From MV to D.C.: Pulitzer Prize-winning Mountain View alumnus chats with mentor

Photo Liz Nyberg/Town CrierMountain View High School graduate and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, left, converses onstage with his mentor, former Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School Superintendent Rich Fischer Oct. 9.

Ten years ago, Jose Antonio Vargas was a student at Mountain View High School. Vargas, now a jet-setting, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at the Washington Post, returned to his alma mater last week, tossing off stories about pheasant hunting with presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, eating Mexican food with Sen. Hillary Clinton and befriending journalist Arianna Huffington.

Billed as a "conversation" between Vargas and his mentor, former Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District Superintendent Rich Fischer, the two appeared together onstage at the Spartan Theater Oct. 9, a fundraiser for MVLA Community Scholars and Partners for New Generations.

Life has been a fairy tale come true for Vargas, who acknowledged the valuable mentoring and caring he received from teachers as a student at Mountain View High. He touted the district's culture of "family" as playing a major role in his career success.

"School really allowed me to experience all the things I wanted to experience," Vargas said. "Everybody drove me. … I can't thank this high school enough."

Moving from the Philippines to Mountain View in 1993, Vargas attended Crittenden Middle School and Mountain View High, where his interest in singing landed him in the school choir.

Fischer, recalling the "young man singing his heart out onstage," mentored Vargas, and the two became fast friends. Vargas said he still phones Fischer for advice, even calling to ask where to locate the defroster button in his rental car.

Vargas' career as a journalist began in 1998, when his natural "nosiness" and writing flair landed him an internship with the Mountain View Voice. The first story he covered was a fire – he traveled to the scene on his bike. He subsequently became a "copy boy" for the San Francisco Chronicle.

With Fischer and others challenging Vargas to continue his education beyond high school, the young man enrolled at San Francisco State University, majoring in black studies and political science. He enlisted in a minority journalism camp, which led to an internship at the Philadelphia Daily News. While there, he covered 22 homicides in 10 weeks. His work attracted the attention of a Washington Post editor, who offered him a summer internship. The Post offered him a job right out of college.

Vargas, mixing humor with humility and an ability to poke fun at his naiveté, described going to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and expecting to see the Gap.

He found himself drawn to writing stories about the powerless and the forgotten.

"I wanted to go to the bad part of Washington, D.C.," he said. "The idea of a powerful city with powerless people intrigued me."

Vargas researched a series of articles about the AIDS/HIV epidemic in Washington, D.C., noting that 1 in every 20 people is afflicted. He was nominated for a Pulitzer for his work.

He received a Pulitzer earlier this year, as part of the Post's team covering the April 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.

Hobnobbing with big names as a reporter now on the campaign trail has led to connections that could take Vargas beyond reporting. He met billionaire Sheila Johnson of Black Entertainment Television, who is interested in financing a documentary based on his AIDS series. He's also working on a book about a "bill of rights" for the Internet.

Vargas expressed disappointment in today's culture of sound bites and superficial coverage leading to an ill-informed electorate.

"(Political) consultants have damaged our electorate more than anything else," he said.

He noted the struggle of newspapers in the Internet age, claiming most dailies have yet to use the Internet to their advantage.

"The world has gotten smaller because of the Internet," Vargas said, and young people have become more politically active because of it.

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