Alumni in Focus: CCAS Community Share Art and Stories

Photographer Max Hirshfeld, BA ’73, channeled his vision into telling his parents’ love story. Reporter Andrew Desiderio, BA ’17, uses his journalism degree on Capitol Hill.
May 4, 2023
Photographer Max Hirshfeld, BA ’73 (left) and journalist Andrew Desiderio, BA ’17.

Photographer Max Hirshfeld, BA ’73 (left) and journalist Andrew Desiderio, BA ’17.

Two CCAS graduates shared how the skills and experiences they acquired at GW helped shape their careers and lives. First, accomplished photographer Max Hirshfeld, BA ’73, discussed his book Sweet Noise: Love in Wartime, which tells how his parents’ love story endured the Holocaust. Then Capitol Hill reporter Andrew Desiderio, BA ’17, explained how GW played an important role in his career covering Congress and gave advice for aspiring journalists.

Max Hirshfeld, BA ’73

Q: Where did you grow up and how has your background influenced you today?

A: I was raised in Decatur, Alabama, by parents who had survived Auschwitz, and though Alabama and Auschwitz are polar opposites, those two experiences had a profound effect on who I became.

Q: What is your most memorable only-at-GW moment? 

A: As part of a nationwide strike against Nixon’s April 30th, 1970, expansion of the war in Vietnam into neighboring Cambodia, I joined other residents of Welling Hall and dozens of protestors and marched to the block on Virginia Avenue in front of the then-Howard Johnson’s. After being surrounded by officers from the Metropolitan Police Department’s Civil Disobedience Unit, we were tear-gassed and ordered to disperse. 

The four students killed at Kent State University on May 4 of that year fueled campus eruptions nationwide, and being a witness to this thrilling yet terrifying moment in history was a lesson for that kid from Alabama. A year of increasing awareness of the unbridled power of institutions to dictate societal norms coalesced in an instant, perhaps superseding every class I took that year.

Q: Tell us about your current professional role and why it excites you.

A: In May it will be 50 years since I graduated GW and also 50 years since I started my career as a commercial photographer. Through GW, I was introduced to my first job in photography at the Smithsonian, and I still wake up every day grateful for that opportunity. Not a day goes by where I fail to recognize my good fortune to have spent all these years practicing something that many aspire to but few succeed at. My first book—Sweet Noise: Love in Wartime—was published by Damiani in 2019, and is now in development as a traveling exhibition. Additionally, I am also in production to mount an exhibition featuring my early work in D.C. So things have really come full circle.

Q: What accomplishment are you most proud of personally or professionally and why?

A: I am most proud of my two daughters who have become accomplished professionals in their chosen fields; my almost 50-year marriage to Nina Mason (another graduate of GW) and the sheer joy of spending every day in her brilliant company; and my book that tells the story of my parents’ lives before, during, and after the Holocaust.

Q: Was there a standout course, professor or organization from your time as a student that inspired your career path?

A: A.E. Claeyssens, who taught American literature and creative writing, had unquestionably the most dynamic presence of any professor. There was rarely an empty seat in any of his classes, and his ability to add drama and theatrical flourish to even the most banal passages from a book, a play, or this student’s feeble attempts at depth or poetry was a singular experience to witness. His teachings still inform the writing I do today.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

A: I was able to benefit from access to classes at the Corcoran as part of the consortium of colleges during my years at GW, so I was especially heartened when the university came to the rescue of the Corcoran and incorporated much of it to the benefit of both students and the larger community of artists in D.C.

Andrew Desiderio, BA ’17

Q: Tell us about your current professional role.

A: I’ve been reporting on Capitol Hill ever since graduating from GW, and I was able to hit the ground running because of the role GW (and the School of Media and Public Affairs in particular) played in my professional development. I’ve covered two presidential impeachment trials, dozens of Senate campaigns, Senate leadership and more. And I’ve developed an expertise in foreign policy over the last few years, which is an exciting beat on Capitol Hill. In that role, I’ve gotten to travel abroad with members of Congress. And I’m now covering Congress with my third outlet—first The Daily Beast, then Politico for four years and now Punchbowl News, where I just started in December.

Q: What accomplishment are you most proud of, personally or professionally?

A: I’m most proud of my coverage of the two Trump impeachments. I co-led our coverage of both, including the Senate trials, and broke a lot of news along the way. I’m also proud of my coverage of lawmakers traveling abroad, especially for last year’s NATO Summit in Madrid, which I was able to attend. That trip carried a lot of significance given that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had just begun a few months earlier.

Q: Was there a standout course, professor or organization from your time as a student that inspired your career path?

A: My standout professors included Steve Roberts, Cheryl Thompson, Roxanne Russell and Frank Sesno, all of whom were essential to my professional development as a journalist. I also cherish my time at GW-TV, where I served as the general manager my senior year and hosted the political news show, Colonial Crossfire.

Q: What was your favorite only-at-GW moment?

A: It was definitely the ability to work at various news organizations in D.C. while still attending classes as a GW student. This wasn’t something I could have done at any other university. I interned at BBC News and The Daily Beast during different semesters, and was able to balance my internship hours with my class schedule.

Q: What is one piece of advice you’d offer to students looking to pursue a career in journalism?
A: Persistence. It’s a good quality to have as a journalist when you’re reporting out a story, so it’s important to show persistence with job opportunities as well. The hiring managers will notice, believe me!