Hunter’s Seventh Pulitzer Fellow Wants To Reclaim Journalism

Laila Gad (first from right) is the first Egyptian-American from Hunter College to win Pulitzer Fellowship. [Photo by Professor Sissel McCarthy]
The stage was all set for the evening of April 18 at Roosevelt House before a student, seated in the front row beside designated guest speakers receives a special mention by the event organizer. As attendees clap to the announcement, Laila Gad,  astonished, looks around her, throwing a smile at the stage after getting honored as this year’s Pulitzer Fellow. 

“I was actually at work when I found out,” Gad says, giggling as she revisits the exact moment she peeked at the notification she had been waiting for since her freshman year at Hunter. “I feel like the topic I am gonna be reporting on is really important and I feel excited that I was being supported to report on it.”

Gad is now the seventh Hunter student to be bestowed with an opportunity that allows student journalists to investigate and document underreported issues on a global scale. She plans to take a flight to Singapore in July and, through the lens of her camera, expects to capture hardships of Singapore’s aging population amid the country’s rising temperatures. 

But beneath her recent success lies a narrative that makes her different, if not distinctive from her precedents. Once on track of becoming a doctor, Gad eventually made up her mind to pursue journalism, which she, at first, saw as a way to remove the communication barriers of science. She has since come to discover it as an “open-ended” gateway to explore realities on multiple grounds. “I can be whatever I want.” says Gad. “If I want to pursue science journalism, I could.  If I wanted to pursue I guess investigative journalism, I could. Or even entertainment journalism, like it’s very open.

Like every student reporter, Gad often finds herself pitching ideas, reaching out to would-be sources, and drafting stories. However, she does not reduce her work merely to interviews and writing. “Journalism is the art of being able to raise awareness,” Gad says, which she has done since her pre-med days; sometimes by writing essays on food insecurity or driving around her neighborhood in Staten Island to make Instagram reels covering rain-affected areas.


The American-Egyptian Journalist

Although Gad has been a New Yorker her entire life, she never forgets about her cultural background. 

“Even if I am not in Egypt, I am still an Egyptian journalist,” says Gad, whose parents came to the United States in 2000, fostering a family over the years following their arrival.

When Gad looks back on her travels to Egypt, she vividly recalls visiting the country twice, with her most recent trip taking place at the age of 15, while she was still attending Staten Island Tech High School. Taking trips to malls and boardwalks gave her a “sense of community.” However, the moment she turned on the television, she came across a beleaguered state of broadcast media controlled by a few high-ranking community members of Cairo. 

“Journalism is completely wiped over there. It’s not really a thing anymore. You can get in trouble basically if you are a journalist” says Gad, who stands fearless despite knowing the risks that lie for her reporting fellows in other parts of the world. “I felt like being able to practice it here in America is sort of a way of like reclaiming journalism.”

Gad finally makes up her mind to chase this vision of “reclaiming” the fourth estate during the COVID-era when headlines on every news channel and outlet gripped on George Floyd’s last words that epitomed a climate of political unrest of the time. “I just felt like I want to be there… like, I wanted to be there when things were happening,”says Gad, for whom witnessing social injustice around her has always triggered a curiosity to dig further into what cannot be seen through a naked eye. “And I wanna be reporting on them and I want to…like, investigating things.”


Championing Climate Change

In a long run, Gad aspires to be a climate reporter. If anything, a curious teenage mind — which led Gad to take a step further to pursue journalism in first place — also sowed in her an ambition to understand climate change and act on it as an agent of the fourth estate. 

To run down a memory lane, Gad found global warming hovering above her since her high school days. She recalls how playing soccer with her friends in an open field during a summer break led her to take part in a sunscreen awareness study.

“I feel like sports is really the way I started to think about climate,” says Gad, for whom, widening her understanding of climate change did not stop there.

In college, Gad embarked on a track of being a pre-med student. However, the tide turned around as sophomore year approached. She acknowledges “Science in New York City,” —a class offered by Macaulay Honors College where her professor focused extensively on ocean currents – as an experience that only deepened her preexisting eagerness to learn more 

“I was always interested in heat. Now I had this other layer of climate being able to explain this in terms of journalism and science,” says Gad, who also perceives reporting as instrumental in making climate concepts — often loaded with sophisticated research terms — more accessible to broader sections of communities around her.


A Newswoman of Hunter

Being a part of the Hunter community also factors into Gad’s journey of revisioning journalism. After a shortlived service at New York Public Interest Research Group, Gad continues to be a reporter for The Athenian, where she generates stories that inform a commuter school of its daily happenings. 

Gad considers Professor Anne Byrnes as her mentor. An adjunct teaching Reporting and Writing 2 every semester, she deems her former student as someone who always managed to put together thoughtful journalism in class.

“Layla really wants to make an impact with the work that she’s doing, and it comes through and the work that she does in terms of the stories that she captures and the and the topics that she’s covering,” says Professor Byrnes, with whom 

Like her soon-to-be mentors at Pultizer Center, Dominic Smith and Andrew Robinson, Gad desires to produce a multimedia journalistic piece on her journey to Singapore this summer. 

“I like to report on things that aren’t really talked about,” she says.

Gad largely credits her current positioning to her parents, especially her mother who she believes cultivated a drive of curiosity and inquisitiveness from a young age. Although a Tolstoy admirer, Gad’s younger self often spent most of the time skimming through pages of “Who Was?”, a children’s book series that introduced her to some of the revolutionary scientists and their innovations. 

“It made me think like I want to do that one day… like I want to be on this list too.”

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