She might have come from a small college, but Erica Irish has big plans ahead of her.
On Monday, Irish was announced as the Indiana Student Journalist of the Year by the Indiana Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Anyone who knows the 2021 Franklin College graduate speaks about the passion she has for what she loves and her nonstop drive to succeed.
The director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, John Krull, worked with Irish even before she was part of the college. He saw the talent radiating out of her and knew she would leave a mark anywhere she went.
“She’s very, very talented. She’s got a work ethic that would put the Puritans to shame,” Krull said. “Just an incredible amount of drive and this desire to always keep getting better. And you could see that.”
But this success has come with a lot of sacrifices and challenges along the way.
“I felt like I held myself to sometimes an unreasonably high standard or, like as journalists, a standard of excellence and accuracy is what we absolutely need and strive for,” Irish said.
“Being thrown into it as a journalist, which is already like a position where you don’t have a lot of power or respect sometimes, was kind of difficult and really threw me out of my element. So I don’t know, if I could tell my younger self anything about that, I would just say go easier on yourself and do the best you can.”
A graduate of Perry Meridian High School in Indianapolis and a first-generation college student, Irish demonstrated her best since her first year at Franklin College in 2017. She worked in news outlets throughout the state, including The Indianapolis Business Journal, Chalkbeat Indiana and WFYI, and won awards from such organizations as SPJ, the Indianapolis Press Club Foundation and the Indiana Collegiate Press Association.
Irish took home her most recent accolade for her work with The Statehouse File, Franklin College’s student-run news bureau that reports on state politics from its office in the Indiana Statehouse. The students’ content goes to 35 media organizations around the state, an immersive experience all of FC’s journalism majors undergo. Irish played an ongoing role as a reporter and as Russell Pulliam Student Editor.
“I think The Statehouse File provided the perfect forum for a student like Erica because she had no limits but her own abilities—which are obviously considerable. Our students match themselves against the pros every day,” says Colleen Steffen, The Statehouse File’s executive editor. “Her stories showed not just her talent but her heart for her subjects, and she was an incredible mentor to the younger students going through this unique experience.”
In Franklin College, Irish started with a goal in mind, to grow into the best reporter she could be. She began her freshman year creating connections and excelling in her classes, and her work paid off as she graduated last month as valedictorian of her class.
“We are so proud of Erica, not only for this award but also for her many impressive accomplishments during the past four years at Franklin,” said Franklin College President Kerry Prather. “This particular honor is a well-earned reflection of Erica’s journalistic talent and commitment and also a wonderful reflection on the quality of our journalism program. We are excited to watch Erica continue to shine as her career in journalism continues.”
As a first-year student in 2018, she participated in the documentary “Richard Lugar: Reason’s Quiet Warrior,” working as a researcher, camera operator and transcriptionist. The documentary was nominated for an Emmy. Her subsequent work as assistant producer of the documentary “The Children’s Crusade Revisited: Slaughterhouse-Five at 50” was nominated for two more Emmy awards and won one.
Former Statehouse File editor Janet Williams said she had the pleasure to teach Irish but also learn from her. She said Irish always took her work a step beyond what was expected.
“This is true of all young journalists: You’re afraid to go too far with what information you have. It sometimes takes a while to get comfortable with your own voice as a writer. Erica became increasingly confident in her voice as a writer in the information she gathered,” Williams said.
“What sets her apart from many, many people kind of coming up in the profession is her sense of compassion and caring for her colleagues as well as the people she’s reporting about.”
But Irish says her greatest accomplishment yet is not all the articles she’s written but allowing herself to change and enjoy the moment. Her time in college taught her to slow down and ponder on the now rather than constantly overwork herself.
“You have to just kind of accept life in all of its weirdness and all of its unpredictability and just roll with it,” Irish said. “And that was both the hardest lesson I had to understand but also the lesson that I think journalism most equipped me to accept and to learn.”
A job awaited Irish right after her graduation. As part of her Orr Fellowship, Irish works at Innovatemap as a better product community manager. She says she enjoys the workplace and the learning opportunities offered there.
“I really want a career where I’m helping people, ultimately. However big or small, I would love a career where I can continue to tell stories because that’s what fuels me. It gives me energy,” Irish said. “The opportunity to be creative and connect people to activate that change no matter the context.”
Carolina Puga Mendoza is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Alexa Shrake also contributed to this article.