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Student Journalist Goes From Beginner to ‘Pulitzer’

Pulitzer Center fellowship winner Audrey Henson on her reporting trip in Japan last summer, with officials from a dementia support group.
Pulitzer Center fellowship winner Audrey Henson on her reporting trip in Japan last summer, with officials from a dementia support group. Photo: Mariko Obata

Audrey Henson was undeclared before applying to the Pulitzer Center’s summer fellowship last year. But that didn’t stop her.

On a whim, and with just the program’s Reporting and Writing 1 course under her belt, she decided to write a proposal for the prestigious overseas reporting program. 

The rigorous application process required work samples, a breakdown of how the grant would be allocated, an itinerary for the time spent overseas and a 250-word proposal. 

The Pulitzer Center says it looks for stories of global importance “that would typically not make the headlines” without its support. So with that emphasis in mind, Henson began narrowing down ideas from places she herself wanted to explore, and which connected to her personal experience. 

“I was reading a local Japanese newspaper, the English version, and I kept seeing a lot of people writing about dementia, … how concentrated it is in Japan,” Henson recalled. The topic struck a chord with Henson, whose grandmother (also Audrey) is living with vascular dementia. 

“The more of yourself you can feel in a project, the more confidence you’ll have. And you can pitch it better too.”

“The more of yourself you can feel in a project, the more confidence you’ll have,” she explained. “And you can pitch it better too.”

Although Henson admits the application was demanding, she felt the amount of time spent preparing it was worthwhile in the end, regardless of the result. “Even if it doesn’t get picked, that’s still a [publishable] story you’ve done the research for,” she said.

Henson joins earlier winners, but challenges remained 

Henson’s hard work did ultimately pay off, earning her a  $3,000 fellowship to report from Japan last summer on dementia treatments. She was the third Hunter journalism student to win the fellowship, following Kadia Goba, who reported from Sierra Leone in 2018, and Amy Russo, reporting from Sweden in 2017.

Her resulting multimedia piece, “Treating Dementia in Japan: How a Mushroom and a Community Work Together,” accompanied by a short video and images shot by Henson, was later published on the Pulitzer Center’s website.

Henson discusses her Pulitzer Fellowship experience at a Journalism Department luncheon last fall. Photo: Kalli Siringas
Henson discusses her Pulitzer Fellowship experience at a Journalism Department luncheon last fall. Photo: Kalli Siringas

Even after winning the coveted award, Henson faced numerous challenges, from digging up sources on social media to finding an interpreter at the last minute. 

She explained that she wanted to work directly with Japanese organizations when she went overseas, as opposed to Western groups that were located in Japan. That was a challenge — until social media came into play. 

“The Dementia Improved Support Association of Japan (DISA) — they were one of the few organizations that got back to me. I found them on Facebook, oddly enough, because I was coming up empty on Google searches,” she noted.

Another complication just days before flying out was locating an interpreter who fell within her tight budget. With some interpreters charging upwards of thousands of dollars a day, Henson said, “I was panicking.” Finally, another online find, Eric Odle, an Alaskan native who studied Japanese in school, came to the rescue by agreeing to meet her in Japan. 

Once in Japan, DISA connected Henson with key resources, like Professor Masao Mori, the chairman of the Improved Dementia Association of Japan, whose goal is to make the world dementia-free by utilizing Reishi mushrooms, which some research has shown to improve cognitive memory.

One of the things that drew Henson to DISA’s research was its emphasis on preventative measures, as so many people suffering from dementia are left dealing with a terminal diagnosis and little recourse. 

Henson reported that Mori is developing a pill called Kouka, mainly derived from Reishi mushrooms, which some studies indicate “help the circulation of capillary blood flow to the brain.” During her fellowship, Henson was able to travel to DISA’s Reishi mushroom farm, where Mori and his team grow their supplies.

‘Writing is the hardest part’

Even after she returned from her several-week-long journey, obstacles remained. 

Henson found herself sitting in front of a computer, wishing she’d written the story along the way.  “The writing is the hardest part,” she remarked.

But with her story completed and published, Henson traveled in late October to the Pulitzer Center in Washington, D.C., where she presented her findings to the Pulitzer Center, as well as to the dozens of other fellows who were also sharing their work. 

“Utilize your resources. … You’re not doing it alone.”

In comparison to the writing, Henson’s presentation was a breeze: “I do stand up comedy and stuff, so that was easy for me.”

Now, with a Feb. 28 deadline approaching for Hunter students to submit their proposals for the 2020 fellowship, Henson reminds students the process is a team effort. 

“I was in [Professor] Adam Glenn and Sissel McCarthy’s office all of the time. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without their help,” she acknowledged. 

Henson’s main advice for those applying to the 2020 Pulitzer? “Utilize your resources. … You’re not doing it alone.”


If you’d like to apply to the 2020 Pulitzer Center fellowship, join a Feb. 6 luncheon discussion sponsored by the Journalism Program to cover all the details on how to submit a successful application and to brainstorm your ideas. Please RSVP here.

Deadline to apply for the fellowship is Feb. 28. Feel free to contact Journalism Program Director Sissel McCarthy at sissel.mccarthy@hunter.cuny.edu or Journalism Internship Coordinator Adam Glenn at huntercollegejournalism@gmail.com to discuss your proposals.

Read more here, plus learn about the fellowship and how to apply, and explore reporting by other student fellows. You can download the application directly from the Pulitzer Center Campus Consortium website.

Our Journalism Concentration & Minor

The Hunter College journalism program is offered as a concentration or a minor within the Department of Film & Media Studies. Its curriculum is built around production courses in journalism and analytical courses in media studies. Learn more about our course requirements.

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