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Flagler Student Investigates Diabetes Plight in Costa Rica with Pulitzer Grant

Jul 9, 2018
by Lauren Piskothy, ‘19, Photo By Zach Thomas, '00

Jessica Rowan was able to act as the voice for many children and young adults in Costa Rica – one of whom is named Daniela, 26, who has had diabetes since she was 2.

Flagler student Jessica Rowan won a Pultizer grant to study the plight of those with diabetes in Costa Rica.She had overcome a near death experience all because she was misdiagnosed. It wasn’t until her heart stopped and she was revived that the doctors realized she had Type 1 diabetes. Rowan could not believe what she had to experience just to get diagnosed, whereas in the United States a simple blood test reveals a Type 1 diagnosis. She was so moved by Daniela’s story that she chose to write about her for the “Untold Story” portion of her Pulitzer investigative report.

Costa Rica is a country where tourists are swept away by the beautiful and mystical cloud forests, the bright blue, crystal clear beaches, the wildlife and the thriving culture that surrounds them. It’s a destination that tourists from all over flock to see.

But when Spring Flagler graduate Jessica Rowan visited, she learned that there is always more than meets the eye, even in the most beautiful places.

As a child, the Flagler senior spent many summers with her family in Costa Rica and always appreciated its landscape. But it wasn’t until her brother, who has Type 1 diabetes, ran out of supplies that she realized what lay beyond the forests and beaches. After a two-hour car ride to the nearest hospital, she came to understand what reality might look like for those living with Type 1 diabetes in Costa Rica.

“How do people get their supplies?” she wondered about a country where transportation is not as widely available for locals. “What do they do? They die, they can go blind and then they eventually die. They don’t have enough food, either. Costa Rica isn’t just a tourist place. It’s overlooked.”

The more Rowan thought about the issue, the more concerned she became.

Fulfilling a Dream

Rowan’s experience in Costa Rica with her brother remained with her for many years, and fueled the desire to investigate the plight of Type 1 in the Latin American country. Last year, that dream became a reality when the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting awarded her a prestigious grant to explore the issue as an investigative journalist.

Rowan was one of the 31 students chosen nationwide and the first Flagler student to ever receive the grant. She first learned about it in Flagler’s Pulitzer Center Campus Consortium course. The college is a member of the center’s Campus Consortium, a network of partnerships between the center and colleges to engage with students and faculty on the most critical global issues.

Representing the Pulitzer Center and Flagler was daunting at first. She felt as if she was the only person in the class without a good idea for a story. That was until Rowan realized she had to write about something personal.

“My advice to anyone taking the class is to write about something that you know and something that you’re close to. That way you can relate to who you’re interviewing on a deeper level. If I didn’t know the subject that well, I couldn’t relate to the siblings the way I did.”

Her research and personal experience with Type 1 led her to establish a close bond with the families she stayed with. The closer she got, the harder it was for her to manage the burden of the problems they had to face. Rowan knew that in the end, she would have to return home, leaving them behind. This was when she discovered her responsibility and role as a journalist.

“Every time I sat in bed at night I thought, ‘I want to do more. I want to fix the problem,” she said. “As a journalist, that’s the most frustrating part. I wanted to help them so badly. I wanted to bring them supplies and do everything I could, but at the end of the day, I was going home. I just hope to bring awareness to this issue, because a lot of people don’t know about Type 1 in these areas.”

After coming back from Costa Rica, Rowan knew she wanted to tell more stories about people like she met there. Her time in Costa Rica reaffirmed her passion for journalism and helped her better understand the kinds of stories she hopes to tell. 

A Desire to Understand the Unknown

Rowan admits the driving motivation behind her pursuits is answering the “why.”

“Yes, I’m very passionate about spreading awareness about Type 1 diabetes, but I love doing stories that I'm unfamiliar with as well,” she said. “Then I get nerdy and non-stop research it for days.”

That curiosity has recently led her to work on a story about the “Blue Whale” phenomenon, a virtual game that manipulates insecure children and teenagers into taking their own lives. Her inability to comprehend how something so vicious could exist inspired her to investigate the story and its effect on children through social media. That is just one story of many she’s interested in investigating. Like the children living with diabetes in Costa Rica or those playing the deadly virtual game, all of the stories involve speaking up for the forgotten.

“I like listening to people and I just want to share people’s stories who can’t tell them themselves,” she said. “If I can help them in any way, then that makes it worth it.”

The recent Flagler graduate said she is extremely grateful for experiencing what it is like to be an investigative journalist in Costa Rica.

“I am honored and grateful for the Pulitzer class at Flagler,” she said. “It has opened a lot of doors. Without it, I wouldn’t know where I would be, and I definitely would not be doing that story. I wouldn’t know how.”

After Rowan graduates in the spring, she plans to move to Costa Rica where she hopes to work as a freelance writer. She has previously been published by the Costa Rican Times for her work with Type 1 diabetes in that region and has the possibility of working for them. 

To read more from Jessica Rowan, visit: https://pulitzercenter.org/reporting/projects

 Watch a video at www.flagler.edu/watch

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