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Winter 2024

Stepping Into Today

With intentionality and purpose, Sheinelle Jones has willed herself into the morning show spotlight. By Adrienne Samuels Gibbs

Image: Nathan Congleton/NBC

At the Today show’s Rockefeller Plaza studio, Sheinelle Jones, co-host of the 3rd Hour of Today, sits at the anchor desk beside Dylan Dreyer and Al Roker and makes small talk before the show goes live. Then, with a cue from the stage manager, Jones is ON. She cheerily welcomes viewers back to the program with her signature, casual effervescence. It’s a little before 10 a.m. on this Tuesday morning, but the hosts of one of America’s most-watched morning shows have been at work for hours, jumping deftly from segment to segment.

Inside the studio, three cameras quickly pan to the left. Italian celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich is promoting her latest cookbook, chatting with Jones’ colleague Carson Daly. 

The cameras swing back to Jones and her co-hosts, who are seated at a high-top table. Plates are set with Bastianich’s famous eggplant rollatini. The anchors eat the smallest morsels possible. Banter. Make appreciative noises. Somehow avoid dripping sauce. Then, time’s up — and Jones heads upstairs for a segment with ballerina Misty Copeland. Let’s go. 

By 10 a.m., Jones ’00 has changed on-air locations no less than four times before she finally ditches her heels, slips on some flats and catches the elevator up to the third floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, where she pauses, at last, for a breather in her impeccably organized office, decorated in soft shades of white. Displayed prominently is her Medill Hall of Achievement Award and a framed selfie of Jones with Oprah Winfrey. 

“Alright,” she says, leaning into her chair. “Let’s just dig in.” 

Where to begin? There’s raising three talented children with her husband, Uche Ojeh ’01 (see “Let Love Be Your [Tour] Guide” below), training for the New York City Marathon, writing a book on advice from celebrity moms, maintaining friendships and expertly managing a high-voltage career. 

As one of a handful of Black women helming a national TV broadcast, Jones thinks it’s important for people to see her full self: accomplished, Black, a woman, a mother, a daughter, a wife, a volunteer, a pray-er, a proud Midwesterner — a human who embraces joy, who sometimes falters, sometimes loses her nerve … but persists nonetheless. 

“The Sheinelle you see on the Today show is the same entertaining, funny and compassionate person we all know off-air too,” says her former Weekend Today co-anchor Peter Alexander ’98, who first met Jones while both were students at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. “Sheinelle is one of those people you just want to be friends with, and I proudly say that as a friend of hers.” 

She keeps it real. And that’s a big reason so many viewers love her. 

“You feel like you know Sheinelle,” says Roker. “She is your sister, your friend. … She says the things or asks the questions you would want to ask.” 

In her work on Today and beyond, Jones has never been afraid to ask tough questions or break the silence on taboo topics. Inspired by her friends’ experiences with infertility, she executive-produced the 2021 documentary Stories We Tell: The Fertility Secret (with director and co–executive producer Andre Gaines ’01). The film spotlighted the issue and its impact on women of color, and Jones centered them unapologetically. She has also publicly addressed wearing her natural hair on TV. Her decision to go public with the hair care needs of, and expectations imposed on, Black women helped educate and empower viewers — and helped bolster the CROWN (Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act. Twenty-four states have now enacted some version of the law, which makes it illegal to discriminate against someone based upon their hair texture. 

“I’m trying to use this chair to make things better,” Jones says, “for myself and for others.”

From left, Today co-hosts Al Roker, Sheinelle Jones, Craig Melvin and Dylan Dreyer. Photo Credit: Nathan Congleton/NBC

STEP 1: VISUALIZE IT 

If you ask Jones the secret to her success, she answers with a story. “I grew up surrounded by the power of intentionality,” she explains, recalling her childhood in Wichita, Kan. At home, her mother would post inspirational quotes everywhere: the kitchen, the living room, you name it. It’s part of a matriarchal mindset, Jones says, passed down by her grandmother to her mother and now to her: a blend of affirmations, imagery and probing questions to guide the next generation down a path of success. 

“There were quotes in my bathroom when I was in eighth grade, [like] ‘If you can see it, you can be it,’” says Jones, who also kept a small jewelry box full of Post-it notes with her favorite quotes. Her bedroom walls became a vision board, covered with images of pop star Janet Jackson and TV news anchors, including hometown legend KWCH 12 anchor Cindy Klose. When Jones spoke at the Medill convocation in 2018, she shared the power of seeing “those words, those affirmations day in and day out. ... I visualized myself in a black-and-white glossy headshot right along with those anchors on my wall until, essentially, it became my reality.” 

