Columbia GS Student Says “Yes, &” to Journalism, Filmmaking, and Academia
On the eve of her Columbia graduation in spring 2024, Valerie Pires ‘24GS received a meaningful compliment from a faculty mentor. She recalled them articulating that in her time as a GS student, she’d made a lasting mark, one that would give her a legacy at Columbia long after she receives her diploma.
Pires was moved by this praise, but she shouldn’t have been surprised; making an impact is a cultivated habit for her. She’s done it through sharing transformative stories in her longtime career as a journalist and documentary producer, including via a recent fellowship with the Pulitzer Center. At Columbia, she’s done it as a burgeoning filmmaker, film and media studies major, and founder of film collective Cinema Circle and its soon-to-be-launched magazine KinoCulture, creating meaningful projects and building community among fellow film, arts, and culture-oriented Columbians. The label-defying diversity of these endeavors is also no accident. Instead, it reflects how GS is a place where, as Pires put it, “I finally, probably for the first time, have the confidence to say this is who I am, and this is what I want to be, and this is who I’m going to be. I don’t fit into that box? Fine. I don’t have to.”
“I finally, probably for the first time, have the confidence to say this is who I am, and this is what I want to be, and this is who I’m going to be. I don’t fit into that box? Fine. I don’t have to.”
As a child, Pires dreamed of being a performer, doing contemporary dance and theater semi-professionally. However, “I come from a really dysfunctional background,” Pires shared frankly. “At 15 I was looking for a job, and at 16 I was living in an apartment on my own, without any supervision or support. I had zero guidance.” Drawing from her circle of artist friends, Pires fell into video production, initially of music videos. However, a growing realization that she was interested in “the story of others” drew Pires to journalism, and her tenacity landed her a job at a network by age 21.
What followed was a decades-long career, first in broadcast journalism and later as a freelance producer for news and documentary content, that spanned multiple continents, and contributed to Pires becoming fluent in five languages. “My two passions have always been storytelling in some form, and traveling, and I tried to put them together,” she shared. “I worked in South America, in Europe, in Asia, in the Middle East, and in America.” Bit by bit, Pires built an extraordinary professional reality for herself, with broadcast journalism as a hands-on school, and documentary as her ultimate, more independent destination.
It was in the midst of this flourishing career that a serious medical challenge once again shifted Pires’s trajectory. Facing a multi-year recovery after undergoing major surgery, Pires found herself restless. “While my body was recovering, I tried to keep my mind busy. And I started thinking that the thing I wanted to do was to go to college,” something her tumultuous adolescence had made impossible. Barriers still remained, however; due to her upbringing, Pires had no access to her early education documents, including her high school diploma. After investigating her options, she decided to take the New York State TASC Exam, equivalent to the GED, something she prepared for in-part through a preparatory program from Community Impact at Columbia University.
After passing the TASC with flying colors, Pires completed her associate degree in journalism with high honors at LaGuardia Community College, where her continued academic success led her mentors to encourage her to forge on in her schooling. Pires found the ideal place to do just that at GS. “I am someone who built a life traveling around the world, meeting all sorts of people,” said Pires of what drew her to GS, articulating her goal to find an academic home that would enable her to continue to connect with a diversity of peers. With GS as her top choice, Pires applied but confessed that, despite all her accomplishments, “I never thought I’d get in, never.” She recalled feeling very emotional at receiving her acceptance, a reaction she shared was “informed by an upbringing, and the presence of adults who were extremely invalidating and demeaning. I still don’t really understand how I had the confidence, at such a young age, to do so many things.”
"I still don’t really understand how I had the confidence, at such a young age, to do so many things.”
That confidence has grown at GS, as have the impressive things Pires has harnessed it to accomplish. Simultaneous to starting her Columbia classes, Pires embarked on one of the most impactful projects of her journalism career: a multimedia article on the experiences of LGBTQ+ refugees in legal limbo in Greece, supported by a fellowship with the prestigious Pulitzer Center. Pires conceived the project while at LaGuardia Community College and, subsequently, worked with the Pulitzer Center to craft a timeline that allowed her to make progress on her reporting while fulfilling her new Columbia academic commitments.
For months, Pires conducted research and interviews virtually, cultivating relationships with individuals and organizations, and laying the groundwork for a two month reporting trip to Greece in the summer of 2022. The resulting story, “Offtrack: The Long Road to Asylum for LGBTQ Refugees in Greece,” captures through writing and photography the harrowing challenges faced by asylum seekers, both in their journeys to Greece and in subsequent bureaucratic proceedings, and the resilient joy fostered by a growing LGBTQ-specific refugee advocacy community. “I’m very proud of the work,” shared Pires. “I had a huge sense of responsibility towards this group of people.”
Pires has also shown her clarity of vision and drive in a different oeuvre at Columbia: film. Pires’s interest in film stems naturally from her years of experience with video and documentary production and represents a new and exciting storytelling challenge. She spoke of being especially proud of Left, Unsaid, a short film she produced with an all-Columbia undergraduate and graduate crew, which was awarded the Louis Sudler Prize in the Arts 2023, an award given to a single outstanding senior in the performing or creative arts. “It was my first narrative fiction film that I wrote and directed,” she said. “It can be difficult to translate to the screen what you put on the page. But, because of the commitment of this group of undergraduate and graduate students, it was possible.”
As the founder of Cinema Circle, a film, arts, and culture collective, Pires is also a leader in the Columbia film community. Cinema Circle launches KinoCulture, an arts magazine, next spring, which Pires is co-editor of alongside Iris Chen ‘24CC and Kaveh Jalinous ‘24CC. Reflecting on the motivations behind Cinema Circle, Pires cited a desire to create a space where film creators, scholars, and enthusiasts could come together to connect and share ideas without any pressure of a formal purpose. As an informal organization, Pires has also designed Cinema Circle to be accessible to Columbia community members post-graduation, and she plans to stay involved following her graduation this spring.
As she looks ahead to her future, Pires is applying to a range of graduate programs in journalism, film studies, filmmaking, and Italian studies. She recalled with a chuckle that mentors had initially advised her to pick a singular direction, before she proved with her tenacity and Columbia success that multiple pursuits can be exponentially complimentary. Indeed, Pires expressed a long term interest in academia in part because of the freedom and support many professional academics are given to engage with a multiplicity of interests. She also cited a desire to advocate for nontraditional students like her. Whatever comes next, it’s clear that Pires will be taking a distinctly GS brand of confidence with her. “GS was a life changing experience,” she said, summarizing the outlook she’s gained as, “I don’t have to fit into the system. The system has to work for me.”