What he brings with him ‘every day’: ABC News’ Steve Osunsami reflects on journey, time at UI

Steve Osunsami wrote for The Daily Illini during his time at the University, and has since then worked with ABC News and has contributed to other news outlets in his career.

Photo courtesy of ABC News

Steve Osunsami wrote for The Daily Illini during his time at the University, and has since then worked with ABC News and has contributed to other news outlets in his career.

By Faith Allendorf, Features Editor

The Osunsami siblings walked home from grade school and into an unlit house. The power was shut off, an experience familiar to the family. 

Steve Osunsami grabbed the flashlight under his bed, remembering that he had a spare one on his desk, and flicked it on. The light illuminated his homework, and he scribbled in the answers.

Little did young Osunsami know, though, that he would go on to become one of the most influential contemporary journalists.  

For nearly 25 years, Steve Osunsami has worked with ABC News as the senior national correspondent in Atlanta. He has also contributed countless reports in outlets such as “Good Morning America,” ABC’s “World News Tonight With David Muir” and many others. Osunsami, a six-time Emmy award winner, has been recognized for his outstanding reporting on violence toward Black and gay individuals with empathy and passion. 

But before the limelight, from 1989 to 1993, Osunsami was a University student where he was an award-winning columnist for The Daily Illini, the first openly gay resident adviser, the first Black president of the Gay Student Union and much more. 

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

Osunsami, born in Washington, D.C. and raised in Peoria, Illinois by Nigerian immigrant parents, said he grew up “very poor.” His mom worked in a hospital cafeteria, and his dad was consistently in between jobs. Osunsami and his siblings worked too, entering the workforce in grade school. 

Osunsami said growing up less fortunate made him self-conscious. However, he looks back on that time with contentment and compassion.

“I used to think poorly of myself because of it,” he said. “Now, I draw strength from it. I think I am who I am today because it drove me my entire life.” 

Kyung Lah, a senior CNN national correspondent, has known Osunsami since college. She admires Osunsami’s work ethic.

“He was very focused on work,” Lah said. “He knew what he wanted to do and was very serious and very driven.”

Through his hard work and drive, Osunsami earned a President’s Award through the University that covered tuition. However, he still needed money for other expenses.

“Room and board for my junior and senior year weren’t covered, so I had to pay that and then of course have spending money,” Osunsami said. 

To pay for room and board, Osunsami became an RA at FAR during his sophomore and junior year. He was also the first openly gay RA, coming out in a column he wrote for The Daily Illini. 

Joining The DI was another source of income for Osunsami since writers were paid for each story. 

Osunsami’s most memorable experience while working for The Daily Illini was writing an award-winning column about how while he agreed with the cause, campus anti-racism protests create a “tense climate” and incline white students to align more with racist behaviors.

“Protests and isolation of white people in pursuit of anti-racism can cause racial tension to grow more,” Osunsami wrote in his article titled “Campus anti-racism protests missing problem’s real cause.”

Osunsami said the column made him “notorious” in the Black Student Union but not necessarily in a good way. Osunsami made some readers angry. He recalled a time when he and his friends went to Perkins, an old pancake house, at two in the morning.

“A group of folks I knew from the Black Student Union came in and sat at another large table, and the entire time they heckled me,” he said. “I wasn’t used to being disliked because of something that I had written.”

Despite being heckled, Osunsami was not upset. Instead, the experience showed him how influential his writing could be. 

“It was my most memorable experience at The Daily Illini because it showed me the power of the written word,” he said. “We have the ability to change lives and provoke thought.”

Osunsami also said he would have not written the column today. He explained the problems he sees with the article. 

“History shows us that protests need to make people uncomfortable to achieve change,” he said. “People who simply observe, arguing that they don’t really have a stake in the battle, can often be part of the problem.”

Although there are a lot of things he loved about attending the University, Osunsami’s feelings were, and still are, mixed. He said as a gay Black man, who came to campus in the heights of the AIDS crisis, he found himself isolated. 

“People were afraid of me — (they were) afraid to date me,” he said. “It was as if they thought I’d give them AIDS. It really did a number on my self-worth because of the way the white gay students looked at me and treated me.”

After graduating, Osunsami moved to Rockford, Illinois, and began working for Rockford WREX channel 13. There, Osunsami officially entered the journalism profession. He also said he felt “entirely different” in Rockford because the city had a more diverse population than Champaign-Urbana.

“I realized the problem was that I was going to school with a lot of kids from the same place — the suburbs of Chicago,” Osunsami said. 

In 2012, after reporting on hundreds of stories since his job in Rockford, Osunsami began battling prostate cancer. He had the mass surgically removed, but it came back three years later. He underwent chemotherapy and was out of work for three months.

This time, the treatment worked. As of January 2021, Osunsami has been cancer-free for 5 years.

“It definitely woke me up and changed my life,” he said. “There’s something weird about the first time realizing your life can end. It just sort of changes your perspective.”

Osunsami said anyone interested in journalism needs to “think long and hard” about it. He said the industry is tough and is a lot of work with not many resources. However, Osunsami advises young journalists to fight for “self-care.”

“Young people are coming into my workforce and telling the bosses what you won’t live without,” Osunsami said. “So I say keep that up.” 

Regarding his background, Jenna Harrison, an ABC News producer and close friend of Osunsami, said Osunsami is “the salt of the Earth” and an inspiration.

“I think what makes him so special is that he came from nothing,” Harrison said. “It reminds him of how he became relatable and he is somebody that people want to open up to. It’s still with him every day.” 

Today, Osunsami sits at a desk in his Atlanta home office. He speaks into a ribbon microphone, addressing his colleagues on the next big story ABC News will break that evening. 

As he works, a flashlight sits on the corner of his desk. There’s also one at the side of his bed and one in a closet – they are with him every day. 

“There’s not a chance in this world that my power is ever going to go out and I can’t pay the bill,” Osunsami said. “But I still keep these flashlights around because it reminds me of the journey.”

[email protected]