Alexandra Zayas

In the last 12 months, Alexandra Zayas, 29, won the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism, the America’s Promise Alliance Action Award and the Livingston Award for Young Journalists. She was one of three finalists in the investigative category of the Pulitzer Prize. And in the state of Florida, Zayas took first place awards from the Florida Press Club and the Society of Professional Journalists.

Zayas, who graduated from the School of Communication in 2005, won all the awards for a three-part series called “In God’s Name,” the result of a yearlong investigation concerning abuses at unlicensed religious children’s homes across Florida.

The Livingston Award for Young Journalists honors journalists under the age of 35 who have produced outstanding work in local, national or international reporting. The $10,000 award is one of the biggest general reporting prizes in the country. It judges print, broadcast and online entries against one another. Noted winners include Michele Norris, Christiane Amanpour, David Remnick and Ira Glass.

During her investigation, Zayas uncovered the abuse and torture that was brought upon children living in these homes.

“I learned a lot about investigative reporting, interviewing people about sensitive topics,” she said. “Learned how to manage a yearlong project, and figured out ways to get into places I thought would be impossible to get into.”

Not long after “In God’s Name” was published, the Florida House of Representatives passed a bill to provide proper supervision to these kinds of homes.

Zayas said she always knew she wanted to pursue a career in journalism. Born and raised in Miami, she watched the unfolding of many news stories that drew national attention. In the fourth grade, she lived through Hurricane Andrew as it ravaged South Florida, and in high school, she witnessed the Elian Gonzalez affair, which became a heated immigration and custody battle between the United States and Cuba.

“Growing up in Miami… it’s a crazy news city. I decided I wanted a front row seat for historic events,” Zayas said.

Zayas double majored in journalism and English literature at UM. Her first introduction to a real newsroom occurred when she was a sophomore. Zayas’ reporting instructor, Jon O’Neil, who worked at The Miami Herald at the time, was so impressed with her writing abilities that he offered her a freelance opportunity at the newspaper. Zayas interned at The Herald for the rest of her college years.

During her senior year, O’Neil helped her apply to more than 40 internships, she recalled, from Hawaii to Alaska. When she graduated in 2005, she began a yearlong internship at the Tampa Bay Times that quickly turned into a permanent job. She has been there ever since, most recently on the investigative team.

“I work in the most interesting state in the country,” she said, “for the best newspaper in Florida.”