Oct. 6, 2010 -- Florida Gulf Coast University student, Alex Pena, 21, has been named ABC News on Campus "Roving Reporter of the Year" and with the distinction, Pena earned an all-expense-paid trip to New York City to visit ABC News' headquarters.
Last spring, Pena submitted a firsthand report on the Mexican drug wars about how citizens used Twitter to stay informed when escalating violence in the region impeded traditional reporting. That story, among others, caught the attention of ABC News, earning him the Roving Reporter award.
ABC News on Campus is a partnership with top journalism schools designed to educate and mentor talented college students. The program also invites student journalists at accredited colleges and universities to contribute as part of the program's Roving Reporter initiative.
Through the Roving Reporter program, Pena has pitched and produced many stories for ABCNews.com on everything from BASE jumpers to a self-proclaimed college dating guru, to a video about the escalating violence in Mexico.
Pena was thrilled that the quality of the stories he submitted had garnered both the esteem of working journalists and an award.
"It proves to me hard work and a lot of persistence will bring you a long way -- in this case, to NYC!"
Pena's path to journalism started simply enough. In his senior year of high school, he began work on his school's entertainment news television show, which aired on the campus' closed circuit TV. His interest in journalism solidified there, after he shot and edited skate videos with his friends.
"Once I got to college, I decided I wanted to be a journalist, but there was no journalism major," Pena said. "So I had to make do with what I had. I found an old camera and started posting videos on YouTube." Those videos included coverage of President Obama's visit to Naples, Fla., and a homeless wedding in the south Florida city.
But that simple beginning took a turn when Pena began taking self-funded reporting trips to some dangerous locales. On his own initiative, he went to Juarez, Mexico, in the middle of one of the most violent drug wars in history, and took a second trip, to Haiti; the day after that country was devastated by the worst earthquake in its history.
"I didn't know he was in either of those places before he left," Lyn Millner, Assistant Professor of journalism at FGCU, said. "I found out he was there on Facebook. He got a fixer, he went over there -- he made his own way, made connections and covered the story."
"It was risky, but I considered it a calculated risk," Pena said. "It was scary at first, thinking about going down there (to Juarez), but I knew it was something I had to do. I knew if I went down there I could tell this story and I went for it."
His trips caused a sensation on campus and in his community when the local paper, the Naples Daily News, featured a firsthand account of his trip. His stories ran on CNN and the BBC, and one of them was published on ABC News' website.
From his start at FGCU, Pena stood out because of his tenacity and passion for chasing stories. Millner, who is both his professor and his mentor, remembers being impressed with Pena from the beginning.
"Before he even set foot on campus, he wrangled an internship at Dreamtime Entertainment, producing health segments for a local station," Millner said. "I thought, 'Wow this guy is really motivated.' I can't take a lot of credit for the way he has learned, he's very much self-taught. Every waking moment that he's not in class he's thinking about journalism and how he can reach his goals."
Pena has emerged as a leader at his school, passing on the skills that he has learned to incoming students and inspiring those less seasoned in using video as a storytelling tool.
"There's not really an established program for journalism at FGCU, but she (Millner) kind of uses me and another student to represent what the possibilities are," Pena said.
While pursuing freelance work, Pena maintained internships each semester, with or without credit, and capped off his last summer in school with a National Association of Hispanic Journalists fellowship at the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.
Pena says his work is inspired by the people he has met along the way, including journalists abroad who risk their lives to tell a story.
Though his journalistic interests are varied, Pena has his mind set firmly on one goal -- to become an international correspondent for a major network.
"He's one of our stars," Millner said. "We're really, really proud of him."