caitlin dickerson
Story Alumni

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Alumna Brings News Stories to Life

Alisia Ruble

Award-winning journalist Caitlin Dickerson shares how her CSU education inspired her career.

caitlin dickerson

​Curious. Driven. Trailblazing.

Cal State Long Beach alumna Caitlin Dickerson ('11) is a fierce defender of democracy who uses investigative journalism as a check against inequality. Through deep research and powerful storytelling, Dickerson reports on urgent issues impacting American life and brings light to injustices hiding in dusty files and dim detention centers. She also travels the country to deliver a powerful message to the next generation of reporters about the essential role journalism plays in upholding the democratic values of transparency and accountability.

Over the course of more than a decade in journalism, she has earned numerous awards for her writing and reporting, including an Edward R. Murrow Award and a George Foster Peabody Award for a series on secret World War II mustard gas testing that grouped subjects by race. That reporting prompted the first official government acknowledgement of the experiments and a law that was passed providing better access to disability benefits for the remaining living veterans who were exposed to mustard gas.

A Merced, California native, Dickerson has reported on immigration, history, politics and race across four continents and dozens of American cities. She served as a producer and investigative reporter for NPR and as a reporter for the New York Times before becoming a staff writer for The Atlantic in 2021.

In 2023, Dickerson earned a Pulitzer Prize—arguably the top honor for a journalist—in the explanatory reporting category for​​​​ her “deeply reported and compelling accounting of the Trump administration policy that forcefully separated migrant children from their parents, resulting in abuses that have persisted under the current administration."​​


​​​​Caitlin Dickerson (right) accepts her 2023 Pulitzer Prize for​ Explanatory Writing. Photo courtesy of Diane Bondareff/The Pulitzer Prizes.

Dickerson credits much of her success to her CSU education. She says she struggled academically before arriving at CSULB, but passion for her coursework and the supportive campus communities she joined helped her harness her potential. She ultimately graduated Magna Cum Laude and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest academic honor society in the United States. 

“I had a fantastic experience at Cal State Long Beach," Dickerson says. “Honestly, I chose CSULB because I needed to attend an affordable college and I loved the Southern California weather. I had no idea how much I would ​relish my educational experience until I arrived at CSULB and dug into my coursework, but once that happened, I knew I had made an excellent decision."

We sat down with Dickerson to learn more about her work and discover how her time at “The Beach" influenced her career.​

How did it fee​l to win a Pulitzer Prize, and what do you accredit your success to?

Winning a Pulitzer Prize was surreal. By the time I started working on the article for which I won the prize, which was in 2021, many people had encouraged me to move on from its subject matter because the family separation policy that I investigated was several years old by that time.

But my gut told me that a full accounting of how that policy had come to be and who was responsible for it was essential from an accountability perspective. That the Pulitzer Board ultimately agreed with me was extremely gratifying—it felt like a powerful gust of wind at my back telling me to trust my instincts and keep going, which I have. 

It's hard to attribute [my success] to any one thing. My parents were both extremely hardworking people—often to a fault—and I definitely inherited that trait. But I think more than anything else, my passion for journalism and the mission-driven approach that I take to my work comes through in the final product.

Tell me about your role as a staff writer for The Atlantic.

My job is to discover and write about urgent issues that are impacting American life. These stories take many forms—some are investigations that I conduct relying on large troves of public records and confidential sources, others are feature stories that chronicle moments in a single person's life in granular detail. My work typically centers on immigration and immigration policy, which has become my area of expertise during the last half decade of historic changes in global migration.

I travel a lot, both domestically and internationally, to research and report these stories. After they're published, I often appear on television and radio programs to expand on them even more. And, I will occasionally participate in documentaries and other video projects.​​


​​​​Caitlin Dickerson (left) and U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro at the Atlantic Festival 2023. Photo courtesy of Jason Crowley/

What inspired you to pursue a career in journalism?

