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Lillian Donahue, a junior Barrett Honors College student majoring in journalism, worked for over a month to get access to members of the Havasupai Tribe in the Grand Canyon for a story about proposed uranium mining near their community.
Through persistence and some helpful connections, early this year she gained permission to go to the isolated Supai Village located at the bottom of the canyon to interview tribe officials, advocates, and schoolchildren about their concerns regarding a planned uranium mine located less than 10 miles away. They feared mine operations could contaminate the turquoise water in Havasu Creek, an important water source with a unique ecosystem. The children had begun a letter writing campaign to take their message to President Trump and runners were traversing 20 miles of canyon trails in a run in support of their message; please keep the mine from operating and possibly contaminating precious ground water.
“The Havasupai tribe do not like media at all, so it took a month of negotiating to even get them to let me go down into their tribe,” Donahue said.
She took a helicopter into the canyon and hiked 12 miles to the village. She stayed in a small apartment for a few days while gathering information, shooting video, and interviewing sources. She was not allowed to shoot video footage in the village school, so relied on recorded interviews and photographs.
“I had never been to the Grand Canyon and I had never been in a helicopter and I did them both on one of the biggest stories of my life,” Donahue said.
Donahue’s persistence and storytelling skills paid off. She entered the Havasupai story and another about volunteers with No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes into the Hearst Journalism Awards Program, a competition for college and university journalists. She won first place in the Television II-News category and was awarded a $3,000 scholarship and a chance to compete in the Hearst National Broadcast Championship June 3-7 in San Francisco, Calif. At the national championship, Donahue will compete with other student journalists on producing spot news.
“Hearst is like the Pulitzer for college journalism,” she said.
In addition to the Hearst competition, Donahue’s summer will be filled with work as an intern at CNN in New York. The internship begins May 25.
After seeing many student journalists winning Hearst Awards with incredible and impactful stories, Donahue was inspired to follow in their footsteps.
“From a very early time at Cronkite I knew I wanted to be a Hearst contender,” she said. So from the very beginning, since entering Cronkite, she worked toward being worthy of consideration for a Hearst award, knowing that each school can only nominate two people.
“I had to advocate for myself,” Donahue said, explaining she met with Mark Lodato, associate dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, to ask that she be considered for one of the nomination slots.
“I'm going to be investigative; I'm going to be consistent; I'm going to tell impactful stories,” she said when Lodato asked her what made her worthy of being a Hearst contender.
Donahue was given a condition; if she could finish two in-depth investigative stories by February, she would be considered for a Hearst award nomination by the journalism school.
“Shortest month of the year, but longest month of my life,” Donahue said about February, during which she finished the two investigative stories that helped her lock up the nomination and ultimately the first place award in her category.
April 5 was a momentous day for Donahue. That day she found out she won the Hearst Award and would compete nationally, and she also was offered the CNN internship.
She was driving on Interstate 10 in Southern Arizona when she got a phone call from Mike Wong, internship coordinator at the Cronkite School, who asked her if she heard the news.
When Donahue was confused by his question, Wong revealed that she won first place in the Hearst Awards television category and that she would be going to the national championship.
Donahue took the next exit, turned around and drove to the Cronkite School in downtown Phoenix, where she went to Wong’s office to confirm the news in person. An hour later she received an email from CNN offering her an internship.
“I freaked out so much I had to go to the school's Meditation Center to calm down,” Donahue said.
Ultimately, Donahue said her thirst and passion to give a voice to the voiceless was what she thinks set her apart for the Hearst competition and the prestigious internship.
Donahue said her experience as a Barrett student was instrumental in pushing her into a deeper level of academic thinking, while her work as a student journalist at Cronkite pushed her into a deeper level of reporting.
“Whether it's my classes in Barrett or my classes at Cronkite, each school has pushed me into a deeper level of thinking and acting,” she said.
Story by Ranjani Venkatakrishnan, a Barrett Honors College student majoring in journalism.