Columbia Journalism School Announces 2021-2022 Spencer Fellows

April 30, 2021

Four distinguished journalists were selected for the next group of Spencer Education Journalism Fellows for the 2021-2022 academic year to study and produce significant works of journalism on the state of education across America. 

The fellows bring a variety of backgrounds and diverse professional experience to the fellowship, which was launched with Spencer Foundation support 14 years ago to enhance education journalism with deep research.

Next year’s cohort features a former local education beat reporter from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a senior editor for Politico and a public radio documentary journalist on immigrants and poverty for NPR and WAMU among others. Also joining the fellowship is an investigative reporter and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting on child sex abuse in college sports. The winners were chosen by a board of education scholars and journalists (link is external) after a competitive application process.

The board selects two residential and two nonresidential fellows each year. The residential fellows are: Kavitha Cardoza, a veteran radio and print journalist, who plans to produce a multimedia investigation of the impact of Covid-19 on child poverty for NPR and The Hechinger Report; and Sara Ganim, who will continue her investigative work on data deserts in public education and how privacy laws are weaponized to protect institutions.

The nonresidential fellows are: Patrick O’Donnell, a 27-year Cleveland education beat newspaper reporter who will look at the barriers to work-based learning in Ohio and the nation; and Nirvi Shah, a Politico editor, will report on the role of teachers unions during the pandemic and their future role in policy.

Each fellow receives a stipend ($85,000 for residential, $43,000 for non-residential) plus research expenses to support their year studying with professors in person or virtually throughout Columbia campuses and working on projects under the guidance of mentors at the Journalism School.

“We welcome this accomplished group of journalists to the Spencer Fellowship network,” said Prof. LynNell Hancock, child and family policy expert, who directs the fellowship. “The fellows’ work next year promises to deepen our contextual understanding of the pandemic’s impact on child poverty, and on inequity, race and labor politics in this rapidly changing world. Their work also promises to expand the nation’s conversation on evergreen issues of work-based curriculum and the abuses of power.”

More on the fellows:


Kavitha Cardoza is a freelance journalist and has covered education and poverty for almost 20 years.

She is a frequent contributor to NPR and previously worked at Education Week/PBS Newshour, WAMU (the NPR affiliate in Washington, D.C.) and Illinois Public Radio (the NPR affiliate in Springfield, Illinois). She’s worked on podcasts, written print articles and has published academic papers.

She has received multiple national awards for her work, including Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI) first place award in 2015 for her documentary, Breaking Ground: Lower Income, Higher Ed, and a 2013 Education Writers Association award for investigative Reporting on Adult Education. Her documentary series ‘Breaking Ground’ aired on more than 150 public radio stations.

Kavitha has previously taught journalism courses at Berkeley, American University and the University of Illinois at Springfield. She has a master’s degrees in broadcast journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master’s degree in communication from the Manipal Institute of Communication in India.

With a Spencer Fellowship, Kavitha plans to look at the growing inequality among children living in Washington, D.C. looking into how much further behind is the pandemic, coupled with remote learning, leaving behind poor and minority children in D.C.? And whether the federal infusion of money will directly and substantially address educational challenges like teacher quality and test scores.  Can schools even address these challenges and if not, what else will it take?

Kavitha lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and puppy. Her stepsons, who are away at college, cannot understand why she’s so excited about being a student again.


Sara Ganim is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, and the current Hearst Journalism Fellow at the University of Florida’s Brechner Center, where she hosts the podcast "Why Don’t We Know."

Ganim started her career as a newspaper reporter and won a Pulitzer Prize at age 24 for breaking and covering the investigation into former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of young boys.

Ganim then spent seven years at CNN, focused on investigative reporting and other important stories, such as drinking water issues in rural americathe rise of Antifa , and conflicts and ethics issues in former President Trump’s cabinet.

In 2020, she made her first independent film, "No Defense," which garnered film festival recognition, and she has consulted or reported for several other films, including the Emmy-nominated films, Deadly Haze and Paterno.

Sara plans to spend her time as a Spencer Fellow researching and writing about the weaponization of privacy laws in public education, and how often times laws that were meant to protect students are instead used to keep them in the dark about critical information.


Patrick O’Donnell was a reporter at The Plain Dealer for more than 27 years, the last nine covering the Cleveland Municipal School District and state education issues in Ohio. He spent much of the last year covering the effects of the pandemic on Cleveland’s schools for The 74 Million.

In his time at The Plain Dealer, he covered two teacher strikes, three school shootings, and expansion of the Say Yes to Education college promise program to Cleveland. He won state awards for his 2015 coverage of attempts by Ohio’s online charter schools to evade the consequences of their poor performance and for his overall coverage of schools in 2019.

He was an Education Writers Association fellow in 2018, allowing him and a colleague to visit Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands to learn how European models of apprenticeships and internships could be adapted here in the U.S. His fellowship project will expand on that work and look at how Cleveland and the country can provide more meaningful career pathways for young people, particularly through work-based learning


Nirvi Shah is senior deputy editor at POLITICO, where she oversees coverage of education and cannabis policy news, among other work, and has covered education, including about the pandemic. She is the founding editor of POLITICO Pro Education, a subscription news service, created in 2013. She also worked as expansion editor for POLITICO’s operation in Europe, overseeing the launches of countless policy news products and editing policy and politics news from across the continent.

Prior to joining POLITICO, she worked at Education WeekThe Miami Herald and The Palm Beach Post, covering local and national education for most of her career.

Nirvi will spend her fellowship year reporting on and researching the role of teachers unions during the pandemic and their future role in education policymaking.