A spring graduate has received a Hearst Award — the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize in college journalism —  for breaking news coverage of the Florida International University bridge collapse, the first such prize for the school in two decades.

Jesse Scheckner, the managing editor of SFNS during the spring semester, won first place for his coverage. Current Training Editor Maria Gil received a tie for 13th place for her second-day coverage of the event. Both graduated from FIU magna cum laude earlier in May.

“It’s all very surreal,” Scheckner said of Wednesday evening’s announcement. “It’s a tremendous honor for the program, and it’s just amazing. I never expected that we would win an award of this magnitude.”

Brian Schriner, the dean of the College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts, said he was very happy to hear the news.

“We couldn’t be more proud of Jesse,” he said.  “The award is representative of the impactful work of our students, faculty, and the Department of Journalism + Media’s South Florida News Service.”

By Isabell Vasquez and Maria Fernanda Zarate
South Florida News Service
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In addition to a trophy, Scheckner will receive a $3,000 scholarship. The School of Journalism + Media also receives a matching grant.

“I hope it goes towards SFNS. I really want the club to grow so we keep producing great work,” Gil said.

The Hearst Journalism Awards Program was established by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation in 1960 to provide support to journalism education at the college and university level.

Program Director Jan Watten said the award is seen as the Pulitzer Prize of collegiate journalism.

“It’s a very coveted award,”  she said.

Scheckner also qualifies to participate in the 58th annual Hearst National Writing Championship, which will be held next month in San Francisco. A total of 29 first-place winners from various categories will compete in on-the-spot assignments for the chance to win up to $10,000.

Scheckner competed with 94 students from 53 journalism schools. A total of 105 undergraduate journalism programs across the nation are eligible to participate.

“I tried gathering various information, Maria Gil aggregated sources on Twitter and Gabriel Poblete went down on site and actually shot a video and spoke to somebody who’s quoted in the story,” Scheckner said. “I kind of pulled it all together, cut through what I thought were probably inaccurate things that were being said about it and really tried to create a comprehensive overview as best as possible.”

The 174-foot, $9.3-million bridge fell across Southwest Eighth Street, killing at least four, injuring nine and trapping at least eight vehicles underneath. (Photo credit: Gabriel Poblete)

The 174-foot, $9.3-million bridge fell across Southwest Eighth Street on March 15, killing six, injuring many more and trapping at least eight vehicles underneath. (Photo credit: Gabriel Poblete)

According to the program’s website, entries in the breaking news category must be a single article written by a single undergraduate journalism major or recent graduate. As the lead reporter, Scheckner qualified for the award.

Assistant Managing Editor Victoria Salas edited the video that accompanied the story.

“I feel very proud of him. As a managing editor, he was very helpful to me, and he is a great writer in general,” Salas said.

The program awards up to $700,000 in scholarships and grants annually.

Dan Evans, an FIU associate professor and SFNS news director, said he first heard about the collapse when he got off a plane in Managua, Nicaragua. Despite being in Central America, he said he was able to assist with the editing via the internet and WhatsApp.

“One of the things that was quite amazing to me is how well they functioned without me being physically there,” Evans said. “It’s a testament to the strength of the team as a whole.”

The South Florida News Service, launched in 2009 by Associate Professor Teresa Ponte — the current Department of Journalism chair — and Associate Professor Allan Richards, provides students with an on-campus journalism internship experience.

Schriner said high-quality journalism education, such as the type students at FIU receive, are essential for a functioning democracy. In addition, the on-the-ground training they receive at SFNS is central to the school’s commitment to have them work as actual journalists as part of their studies.

“The quality of the students’ work under the leadership and mentorship of Professor Evans, Professor Ponte and Professor Richards is unparalleled in higher education journalism schools,” he said. “The SFNS is central to our success.”

Assistant Professor and Internship Coordinator Lilliam Martinez-Bustos said it’s great when FIU students are recognized for their work. It’s something that other students might see as another possibility for them.

Scheckner currently works at Miami Today, a weekly newspaper located in Coconut Grove. Now a full-time journalist, he said he learned to always take a chance with a challenge.

“Whenever an opportunity presents itself for you to be able to do the work that can positively contribute toward not only to your profession but just the greater good serving the public interest, you gotta take it,” Scheckner said.

This is only second time an FIU student has received a first-place Hearst Award in the school’s history. Rachel Warren-Stauffer won the prize in 1998 for writing a personality profile.