Whirlwind Ascent

Good Morning America’s Ginger Zee ’02 reflects on the Valpo foundation that began her career.

broadcastGinger Zuidgeest ’02 wakes up at 4 a.m. each weekday with resolve.

“Since Valpo, I’ve been on this constant mission,” she says. “One of my best friends calls me ‘The Explainer,’ and it’s true. When you’re a scientist on television, you’re an explainer. You have to take science and make it simple, while also teaching people something.”

Ginger, who goes by the moniker Ginger Zee (“Zuidgeest,” she said, was too difficult for people to pronounce), is perhaps most well known for her work as the lead meteorologist for Good Morning America, a role she stepped into in fall 2013 after several years of delivering weekend forecasts on the program. At only 32, Ginger is a seasoned television veteran, having worked for more than 10 years at television stations and networks throughout Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois.

It wasn’t the glamour of television that fueled Ginger’s interest in broadcast meteorology, though; it was the joy of making science meaningful to audiences. When people see weather on television, Ginger says, “They need to know, ‘Why did that happen?’ That’s a human reaction, and to be the person who can explain — it’s such an honor,” she shared. “I’m so proud of what I do.”

The ability to make a tangible difference in the lives of viewers was something Ginger discovered as a student at Valparaiso University. She loved science as a child, but it wasn’t until former professor John Knox encouraged her to complete an internship during her freshman year that she began to consider a career in front of the camera.

“When I came back from that internship, I had on-camera experience,” she says. “PBS in Merrillville was auditioning meteorologists, and I secured a position when I was only 19 years old.”

Professor Bart Wolf remembers Ginger as being absolutely determined to follow her passion.

“What struck me with Ginger was her focus on her career,” says Professor Wolf. “She knew what she wanted to do from early in her studies, and she worked very diligently on a career path that would get her there.”

After graduating from Valpo a semester early (with a meteorology degree and minors in mathematics and Spanish), Ginger worked for several newsrooms in her home state of Michigan. Then in 2006, WMAQ-TV in Chicago extended her a contract to work in the country’s third largest television market.

It was in Chicago that she began to receive national attention for her work — appearing on national newscasts at MSNBC and hosting her own show, “Storm Chasers,” on the Discovery Channel. Working in Chicago also meant Ginger was close to Valparaiso, and she took advantage of the opportunity to make a difference for students at her alma mater, designing and teaching the meteorology department’s first course dedicated to television forecasting.

“I loved being able to give students something I never had,” she says. “There wasn’t anyone to lead me through what I was about to experience, and TV is a strange, strange business.” “I made my students work very hard in that class and wasn’t going to stand for anything less,” she continues. “I had them dress as if they were going to be on TV, so they all had to wear suits. I told them, ‘If you’re going to do it, you have to live it now’.”

Ginger’s former student, Justin Thompson-Gee ’12, who is now a meteorologist at KAAL-TV, an ABC affiliate in Minnesota, remembers her as being open and honest about the realities of the television business.

“It was a blessing to have someone so experienced and so successful teach you and give you feedback every single day,” he says. “She brought real television experience to class and told us what to expect once we graduated without sugarcoating it.”

Ginger was intentional about sharing with her students both the positive and the negative aspects of the business — like the criticism one endures from the viewing public. “I made sure that they knew the negative parts without scaring them away,” she says, “because if someone would have helped me to start combating criticism the right way early, I think there may have been less tears, and I may have been an even stronger person.”

Meteorologists, in particular, face tremendous scrutiny, because they are both on-air personalities and scientists. In addition to the pressure to look flawless, audiences expect meteorologists’ forecasts always to be accurate.

“Most of us who are in this position, who are scientists who have studied meteorology the way we do at Valpo, have to be smart. You have to be an intelligent person to do what we do, so when that is cut down by what you look like, what you’re wearing, or how your hair is, it is so hurtful,” she says.

Ginger said she has missed teaching since she has moved to New York City, but she still keeps in touch with many of her students and is always looking for opportunities to support them in their careers.

“Ginger has always made a point to be available to me on a personal level, so it’s very nice to know that she is only a text, phone call, or email away,” says Justin. “When I was searching for a job after graduation, she asked me how the search was going and if there was anything she could do to help.”

“People make fun of the Ivy League, but they take care of each other. I think that’s what they do well,” says Ginger, who was the 2012 recipient of the Valparaiso University Alumni Association Outstanding Young Alumna Award. “They give each other opportunities, and that’s what the world is about.

“I would help anybody,” she says. “But, of course, if somebody tells me they’re from Valpo, and I have a choice, I want to give them that opportunity because I know that they have the education to back it up.”

Remaining connected to Valpo is important to Ginger. She credits the education she acquired and the connections she made on campus as playing a large role in her career and her quest to be ‘The Explainer.’ Though she has worked her way to one of the biggest stages one can reach as a broadcast meteorologist, she will never forget where it all began. “Valpo set me up for success, and I will always be grateful for that,” she says.

Excerpted from “Whirlwind Ascent,” a feature story in the spring 2014 issue of VALPO Magazine.