Returning to her alma mater just over a decade after graduating, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Molly O’Toole ’09 will be the next Zubrow Distinguished Visiting Journalist Fellow for the College of Arts and Sciences.
An immigration and security reporter at The Los Angeles Times, O’Toole received the first Pulitzer Prize in audio journalism for her reporting in refugee camps on the Mexican side of the border. Now, the alumna will once again immerse herself in the community where she first started reporting: on the Hill.
As a fellow, O’Toole will teach an American studies class this fall titled “The American Dream: Journalism, Politics and Identity in U.S. Immigration Policy.” The alumna will also host career talks with students and collaborate with Cornell faculty researching immigation.
She follows fellow Cornell and Sun alumnus Marc Lacey ’87, who was the inaugural visiting journalist fellow beginning in spring 2020. Lacey, an assistant managing editor for The New York Times, returned to campus for a week in the spring to talk about the state of the news and media and other national issues — attending panels, discussions across campus and visiting several classes.
The Zubrow Fellows program is intended to connect students, faculty and alumni to the media through moderating events, panel discussions, guest presentations and engaging with organizations on campus.
“I want to talk to The Sun and students across campus who are interested in journalism,” O’Toole told The Sun. “I want to give as much wisdom as I can and have people learn from all the mistakes I’ve made and also have really practical conversations about how to get a job, how to turn this passion into a life.”
O’Toole will draw from her experience as a journalist, but also from her time at Cornell, where she studied English while running track and writing for The Sun. She later attended New York University to earn a dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations.
In her course, O’Toole said she hopes to foster a pre-professional approach to the humanities that combines a traditional academic study of policy and migration with real world work and interaction.
“We’ll be looking at how journalists have contributed to the policy and politics of immigration in the U.S. by how they’ve covered immigrant waves in the 20th and 21st centuries,” O’Toole said. “I also want to help make students comfortable creating their own journalism, and in confronting policy makers themselves.”
The course material is grounded in O’Toole’s professional focus covering immigration and security in the U.S. This work won O’Toole the first-ever audio reporting Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for her extensive reporting on the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, informally coined the “Remain in Mexico” policy.
O’Toole’s Pulitzer-winning work on “The Out Crowd,” an episode of the podcast This American Life, worked with federal asylum officers. She developed relationships with officers for months to chronicle their experiences sending people back to the Mexican side of the border — through their fear of speaking against the humanitarian atrocities of a government that has displaced thousands of asylum seekers waiting across the border in Mexico.
“The biggest challenge was maintaining anonymity for whistleblowers in a way that allowed [us] to do investigative reporting in an audio context while still maintaining that protection and that trust,” O’Toole said. “I had to trust it was going to come together in a way that did justice to the people who are taking the risk to do this with me.”
For the protection and anonymity of these whistleblowers, This American Life used voice actors to replace those who agreed to speak about their positions as asylum officers. O’Toole remarked on the incredible ability of these actors to capture the integral emotional component of audio journalism in their recitations.
In a deeply polarized country, divisions laid bare through ongoing national issues such as those explored in the podcast, O’Toole said, “To have the opportunity to teach this course right now, I just feel so lucky.”
O’Toole also hopes that her class can provide a new look at these national issues, but also fill in the gap of vocational and practical experience she sees in higher education — in addition to spotlighting the humanities in a STEM-dominated environment like Cornell.
She said the journalistic skill set has a home in the humanities, including in her class. But the questioning and writing skills in journalism applies to myriad professional contexts, O’Toole said.
“A lot of what students do in an academic setting is what I do as a journalist. I educate myself, I research, I find the people who know the most about that topic and I ask them questions. That is journalism,” O’Toole said. “You can think like a journalist in whatever field you’re in.”
O’Toole started her journalism career as a writer and news editor for The Sun, where she covered everything from financial aid during the 2008 recession to the Ithaca Gun Factory — experiences that have since shaped her reporting.
O’Toole excitedly anticipates her return to the place that was foundational in her journey to becoming a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist: “I’m so excited. I’m such a geek. I feel like I get to go back to college,” she said. “It really is a dream to me.”