Columbia journalism student Mariel Padilla wins a Pulitzer at 23

After graduating, she will be joining The Trace, a nonprofit news organization, as a fellow. She will be investigating gun violence.

After graduating, she will be doing a post-graduate fellowship at Columbia.

By Cristina DC Pastor

“It feels unreal. I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet. I’m still processing it.”

That’s Columbia journalism student Mariel Padilla describing how she felt on learning this week she won a Pulitzer Award. She is 23 years old.

She was attending class on April 20 when a friend texted, asking if she knew she won the Pulitzer. The investigative article, “Seven Days of Heroin,” by The Cincinnati Enquirer won in the Local Reporting category. Mariel, then an intern at the Enquirer, was part of the team that produced, in the words of the Pulitzer judges, the “riveting and insightful narrative and video about Cincinnati’s heroin epidemic.”

More texts and emails followed. Mariel was excited, in shock, but she was in class listening to her professor and, “I didn’t want to interrupt the class.” Her editor at the Enquirer Bob Strickley confirmed with a text: “Congratulations. You’re a Pulitzer winner.”

Right away, she texted her family to say the Enquirer just won the Pulitzer “so I kinda won too.”

She cracked up at the memory of how it all happened, friends asking why she did not erupt with excitement. It’s a Pulitzer, the teacher would understand.

“It’s not my personality,” she said when interviewed by The FilAm.

Mariel is graduating this May from Columbia Journalism School with an M.S. in Data Journalism. Her parents will be coming to NYC to see her march, their first time together after the Pulitzer.

The middle child of three siblings, Mariel was born in Charleston, South Carolina. At age 2, her family moved to Indiana where her father worked at engine maker Cummins as an engineer. Her mother taught Math at The Citadel Military College of South Carolina and later joined her dad at Cummins. She has two brothers, ages 21 and 28.

She was an English and Communication major at the Miami University in Oxford, Ohio when she decided to take up a journalism class. She did a lot of entertainment reporting and writing about the students’ interest in music. One of her assignments was to report on local news in a small town. She wrote about poverty among children in a local elementary school.

She thought, “I should do this journalism thing. I love reporting and writing and I want to really help people…I started taking more journalism, and I got an internship.” Although her interest would pivot toward journalism, she decided to complete her degree in English.

Proudly holding a copy of the Enquirer.

Proudly holding a copy of the Enquirer.

At the Enquirer, she was part of a team that followed and filmed heroin addicts some of them while under arrest, overdosing while driving with their children. The investigative team interviewed families as well as police officers and health care workers.

“The entire 60-person newsroom worked together on this project,” said Mariel. “It was executed/reported in one week, 24/7. I was only there for the summer but did most of my contributions during that one week.”

Mariel collected opioid-related arrest slips from the county jail every morning and created a database.

“This database was used to find sources and personal overdose stories. I also interviewed local forensic scientists who process drugs seized by police officers. They told me about the recent rise in fentanyl and carfentanil and how the increasingly dangerous substances were affecting their work. I also partnered with another journalist and reported on how children in the city were being impacted by the opioid crisis. We observed family visitations and talked to the parents and children separated by Hamilton County children’s services,” she said.

“Seven Days of Heroin” was published in 2017. The following year, Mariel moved to NYC to pursue journalism more seriously. The Pulitzer came shortly after.

“I was happy with my classmates hugging me, congratulating me. I was happy but holding it in.
Walking home I let it out, I was just jumping up and down. It’s that kind of excitement,” she said.

Mariel Padilla is a contributing writer for The FilAm. Some of her articles:

-With Trump set to meet Duterte, FilAms examine ‘war on drugs’
-A producer, an actor, and a Rockette: FilAm representation in the entertainment industry
-Jossie Reyas: She cooked for royalty and socialites including a future U.S. president
-In Woodside, live music thrives, makes Filipinos happy despite what’s happening in the world
-‘What do we do if ICE comes to our house?’ and other DACA questions FilAms ask

© The FilAm 2018



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