If David Bulla’s career had a voice-activated GPS system, it would probably say, “Start driving on sports road, then merge onto journalism highway. From there, take a pit stop for more education and finally make an exit onto teaching street.” Alas, GPS systems don’t map out our futures so seamlessly (at least not yet).
Bulla found his way into journalism through a passion for sports. His career started in the late 1970s in the sports section of the Greensboro Daily News and Record, where he worked throughout his college days at University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
After college, he got a gig covering the local baseball team at the Durham Sun. He then took a sports editing position at the Chronicle in Winston-Salem, N.C., before taking his skills to an African-American community newspaper in the same town, where he covered historically black sports conferences. After his father passed away in 1986, he took time to reflect on what he really wanted to be doing in life. Sports journalism wasn’t it.
“I didn’t feel like I was contributing much to society,” Bulla said. “I also had no great ambition to climb the ladder.”
But Bulla did find satisfaction and talent in a field that allowed him to pass along the journalism skills he built for years: teaching. He left the newspaper world and became a journalism teacher in three different high schools in North Carolina. But sports never lef this side. He coached basketball, track, cross county and tennis in those 12 years.
“I do think I have probably more of a talent for teaching and coaching than when I was a reporter or writer,” Bulla said.
When he decided to move onto collegiate academia, he obtained his master’s in journalism from Indiana University and his Ph.D. in mass communication at the University of Florida in the early 2000s. From there, he spent several years as a journalism professor at the University of Iowa.
“Life with David was exciting because there were so many ideas that were going on in his head and in other people’s heads because of him, because of the way he approached life, essentially,” said Mark Witherspoon, a former colleague at University of Iowa.
At Iowa, Bulla got more involved with SPJ, which he’d also participated in during his time at IU. He became chairman of the First Amendment Day committee, organizing five days of events that were each dedicated to a different pillar of the amendment.
“I love that SPJ works with academia, and this is a great partnership,” Bulla said. “I think that it’s so important, and it’s wonderful for our students.”
Since Bulla believes SPJ is relevant to all journalism students, he’s taken the organization abroad, to where he currently teaches at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. He and his wife moved there in 2011 to be closer to her aging grandfather.
This year, the 20 students of the Zayed University chapter organized an event called J-Day under Bulla’s direction. During J-Day, his students brought professional journalists to the American high school in Abu Dhabi. The pros taught the high schoolers about news, feature and broadcast reporting.
Razan Elzabair, the SPJ chapter president, said Bulla has inspired her both as a leader and as a journalist.
“He showed me that I can be a leader, and a great one at that, too,” she said. “I remember going to him and telling him that I’m under so much pressure, and all he would say is that ‘I know you can do it.’ That alone made me work harder just so I wouldn’t disappoint him.”
Though taking SPJ international has been an easy transition for Bulla, he said many other challenges come with teaching journalism internationally. Perhaps the greatest difficulty is creating really great writers out of people who write in multiple languages.
He also noted that because there isn’t a strong journalistic tradition in the Middle East, it’s often hard to get his students to understand why journalism is needed and why freedom of the press matters. But if Bulla’s experience abroad has taught him anything, it’s that teaching journalistic skills can be translated across continents.
“Students are the same worldwide,” he said. “They want to learn the skills and get the jobs.”