returning to CUNY after almost 40 years for a Ph.D. Rizzo decided to go back to school after a successful journalism career to pursue his original interest in the sciences, motivated his children's futures and a passion for New York's shoreline landscapes. He will be studying under Professor Brett Branco in the Earth and Environmental Sciences program.

The Graduate Center recently spoke to Rizzo about his journey back to his alma mater.

The Graduate Center: Do you already know what you'll be studying for your degree?

Rizzo: Yes, I had a pretty good idea already when I applied. In the fall, I'll be starting at the Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay. I've already started reading up on subjects like resilience and how it applies to the environment, Jamaica Bay and its issues, and have started trying to learn the basics of geographical information systems, or GIS. I'm interested in natural features such as dunes and oyster beds, and seeing if they could be alternatives to things like jetties or sea walls in Jamaica Bay for flood control and improving the ecological features of the area.

GC: How did you get interested in these kinds of topics?

Rizzo: I grew up in Brooklyn and I've been surfing since I was 12. The ocean and shoreline environment have always been a part of what I did both outside of work and in work — I covered a lot of science stories and pushed for environmental and climate change coverage. I wanted to put my money where my mouth is and go into something that helps my city, helps my children, and helps other people's children. That's my big incentive.

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Rizzo surfing (Photo courtesy of Rizzo)

GC: You attended Brooklyn College for your bachelor's degree, so what drew you back to CUNY for a Ph.D.?

Rizzo: I chose the program for two reasons. First, I have excellent memories of Brooklyn College. I had great professors, and I had people who cared about me, my education, and my well-being as a person. Second, I already have a life here in New York City, and I was looking for a school that fit my lifestyle. I've always supported public education, and CUNY is and always has been a place with impressive research.

GC: Can you tell us about your time as an undergrad? 

Rizzo: I was under a lot of stress to pay for school, and the stress literally made me sick. I had a duodenal ulcer that hemorrhaged halfway through my second year at BC and nearly killed me. I was in the hospital for two weeks and was very weak afterwards. I had started majoring in geology, but after the sickness it was very difficult to continue in a hard science that required a lot of stamina. The department was great and offered to waive certain subjects, but in the end I switched to political science.

GC: How did that political science degree lead to a career in journalism?

Rizzo: I went to George Washington University for a year to study international affairs with a concentration in Chinese. But then I thought if I'm trying to learn the language, I should spend a year in the place, so I went to a teacher's college in Taiwan and lived in Taipei for a year. While I was there I did some freelance journalism, and when I came back I went to NYU's graduate school for journalism. When I was at GWU I was already tending towards a career in journalism and international affairs.

GC: How did your journalism career evolve from there?

Rizzo: I started out working for a trade paper covering the chemical industry. Then I got an opportunity to interview with Reuters, and I was with Reuters for 18 years. I covered financial markets, I covered the economy, and I was the northeast bureau chief during 9/11. I had a long and really fun career at Reuters, then I moved over to the Associated Press and spent five years there. I was the economics editor during the economic crisis of 2008. Finally, I finished my career at NBC News.

The GC: What led you to pursue a Ph.D. rather than retire after such a great professional career?

Rizzo: I retired from daily journalism about five years ago and thought O.K., I'll work on a book. But there's an old saying in journalism that there's a book in every journalist and that's where it probably should stay. So I said, let me come full circle and come back to what I originally wanted to do: go into the sciences and study geology and oceanography. I talked it over with my wife, who was very excited and supportive, and I applied, not thinking I would ever get in. I'm so grateful to CUNY for giving me this opportunity, and hope I can succeed.