“I grew up surrounded by the power of intentionality.”

STEP 2: MAKE THE ASK 

Jones acknowledges that her career and family success requires much more than vision boards and inspirational words. It demands hard work and perseverance — and being unafraid to ask for what you want. She remembers telling her grandmother, “I want to be a news reporter.” And her grandmother responded, “If you were going to be a news reporter, what would you have to do?” 

Jones, then a high school junior, mapped it out. Her grandmother called a friend from church — who happened to be a secretary at the local CBS affiliate — to ask if her grandbaby might get an internship. 

“I know now that high schoolers are not [typically] in local newsrooms, but I was there — in my cheerleading skirt after school, running [the] teleprompter for Roger Cornish and Cindy Klose,” Jones recalls, her eyes widening. “I was fascinated by it. I liked the lights. I liked the intellect. I liked the fact that you could ask questions and nobody told you to stop asking.” 

“I know now that high schoolers are not [typically] in local newsrooms, but I was there — in my cheerleading skirt after school, running [the] teleprompter.”

STEP 3: BE PERSISTENT 

So, Jones knew she wanted to be a journalist. She also knew she would need to find a university capable of supporting her fully and completely. After all she was a high achiever: a high school cheerleader, a clarinetist in the marching band and a member of the student council. 

One visit to Northwestern’s Evanston campus was all it took. Surrounded by ambitious and energetic students who seemingly had “a billion” internships, she could picture her future there immediately. 

Jones started at Medill in fall 1996 and studied with professor Ava Thompson Greenwell ’84, ’85 MS, ’09 CERT, ’14 PhD. She took articulation classes and studied Spanish. She joined the Northwestern News Network and pledged the historically Black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha. 

She was determined to have a billion internships too. The summer after her first year, Jones interned at the NBC affiliate in Wichita. Then, during her sophomore year, she cold-called BET Networks and asked for a summer internship. 

The human resources contact at BET was perplexed because summer was still 10 months away at the time. Jones just kept asking. Finally, they said, “We’re just gonna say yes because you’re so [eager] about it,” Jones says, laughing. That summer, she interned with BET in Washington, D.C. “I slept on [my sister’s] couch — she was [studying] at Howard [University College of Medicine],” Jones says. “And I worked at Rainbow [a clothing store] at the mall to make money, because [I wasn’t] getting paid.” 

At BET, Jones picked up another affirmation, overheard in the company cafeteria: “Ask for what you need. Take what you get. Use what you get to get what you want.” 

“I was like, ‘Ooh, I’m writing that down,’” says Jones. 

That quote has motivated her through every job. She carried it with her when she took her first job at WICS (then an NBC affiliate in Springfield, Ill.), where she reported, shot and edited her own standups … and when she moved to the Fox affiliate in Tulsa, Okla., where she served as an evening news anchor and reporter … and when she returned to her birthplace, Philadelphia, where she anchored Fox’s Emmy-winning Good Day Philadelphia for nine years. It sustained her when she started as an anchor for Weekend Today a decade ago and kept her afloat when she later added daily Today duties to her plate in 2019, ratcheting up her work schedule to six days a week at the time. 

“It’s been a climb,” she admits. 

“I’m trying to use this chair to make things better, for myself and for others.”

STEP 4: FIND YOUR SUPPORT SYSTEM 

To be sure, there were soul-shaking moments of self-doubt. Jones recalls one of her first live broadcasts on NBC — when she choked. Al Roker was sitting across the studio. And despite the teleprompter being right in front of her, she couldn’t focus on her lines. Intrusive thoughts ran through her mind as she imagined the millions of faraway viewers watching her. 

“My voice started quivering,” she says. “In this business, when [you get nervous], it’s hard to get [your voice] back. I remember tossing it back to Al, and in my head [I] just [knew I] had to get out. [After that broadcast,] I was like, ‘OK, that can’t happen again.’” 

She needed to reset. So, she went home to Wichita. And like most kids who move away from a childhood home where faith and family are front and center, she returned to where it all started: her church — the same church that, decades ago, accelerated Jones’ path to journalism, Northwestern and, eventually, the Today show. 

“Everybody was so proud of me,” she says. “[At church] they’re all like, ‘Stand up, Sheinelle. Tell [us] what you’ve been doing.’ Little did they know that I went home because I’m [thinking], ‘Oh, can I do this?’” 

Their affirmations lifted her spirit. “They poured back into me,” she says. During that visit home, “I remember grabbing a [random] pen from my [grandpa’s house, and] I thought, ‘OK, I’m gonna hold this pen [whenever] I start feeling less than.’” It was a reminder to steady her voice, a reminder that she had the support of her friends and family, her church — her whole community — behind her. 

