USD Vista's Kaia Hubbard '20 Takes Third in National Journalism Competition

USD Vista's Kaia Hubbard '20 Takes Third in National Journalism Competition

As March began, Kaia Hubbard's focus was split between taking her last semester of classes as a University of San Diego undergrad and leading the USD Vista newspaper as its editor-in-chief. 

Then came the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, and USD's decision to shift all class instruction to remote learning and move all students off campus. Hubbard and Vista staff members worked through the disruption, attended classes and kept going, all while still covering university COVID-19-related developments and other campus news through its last issue in early May.

It was a lot to handle during a pandemic in which states enforced a stay-at-home existence. But Hubbard, an award-winning college journalist carved out enough time during the pandemic to compete in an impromptu five-week national student journalism contest called The Big Scribble.

On May 24, after writing five diverse stories, getting professional critique of her work and outlasting 400 others to be a Top 10 finalist, Hubbard learned she finished third overall.

"I am so shocked that I made the top three," said the English and psychology double major and now graduate. "It didn't seem possible in the beginning with 409 participants in the contest, and it felt even less possible last week when I was in 10th place."

The Big Scribble was a first-time competition hastily arranged by veteran professional writers Jeff Pearlman and Jonathan Eig and other industry colleagues who gave young writers something productive to do during this unprecedented time. At best, organizers thought maybe 100 students might apply. But the 409 who entered included Hubbard and two of her USD Vista colleagues and mid-year class of 2020 graduates, Luke Garrett and Anderson Haigler.

The first four story topics, each 350 words, were do a profile on someone you know, a food review, a story about hair in the pandemic and write an obituary on one of four living people as selected by the judges.

Hubbard wrote her profile piece on one of the first friends she made at USD. Her food review centered on a roommate’s risotto. She examined the toll that getting haircuts at home take on relationships in week three.

Hubbard chose actor Jonathan Lipnicki, who is best known for his role as a young boy in the Tom Cruise movie, "Jerry Maguire," as her living obituary subject. She messaged him on Instagram and got a reply. Lipnicki was her choice over singer Mariah Carey, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and former major-league baseball player Bip Roberts.

Hubbard's story on Lipnicki was just enough to secure the final spot among 10 finalists from colleges in Missouri, Texas, Nebraska, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota, as well as a high school freshman from Florida.

The final story assignment was an 800-word piece on the topic of how one can show affection and how are we compensating for the loss of affection during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was suggested that it be written as an op-ed or for the Style section of The New York Times.

Hubbard admitted on Sunday that she struggled with the final assignment, but ultimately was confident with what she submitted.

"The judges told me last week that I barely made the final 10. I knew I had to write something that would blow them away this week, and the pressure to do that was so crushing that I was worried I wouldn't be able to write anything at all. After a full day of very slow, unproductive writing, I woke up Thursday only to scrap everything I had hours before the deadline. What I wrote in those next few hours was better, I think, and riskier. They liked it."

The story centered on affection though "language and the way it has changed" due to the pandemic. During a Zoom conference call Sunday morning among Big Scribble judges prior to announcing the winners, Pearlman and Eig praised Hubbard's work and for writing to what the assignment had called for unlike many of the other finalists.

Hubbard's strong final story propelled her near the top, finishing behind Big Scribble winner Zeke Warren-Weigmann from St. Olaf (Minn.) College and runner-up Joe Levin from the University of Texas. The perks for being a top-three placer was a gift card to her favorite bookstore, picking a one-on-one consultation from a list of professional, veteran journalists Pearlman and Eig compiled, and recognition as a top writer in this competition.

Two professors Hubbard deemed as "the best mentors I've had at USD" due to them both having professional, in-the-field experience, praised her.

"I'm not surprised at Kaia's success,” said her nonfiction writing professor Brad Melekian, PhD, an assistant professor of English and director of USD's Lindsay J. Cropper Center for Creative Writing. “Her seriousness of purpose, dedication to her craft, her willingness to make herself vulnerable to all the possibilities of the stories she writes — all these things and more make her a singular talent. Kaia used this challenging time in her life as a catalyst to grow, both as a person, and in her writing, through her writing."

Former broadcast journalist Gina Lew, a professor of practice in Communication Studies and USD's student media adviser, admires Hubbard's all-around journalism skillset.

"As editor-in-chief she's demonstrated terrific writing skills, but I've been most impressed with her leadership talents in dealing with breaking news stories. She guided her team through critical decisions regarding journalistic ethics and standards, all under demanding deadlines," Lew said. "Kaia is a compassionate leader who believes every person has a story to tell. She has been one of the best students I've had the privilege and pleasure to work with and mentor."

Hubbard, who is spending the summer in San Diego, is considering potential graduate school destinations. But one decision she made in April, to participate in the Big Scribble, will forever be a cherished memory in the time of COVID-19.

"I'm so grateful to the judges for putting on this contest,” she said. “These last five weeks, in the midst of the pandemic, have been astronomically better because of the writing, the feedback, and the camaraderie. I'm so happy I decided to write.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

Kaia Hubbard '20 served as the USD Vista editor-in-chief and was able to compete and finish third in a national journalism competition during the COVID-19 pandemic.Kaia Hubbard '20 served as the USD Vista editor-in-chief and was able to compete and finish third in a national journalism competition during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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