‘What Would You Do?’ veteran John Quiñones tells story of overcoming hardships to CFAM students

Journalism students pose with Quiñones after his morning speaking session. Photo by Andrew Smith

John Quiñones, ABC News correspondent and host of hidden camera show “What Would You Do?” dropped by Thursday to walk the UNO community through his life, detailing his journey from cherry picking in San Antonio, to national coverage at ABC.

“I couldn’t get a job in television for the life of me. It was like everyone had their one Hispanic reporter, and that was it,” Quinones said.

Journalism and Media Communication students were treated to a smaller, trade focused, speaking session at 11:30 a.m. with the rest of the community joining Quiñones in the Strauss Performing Arts Center at 2:30 p.m.

When not filming on a variety of TV shows, John Quiñones travels the country and speaks primarily on college campuses. Photo by Daytin Inserra

“It was quite inspiring for me because he does come from a Latin American background,” Kevin Ramirez, UNO student, said. “As a first-generation student, he [Quiñones] told a story that really impacts a wide group of students, including myself.”

Cornelius Levering, Multicultural Outreach Coordinator for the office of Student Leadership, Involvement and Inclusion, got to see Quiñones outside his TV screen for the first time after a childhood watching “What Would You Do?”

“I was a journalism student and hearing him speak about the obstacles and uphill battles fought to get to where he is now was certainly inspiring,” Levering said.

Levering was able to get one of his favorite powwow shirts signed by Quiñones.

Seventeen seasons and about one thousand social experiments later, Quiñones recollected some of the most touching stories from over the years.

Linda Hamilton, a homeless woman, unknowingly stumbled into a “What Would You Do?” scenario and helped a “fallen” actor after hundreds of passersby ignored the actor who appeared to be compromised.

“She said, ‘I think God put me on that corner, on that street, on that day, because he knew you were there with your What Would You Do? cameras and he wanted to teach people a lesson.’ Who better to teach that lesson than someone who has walked in the shoes of the homeless,” Quiñones said.

The DEAI committee for the College of Communication, Fine Arts and Media started planning Quiñones’ visit in Oct. 2022, the occasion equating to almost a year in the making.

“It was important for students to hear from a working broadcast journalist.  John Quinones would not take no for an answer, in both his pursuit of education and his life goals,” Dr. Michael Hilt, Dean of the College of Communication, Fine Arts and Media, said. “This resolve led him to the career he has today.

Quiñones detailed his early days at a local news station in Chicago where he worked undercover to expose a restaurant operator who housed seven undocumented workers that were forced to cook and clean without seeing a single penny.

“I call journalism a candle in the darkness,” said Quiñones. “The journalist is the person with a little flashlight or a little candle, and they can shine it up the darkest corners of the room to illuminate injustice, corruption, human rights violations and civil rights violations. When journalism is done, right, those are the kinds of stories that we should be telling.”

Herb Thompson III, head of the CFAM DEAI committee, presented student inquires in a round Q&A after Quiñones’ keynote speech Thursday afternoon.

One question asked to Quiñones pondered what stories or situations still trouble him the most.

“Decades after I swam across the Rio Grande myself, we still have the same issue,” said Quiñones. “There has been no comprehensive immigration bill, introduced by Congress. No one is fixing anything.” 

Proclaimed college sweatshirt aficionado John Quinones receives Mavericks merch from assistant professor Herb Thompson III. Photo by Andrew Smith

Quiñones’ did not leave empty handed and was presented with a UNO sweatshirt upon the conclusion of the event.

You can watch Quiñones on ABC tonight for a special edition of “20/20” at 8 p.m.