In Search Of The Underdog's Story

This post is part of our month-long series featuring Greatest Women of the Day, in recognition of Women's History Month.

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As early as 12 years old, Mariana Van Zeller wanted to be a journalist.

"I would watch all these women with all this incredible knowledge of the world," she said reflecting on her early impulses to become an international reporter. Today, she is a correspondent for the Vanguard documentary series on Current TV, a role that allows her to travel the world in search of stories often left unheard.

She is drawn to stories about the "underdogs," she said, and calls immigration an issue that strikes close to her heart.

Her goal is simple: "To get behind the headlines and try to understand and to express what motivates these people."

But her career path has not always been so simple. Working at a news station in her native Portugal, Mariana knew she "didn't want to report from behind a desk, I wanted to understand the world." So she applied to Columbia University Journalism School and was rejected two years in a row. The third year, she flew to New York to stop by the dean's office and plead with him to admit her.

In 2001, she started at Columbia Journalism School, and a month later was called on to report for a Portugese news network on the events of 9/11, a turning point she says fueled her drive to report on international issues. In 2003, she moved to Syria and went undercover to report on Syrian Mujahideen crossing into Iraq to fight American forces. Among other stories spanning global issues, Mariana has since covered conflicts in the Amazon jungle, took a ride on the "Death Train" to uncover the risks Central American migrants take to make it to the U.S., and reported on the controversial proposed Uganda law that would make being gay punishable by life in prison or death.

When the Peabody Award-winning documentary Oxycontin Express, aired, Mariana heard from many who were touched by her intensely intimate glimpse into the life of addicts.

"I got so many emails from mothers saying things like 'I watched your film, and my son passed away from prescription drug abuse. Watching your film made me feel that I'm not alone."

While she faces challenges as a female reporter -- she recounts meetings with rebel groups in Nigeria when the men refused to allow her in their compound but spoke openly to the man accompanying her -- Mariana sees her gender as an asset in the field.

"Ultimately my job is to make people care," she said. "As a women, I'm less afraid of showing emotion. It's easy to turn off the channel when you're showing them a faraway place, so my goal is to make people connect. And it's easier for women to go to that emotional place."

And it's the women Mariana meets through her reporting that continue to surprise and inspire her. "When it comes to the really tough stuff in life, moms are the last ones to give up the fight," she said. touching on the women she's met while covering her recent stories:

"Whether it's an amputee in Sierra Leone who agreed to have her arms chopped off by rebels in order to save her son," she continued, calling to mind women she's met while on assignment, "Or the mother of a young man struggling with prescription drug addiction who started a support group for other parents, or a Native American woman fighting for justice for her murdered daughter."