My CSULB degree in international studies played a major role. When I was a student, we were required to read a lot of news in order to apply to the present day the academic concepts and theories that we were learning about. (Hopefully this is still the case—I loved it!) While working toward that degree, I started to realize how much I enjoyed consuming journalism. I became fascinated with how my favorite journalists synthesized complicated stories using vivid and accessible language, and at their ability to make readers care about important issues.

At the same time, I was also coming to understand the importance of a robust free press in any functioning democracy—journalism is essential, in my view, to the democratic values of transparency and accountability. From there, journalism became a kind of mission for me. I knew that I wanted to help inform the public through deep research and powerful storytelling.​​​​

​What milestones have defined or altered your career path?

I've covered so many stories that have taught me powerful lessons, which I then apply to future work. My first big investigation looked at secret experiments with mustard gas that the U.S. military conducted on thousands of American troops during World War II. Initially, I was reporting on how the Department of Veterans Affairs was systemically denying those veterans disability payments to help pay for chronic health issues they had developed as a result of their exposure to mustard gas—a worthy story in its own right. But while reporting it, I discovered records in the National Archives in Maryland showing that the military had also conducted a set of race-based experiments on U.S. troops that had never previously been reported on by news outlets. Those records led me to conduct a separate investigation into the race-based tests.

In the end, the investigative series that I published prompted the first official government acknowledgement of the race-based experiments and a law that was passed providing better access to disability benefits for all of the remaining living veterans who were exposed to mustard gas. The experience taught me to keep an open mind until the very end of the reporting process because if not, you might miss important revelations. 

Less glamorous but still very impactful was my first real journalism job as an intern on the Washington Desk for NPR during the 2012 election cycle. I spent most of that internship doing two things: Transcribing interviews for the reporters on the desk and analyzing campaign finance disclosures. To some people, this work might have been viewed as tedious, but I loved it, and it laid the groundwork for everything I've achieved since.

Listening to hours and hours of interviews conducted by my journalistic heroes taught me how to conduct my own interviews, and analyzing campaign finance records from small races that few people were paying attention to taught me how to work with complex datasets. I use these skills constantly in my current work. It's important that students and aspiring journalists remember that those early jobs that sometimes feel menial can really pay off in the future, so they should draw as much from them as possible.​​


​​​​Caitlin Dickerson delivers the commencement address at a University of North Texas at Dallas 2023 commencement ceremony​. Photo courtesy of UNT Dallas.

 ​Tell me about your time at CSULB. What are some of your favorite memories?

I had a fantastic experience at CSULB. I loved the international studies program, then led by Dr. Richard Marcus. Another one of my favorite professors was Julie Weise, a historian of immigration, whom I still contact a couple of times each year to talk about immigration stories that I'm working on and to find out what she's up to. I was active in the International Studies Student Association and joined the Learning Alliance as an incoming freshman, which was massively helpful. The program taught students how to navigate college life, and as an added bonus, it helped me make friends in school as soon as I arrived. Many of those in my cohort remained close through graduation, and I benefited a lot from the mutual support in the group.

What advice do you have for current and future college students and/or aspiring journalists?

I would encourage future college students and aspiring journalists to be proactive when they get to college, and to make adjustments to their internships and courses based on what they grow a passion for, rather than passively accepting what is put in front of them. Though it may sound like I was always on a path to journalism, the reality is that while I was in college, I explored the possibility of pursuing a number of different careers. That period of exploration helped me determine what steps to take after graduation. 

My second piece of advice is to keep in mind that there is no one correct answer to the questions you may have about your future. As a student, I often felt like my job was to solve an impossibly difficult riddle about what career path I should ultimately take. Though I am deeply grateful for my career as a journalist, I now recognize that I could have also been happy and fulfilled as a teacher or university professor, or as a lawyer, which I thought for many years I would become. Hopefully bearing in mind that most people can find fulfillment in a number of different professions lessens the pressure to make the “right" choice.


The more than 4 million alumni of the CSU are making an impact across the globe and are leaders in every industry. Meet more CSU alumni like Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Caitlin Dickerson.​

Made in the CSU