PROVO, Utah — If broadcast journalism was a college sport, a trio of returned missionaries at Brigham Young University would be first-team All-Americans.
Three communications students at the Church-owned school — Cierra Ysasaga, Danielle Wardinsky Hallows and Bela Erekson — recently won Gracie Awards, an honor presented annually by the Alliance for Women in Media Foundation (AWMF).
The Gracie Awards recognize exemplary work performed by and for women in radio, television and interactive media at the national, local and student market. The BYU award winners join several A-listers who claimed Gracies of their own — including TV funnywoman Amy Poehler, actress Naomi Watts and journalist Soledad O’Brien.
This year, BYU students claimed half of the Gracie Awards in the “Television Student” category for their work on Newsline, the school’s student-produced live television newscast.
Ysasaga, Wardinsky Hallows and Erekson share more than TV news experience. Each student-journalist served full-time missions prior to pursuing their respective broadcasting studies.
BYUradio broadcast journalist Julie Rose was also recognized by the AWMF for her work on the afternoon talk show “Top of Mind with Julie Rose.”
BYU’s success at this year’s Gracie Awards highlights the school’s growing legacy of supporting and developing female broadcast journalists. “This really showcases the incredible broadcast journalism program we have here at BYU and the remarkable students who come through it,” BYU Newsline administrator Melissa Gibbs told BYU News.
Ysasaga claimed a Gracie in the director category.
Despite her obvious directing talent, the BYU senior still marvels that she’s playing a central role in staging a live daily newscast. She originally walked into the school broadcast newsroom to simply volunteer and learn a bit more about majoring in communications.
“And then they offered me a job,” she said, laughing.
Directing a live news broadcast is stressful. Deadlines must be met. Stories must be managed. But Ysasaga is grateful that the BYU news broadcasting program allows student journalists to figure things out on the job — and learn from the inevitable goofs and errors.
“When I became the director of the show,” she admitted, “I felt so underqualified.”
A native of Houston, Texas, Ysasaga served a mission to the California Rancho Cucamonga Mission.
Ysasaga’s fellow Texan, Wardinsky Hallows has spent several years working with BYU’s daily newscast Newsline team. She calls it time well spent.
After serving on her high school’s newspaper and television news staffs, she entered BYU with an eye on a broadcast journalism career. Years watching Tornado Alley forecasts spurred her interest in weathercasting.
“I was always into the news, and I knew I wanted to do some sort of journalism,” she told the Church News. “I love writing and telling stories.”
But prior to attending BYU, Wardinsky Hallows opted to serve a full-time mission on Temple Square, utilizing the American Sign Language skills she grew up with. One of her siblings is deaf.
“I love that place and miss it,” she said of Temple Square, one of Utah’s most popular tourist attractions and a sacred space for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Now married (husband, Hunter) Wardinsky Hallows recently finished her bachelor’s degree and will remain at BYU for graduate school. She received a Gracie in the “On Air Talent” category,
BYU’s hands-on approach to teaching broadcast journalism students the ins-and-outs of television news makes it one of the nation’s top schools for future media professionals.
“You get to see real TV cameras and work with real TV programs and real green screens and use the same production software that the professionals use,” said Wardinsky Hallows.
Faculty and professors at BYU, she added, also play essential mentoring roles — including several female professionals who have earned acclaim in the news broadcasting community.
Wardinsky Hallows’ “ultimate professional goal?” Be the “Music and the Spoken Word” announcer.
Hailing from Loveland, Colorado, Erekson will complete her BYU degree in a few months. She spent a year at the school before taking a break to serve a mission in Tahiti.
Erekson originally planned to major in animation. Then she explored acting. But full-time missionary service ultimately inspired her to pursue “something that would stretch me a little more and develop skills sets that I wanted, like writing and information analysis.”
Her decision is paying off. Erekson’s feature writing earned her a Gracie Award. Like her fellow winners, she’s grateful for the BYU faculty and administrators who are eager to be mentors.
“They treat us as professionals,” she said. “They have an astounding amount of confidence in us to get the job done. They have high expectations for us, but they are also a huge support.”
Erekson co-hosts BYU-TV’s popular “Story Trek Trending” show that features, well, what’s trending in the world.
As a journalist, she still draws upon skills learned as a missionary to gather each new story.
“Just being able to walk up to people and strike up a conversation,” she said, “is a crucial skill for a reporter.”