Nationally acclaimed journalist and author Joan Lunden urged Sacramento State students to seize opportunities – even if they seem unconventional or intimidating – while preparing to move from college to the working world.

“Whenever anyone asks if you can do something, for God’s sake, say yes. And then you’ll figure out how to do it,” said Lunden, a Sac State alum and Fair Oaks native who on Tuesday, March 12, was the featured speaker at the DEGREES Project’s annual recognition ceremony.

That attitude, Lunden said, helped pave her unconventional path to becoming one of the nation’s most visible TV personalities, an anchor at ABC's “Good Morning America.”

Joan LundenJoan Lunden is welcomed back to Sac State during her appearance at the DEGREES Project ceremony. (Sacramento State/Eucario Calderon)

Lunden had never studied journalism and had no experience on television when someone at KCRA in Sacramento offered her a stint as a “weather girl” in the 1970s. She was reluctant at first but quickly realized it might be a way “to get on that playing field” toward something bigger, she said.

She kept “saying yes” to various offers until she became a full-time “GMA” host, a position she held for more than two decades. She reported from 26 countries, covered five presidents and reported on five Olympic Games.

Her Sac State appearance was her first since 1972, when she was a student.

Most of her audience members were young people who participate in the University’s DEGREES Project, which provides academic support and services to improve retention and graduation of underrepresented students.

Lunden told them to be open to jobs, internships and other positions that might initially seem “scary,” unimportant or out of the box.

When KCRA offered her a position as a “weather girl trainee,” she said, “it seemed boring.” Plus, “I didn’t know a cirrus cloud from a cumulus cloud.” She leapt at the chance anyway, and the job led to better things.

Despite her lack of journalism experience, WABC in New York City offered her a job as a “street reporter,” covering everything from court trials to murders.

“That’s what you call on-the-job training,” she said. “I don’t think I’d ever been inside a courthouse before.”

She had “a couple of tough years” in New York, she said, but kept at it “because I knew I needed that kind of exposure to things that I hadn’t experienced in my safe, suburban environment” in the Sacramento area.

In 1980, Lunden took the anchor chair at “Good Morning America,” first focusing primarily on “women’s stories” such as parenting and home care. As the years passed, she got bigger assignments.

Lunden said her toughest challenge “was to consistently project enthusiasm, no matter what was going on” in her personal life.

A mother of seven children, Lunden currently is a special correspondent for NBC's “Today” show, as well as a motivational speaker and women’s health advocate. She is a survivor of breast cancer, and documented her medical journey in a memoir, “Had I Known.”

She encouraged Sac State students to follow their dreams, radiate enthusiasm and find passion in their work.

“This institution has dedicated itself to seeing that each of you leave here as excited, involved, principled people” who are ready “to make a difference in this world of ours,” Lunden said. – Cynthia Hubert