Until recently, astute viewers might have noticed a pen in Jones’ hand during almost every broadcast. “Now [I] just [remind myself] who I am and that the good Lord didn’t bring me this far to just drop me off,” she says. “I don’t have to hold [the pen anymore] ’cause I have it inside.” 

Now Jones is paving the way for other Black women in broadcast media. She is a mainstay at National Association of Black Journalists conventions, always stopping to talk with an aspiring broadcaster. Those connections can make all the difference, she says. 

“I remember in Philly, there was a little Black girl [who] said, ‘I watch you every morning, and whatever color you’re wearing, that’s what color I wear to school.’ 

“That’s representation,” Jones says after a pause. “And that gives me strength. So when I look around, and I’m the only [one who looks like me in my workplace, I remember that] for people on the other side of the screen [they see someone who looks like them]. In that sense, they’re never alone.” 

“They’re all like, ‘Stand up, Sheinelle. Tell [us] what you’ve been doing.’ Little did they know that I went home because I’m [thinking], ‘Oh, can I do this?’”

STEP 5: OVERPREPARE 

Each success in Jones’ narrative is linked back to the ask, the intention, the visualization — and tons of hard work. In April 2023 she met her idol, Janet Jackson — and even danced with Jackson onstage during her tour’s opening weekend. In 2022 Jones interviewed another one of her heroes, Oprah Winfrey. Last fall her interview with a survivor of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., highlighted the importance of the continued examination of racial strife in the U.S. 

When it comes to these interviews, Jones does the bulk of the work off camera. And she overprepares. For the Oprah interview, for example, Jones and her team spent all night refining the questions at a hotel restaurant. 

Jones on set with Kayin (center), and twins Uche (right) and Clara (left). Photo Credit: Nathan Congleton/NBC

“There’s no phoning it in,” Jones says adamantly. “There’s no winging it. You can’t just sit down as a fan. The words are not just gonna come to you. You have to be prepared, forwards and backwards. I don’t allow myself to sit down [for an interview] until I’m ready. And if that means staying up the night before — OK.” 

Jones won’t let up when it comes to pursuing the next step — and that includes running her first marathon. After months of balancing her training with work and the care of her children, Kayin, Uche and Clara, she finished the New York City Marathon in early November. “[The marathon] forced me to be even more organized. Every moment of my day [had] to be accounted for,” she says. 

The one nonnegotiable? Being present for her children’s after-school pickup. It’s the highlight of Jones’ day. 

It’s hard to fathom how she fits it all in. In addition to the Today show, Jones also hosts Wild Child, an animal docuseries aimed at tweens, and the popular series Through Mom’s Eyes, which features interviews with the mothers of celebrities. She’s picked up some hilarious tales, like when NBA player Steph Curry was in middle school, preparing for his first basketball game. “They expected him to come and kill it. And his mom wouldn’t let him play because he didn’t do his chores the night before,” Jones says, laughing. “I would’ve caved!” 

Those parenting gems would make a good book, a friend said. 

Say less. Jones is now working on a book based on the series. It will likely come out in 2025. 

That’s the plan for tomorrow. For today, Jones knows she’s been blessed. “I’m thankful for being in a place where I can dance with Janet Jackson one moment and sit down with Jill Biden the next,” she says. “What a gift for the little girl who had Cindy Klose on her wall. What a gift.” 

Adrienne Samuels Gibbs ’99 is director of content at Medium and a Chicago-based freelance writer. 

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Reader Responses

  • Northwestern has national TV pretty well covered, from Mrs. Jones in the morning to two guys on different shows late night!

    Woody Zenfell Jr. ’67 Sunset Hills, Mo., via Northwestern Magazine

  • I love everything Sheinelle! Please continue being you — because you are smart, inspiring and beautiful, inside and out.

    Rhonda Lucas Mobile, Ala., via Northwestern Magazine

  • Congratulations, Sheinelle! Wonderful article on an incredible career. I watch you every morning and always enjoy all of your segments and interviews. You are a beautiful inspiration.

    Debra Riccio East Hanover, N.J., via Northwestern Magazine

  • Sheinelle, congratulations on your tremendous broadcasting accomplishment. My mornings are not complete if I have not had coffee with Sheinelle. Your depth of preparation of topic, your stunning outfits and your freshness are a compliment to your stint on Sheridan Road.

    I would love to suggest a broadcasting topic for your consideration. The history of the Northwestern Community Ensemble would be a story to tell. This group, organized in 1971, continues to be a superb outlet for Northwestern students.

    Bishop Perry ’74 Oakton, Va., via Northwestern Magazine

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