A day before the April 4 arraignment of former US President Donald Trump in a case centered on hush-money payments, Fordham University journalism and history sophomore Erika Tulfo was having a conversation with one of her professors.
Erika expressed her intention to become a TV reporter. The 19-year-old felt she was ready and wanted to transition to the other end of the camera, from working the control room as an intern-producer and into broadcast reporting, much like her parents Erwin Tulfo and former reporter Karen Padilla. Erika’s professor, a broadcasting veteran who has worked with major American networks, told her that she could go about it several ways, whether to start in a producing role in big networks or earn her stripes on air in smaller channels.
“’Well,’” Erika remembers saying in response, “’I want to be able to do what I love to do as soon as possible.’”
As bold and driven as Erika is, however, not even she could have expected that “as soon as possible” meant the next 24 hours. Shortly after that discussion with her professor, Erika suddenly found herself covering the historic Trump arraignment for a CNN affiliate network.
Becoming part of the past and present
One of Erika’s few Instagram posts shows her as a toddler, sitting on the lap of her father who was working a radio booth. While the photo provides a snapshot of how she practically grew up in the world of journalism, Erika maintains that the decision to pursue it in college was entirely her own.
Being able to express herself, especially through writing, has always appealed to her at an early age. A star student in high school at Everest Academy in Taguig, Erika connected more with the arts and humanities than any math or science subject. The self-confessed “academic-at-heart” gushes over Van Gogh’s life and devotes chunks of her time to learning a specific period in history. During the height of the pandemic, it was the Renaissance. Recently, it was everything Napoleonic.
Given her penchant for history and journalism, it comes as no surprise that Erika chose to major in both at Fordham.
“Journalism to me is being able to get a front-row seat to watching history unfold,” she said. “I love that marriage between the past and the present, and it makes me so excited to be a part of it.”
One of the reasons Erika chose to attend Fordham, over her other choices Wellesley College, Harvard University’s sister school, and the University of the Philippines-Diliman, is the chance to pursue big-city journalism in New York. Living in the Big Apple grants Erika access to manifold opportunities that otherwise would not be available elsewhere.
For one, she landed an internship stint at major business media outlet CNBC. Her days begin at 6 a.m., working for a morning market show until 1:30 in the afternoon. Then, she leaves for school. After class, she attends to her duties as the school newspaper’s deputy managing editor. Erika finishes her day with the organization’s regular meetings, which sometimes last until 7:30 in the evening.
Aside from learning journalism in school and a real-life setting, Erika makes the most of the opportunity by connecting with connected people in the industry. It’s this valuable network that led Erika to land her first big break in her young journalism career.
The importance of staying ready
Shortly after Erika shared with a professor her desire to step up in front of the camera as a reporter, another one sent an email.
It was about the aunt of the professor’s former student—who’s working as a news producer at News18, a CNN-affiliate TV channel in India—looking last-minute for someone to cover the Trump arraignment. The qualification: He or she must be a New York student who knew enough about the issue and could speak confidently about it on live TV.
Erika did not hesitate to submit a demo reel. Luckily for her, there was one conveniently available as a requirement she made for class. She submitted the demo at 8 a.m. while at work. Shortly after, Erika was asked to send another by 1:30 p.m., where she was talking about the arraignment for two minutes. Erika was coming off work, wrote the new script in the car and filmed the demo at home. That night, she was told that she was in.
“My mom and I were so excited,” Erika said. “[The producer called] and we were taking notes while she was talking, letting me know what I needed to do.”
Erika was confident of her knowledge of the issue, but she wanted it to be “airtight,” being a perfectionist. On the day of the coverage, Erika made sure that all her stuff was packed. It consisted of a selfie stick, a ring light, and a clip-on microphone, which she admitted to being a “very amateur setup.” The arraignment was scheduled at 2 p.m., but Erika and her mom, who doubled as her cameraman, arrived at the Manhattan Criminal Court at 8 a.m.
They arrived early enough that the press tent, the holding area for credentialed media members, was still easily accessible. Erika hesitated to squeak in, but her mom nudged her to go, telling her that it was part of her job to not be afraid.
Going into the coverage, Erika’s producer and professors told her that it was going to be near-impossible to get a shot of her standing in front of the court. Having at least a clear, distant view of it in the background would do, they said. But arriving early and getting into the tent allowed Erika to surpass their expectations and secure the money shot.
Erika held on to that precious spot the whole day and reported right in front of the criminal court. She also managed to become one of the first to break the news that controversial congressmen George Santos and Marjorie Taylor Greene were at the venue, and that there were more news people present than there were protesters during the proceedings.
“I was really intimidated at first because I’ve had no professional experience prior to it,” Erika said. “But I gained confidence as time went on because once you’re there, you really need to be in that mindset and know that they’ve chosen you for a reason. It’s really all about having faith in your abilities.”
On the right path
Like any other person, however, there are days when Erika still has her doubts. Did she make the right choice in pursuing journalism? What if she chose a different career?
Erika faces these questions by reminding herself of one thing, which is “mainly just thinking how blessed I am to have all these opportunities and thinking, if this wasn’t meant for me, it wouldn’t have been given to me, right?
“I like to think that I’m someone who works hard,” she added. “[I believe] this is the path that I’m supposed to be on, you know, just putting faith in that. That’s enough to assuage my worries.”
After the Trump arraignment coverage, Erika was flooded with congratulatory messages. Two that meant the most were from her parents.
Erika said she appreciates her mom for being present in her life’s biggest moments. She was there during her big TV break, as she was there to lace her skates as a kid participating in competitive figure skating. She was also there to make sure that her dress didn’t have any wrinkles when she joined the Miss Teen New Jersey pageant.
“She’s such a huge part of my life,” Erika said. “I feel that without her, as a grounding presence at that arraignment, I would have been really frazzled.”
“She was my cameraman and my mom, both persons that I needed,” Erika added. “I needed a cameraman, somebody to tell me this is how I should conduct myself, this is where I need to stand. She was also there as my mom to reassure me that nobody expects me to be perfect, because I’m only 19, and this is the first time I’m on air. Having her there was hugely beneficial and I would’ve been completely lost without her guidance.”
Erika also values highly her dad’s stamp of approval. “People may notice that he is not the type to sugarcoat anything,” she said. “But when he told me that he was proud of me, that I handled it gracefully, that’s when I knew that I did a good job.”
More importantly, perhaps, getting her first taste of live TV reporting deepened Erika’s appreciation of her parents. She said growing up and watching them do what they did felt like an everyday thing, until it was her turn to step in front of the camera.
“It gave me a sense of renewed appreciation for the talents of my parents,” she said. “Hearing them as people who have been in the industry for as long as they have think that I was doing a good job, it really made me feel like this is the path that I should be pursuing.”
Image credits: Shaira Luna for Erika Tulfo’s belated 18th birthday celebration on July 2022