Kiera Riley’s passion for journalism led to awards and a degree from ASU

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May 5, 2022

As a young journalist working on her high school newspaper, Kiera Riley felt trepidation about conducting interviews. Instead of letting fear get the best of her, she overcame that feeling by focusing on her interviewing and writing skills and in the process found a love of journalism.

She brought that passion to Arizona State University, where she became an award-winning writer who is graduating this spring with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, with honors from Barrett, The Honors College.

“I started on my high school newspaper at Cactus Shadows High School. At first, I hated it. I had a lot of anxiety about interviews in particular,” said Riley, whose hometown is Cave Creek, Ariz.

Kiera Riley

“Ahead of my first interview for my first story, I remember being consumed by my nerves. But after I started talking with my source and asking questions, it all dissipated. I left feeling elated. I was so excited to put the interview to paper, to share a story. In every interview after that, I would still feel that nervousness, but it was more from excitement than dread. I fell in love with journalism,” she said.

She applied to several universities, but affordable tuition and the journalism school brought her to ASU. She received the Mayo Clinic Scholarship and the New American University Scholarship throughout her four years as a Sun Devil.

While a student, she worked as a part-time reporter for The Arizona Republic and Cronkite News, a research assistant for a member of Barrett Honors College’s faculty, and managing editor of ASU State Press Magazine.

In 2021, she received the Best Print Article/Student recognition from the Maggie Awards for a story she wrote for State Press Magazine on psychedelics, their potential emergence in American health care and the potential consequences of commodification. The following year, she won second place in the Hearst Feature Writing Competition for a Cronkite News story on the dubbing of the movie “Star Wars” in the Navajo language, Diné.

Riley plans to pursue a career in journalism. “It’s a little up in the air as of right now. I’ve applied to a few internships and I’m waiting to hear back. For now, I’m ready to go wherever the job market takes me,” she said.

We asked Riley to reflect on her undergraduate experience at ASU. Here’s what she had to say.

What would you consider an interesting moment, story or accomplishment in your ASU career?

One of my biggest moments was interviewing a source for a story about “Star Wars” being dubbed in the Navajo language Diné for Cronkite News. My source, James Junes, had voiced Han Solo in the dub. Before getting on the phone with him, I talked to other voice actors who saw little obstacles in recording their lines for the dub as they were fluent in Diné. I expected the same of Junes. But I learned as we started talking about the recording process that though Junes could speak Diné, he could not read it. The frustration he felt trying to record his lines almost led him to quit. But right at his breaking point, he had an epiphany about how important it was to see this project through, to help others engage with the Diné language, to keep it alive for generations to come. The interview we had was full of pain and triumph and vulnerability. It was one of the most defining moments and conversations I’ve had in my time in journalism.

What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

My director at Cronkite News, Venita Hawthorne James, taught me the importance of the right details and the right descriptions to really engage a reader using language. I remember I was working on a story about social inequity in the cannabis industry and I visited a dispensary on assignment. I remember Venita advising me beforehand to really think about the five senses, what music is playing, what it smells like, what conversations are going on. When I stepped foot into the dispensary, I experienced the setting as opposed to just witnessing it. And my notes from the day showed me exactly how I should be assessing and describing whatever story I walk into.

Why did you choose ASU?

I applied to 10 schools in every corner of the country. But every other school had tuition that would’ve put me deep into debt, all while providing journalism programs that didn’t hold a candle to the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

Venita Hawthorne Jamestaught me the most about effective storytelling through the use of details as well as the steady and unwavering commitment to accuracy.

What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

Enjoy it while it lasts!

What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

I worked for State Press Magazine all four years. So I’d say my favorite spots are the downtown newsroom and the two newsrooms in Tempe, one in the Matthews Center basement and the other on the top floor of the Memorial Union.

If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

Adequate access to both K-12 and higher education for all, though I doubt $40 million would cover that these days. But I think adequate funding for both the core classes and extracurricular activities is essential. I was so privileged to have the newspaper program I did at my high school, despite lacking funding nearly everywhere else. Without it, I would have never found my calling.

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