Study Abroad offers journalism students unique opportunities

As globalization becomes an increasingly important part of modern life, universities are launching study-abroad programs in ever more remote and exotic destinations

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Editor’s Note: The main focus of this issue is study abroad, highlighted by this and another article by CMR Vice President Rachele Kanigel.  Kanigel is the executive director of   ieiMedia, an organization sponsoring journalism study abroad opportunities this summer in Italy, France, Turkey, Israel and Northern Ireland.

By Rachele Kanigel


In a rural province of Cambodia, a broadcast journalism student from California State University, Fullerton shoots video of a blind man being fitted with a prosthetic hand, a replacement for the appendage that was shot off in the 1970s when he was fleeing the Khmer Rouge.

In Siyalala, South Africa, a University of Southern California student reports on township residents who hook up dangerous, illegal electrical connections because they can’t get legal electricity to their humble shacks.

In Rabat, Morocco, a Whitman College student interviews a lesbian couple that risks imprisonment for their hidden relationship in a land where their love is thought to be prohibited by God.

As globalization becomes an increasingly important part of modern life, universities are launching study-abroad programs in ever more remote and exotic destinations. Some of the most daring of these endeavors are sponsored by journalism and mass communication programs with an eye on preparing the next generation of foreign correspondents.

Erna Smith, a professor of professional practice at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, has been taking groups of graduate students to Cape Town for the past five years. Students intern with local newspapers and radio and television stations, reporting on everything from World Cup soccer to protests against the government to the goings-on at the South African Parliament.

“A lot of what makes these international programs great is not the techniques and skills the students learn—that’s a given—but it’s what happens to their character and their outlook on life. When you’re a journalist, you need to understand the world is not just your world; you have to understand the larger world around you.”

In the 2010-11 academic year, 273,996 American students studied abroad for academic credit, an all-time high, according to a recent report by the Institute of International Education, the leading not-for-profit educational and cultural exchange organization in the United States. The United Kingdom remains the leading destination for American students, followed by Italy, Spain, France and China, according to the institute’s annual report.

Study abroad by American students has more than tripled over the past two decades, and journalism schools and departments have expanded the number, variety and scope of their foreign offerings.

At Indiana University, one of the leaders in international education, more than half of all journalism students study abroad.

“We see a global world and believe our students will be able to fully engage that world if they are educated in foreign languages and come to know foreign cultures through classroom study and travel,” said James Kelly, an associate professor of journalism who has taken groups of students to Kenya twice to report on HIV/AIDS. Last summer he took 20 students to London, where they interned for British media outlets.

“Study abroad alters a student’s perspective,” Kelly said in an e-mail interview. “Not only do they come to understand a foreign culture and its media, they forever see their own culture and media system differently.”

While some journalism study-abroad programs focus on touring media outlets and seeing the conventional tourist sites, more and more expect students to actually work as journalists, reporting on the communities they are living in. Students publish their work on websites and in magazines, newspapers and print-on-demand books. Some study-abroad programs include internships where students work at local media outlets.

Many of the large journalism schools offer a smorgasbord of travel-study opportunities with options for students who want to cover business, the arts, sports and politics.

At the Missouri School of Journalism approximately one-third of undergraduate students study abroad, about 350 per year, said Tonya Veltrop, director of study abroad. Students have a dizzying array of choices: semester-long exchange programs in Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Singapore and half a dozen countries in Europe; internship programs in Buenos Aires, Brussels and London; and short-term, faculty-led excursions that enable them to cover the arts in Florence, the China Open in Beijing, environmental stories in Costa Rica or an international media conference in Seoul, South Korea.

“We’re doing interviews with alumni and so many of them are coming back and saying that these experiences have transformed them, that they’ve changed their lives,” Veltrop said.

After 15 years of working in the study-abroad field, Veltrop said she’s seen a lot of changes. “On the one hand, students are considering different kinds of destinations. Asian countries and Middle Eastern countries are more on the map now for students. They’re finding ways to get beyond their comfort zone.”

China, in particular, has become a hotspot for young journalists studying abroad. The University of Texas at Austin, Indiana University, New York University, the University of Missouri, Stony Brook University and Arizona State University are among the schools that have sponsored journalism programs in China in recent years.

Veltrop has also seen an increasing interest in service learning projects abroad, programs that allow students to not merely visit but to have a meaningful impact on the host community. That could mean actually performing service or to report on important, underrepresented issues. “A lot of our students want to assist others worldwide to tell their stories and raise awareness of a particular problem or challenge,” Veltrop said.

Jeffrey Brody, a professor of communications at California State University, Fullerton, has led groups of journalism students on medical missions to Southeast Asia for the past three years. The students spend part of their time helping the medical workers, part producing promotional materials for the mission and the rest doing journalism (for examples see the website Brody’s students produced in 2012).

“I think it’s important for journalists to have compassion,” said Brody, who covered Southeast Asian immigrant communities as a reporter for the Orange County Register in the 1980s and continued to report on them after he became an academic. “When students go on these humanitarian missions they’re taken out of their comfort zone and placed in some of the poorest parts of the world. They share in the suffering of others. That makes them better journalists and better citizens.”

Brody’s students have to prepare themselves for rugged conditions and potentially serious health threats. Students must get immunizations against exotic diseases and take drugs to ward off malaria. The students sleep in primitive lodging and eat the local food, which can include pigs’ snouts, frogs and spiders. One student made a humorous video about eating fried tarantulas.

But encounters with the local cuisine aren’t always funny. About a third of the students on the trips typically come down with intestinal illnesses, Brody said.

USC’s Cape Town program also has a service component. Students spend three days in Paarl, a poor township, training local youth in media skills. “We ask the youth to come up with story ideas and my students coach them through using the equipment, flip cams and digital audio recorders that we provide,” Smith said. “These workshops have been the strongest part of the Cape Town program, the part that gets the highest reviews from my students. My students get so much more out of it than we teach these kids.”

The American students find it’s easy to bond with the Paarl youth. “The kids are very open,” Smith said. “As journalists we’re sort of trained to close ourselves off. But when you’re working with these kids, you don’t have that protection and emotional distance.”

In leading the Cape Town program, Smith is careful to show students South Africa from multiple perspectives. Students live in downtown Cape Town, a modern cosmopolitan city that from some angles isn’t that different from many cities in the U.S. But she also takes students to poor apartheid-legacy townships outside the city, where families may live in one-room shacks with corrugated tin roofs, mud floors and no electricity. “Students have never seen this kind of poverty, never. They haven’t understood their privilege.”

Smith also guides the students to churches and ecolodges, community gardens and soccer games, so they can experience the full range of South African life.

“I don’t want them to be completely wiped out with guilt so I expose them to the culture through the arts. They delight in the differences they’re seeing and also in the natural beauty around them. They’ve never seen such exquisite beauty.”

Smith says the trip to South Africa changes her students. “Anyone I’ve taken there is different when they come back. Many are profoundly changed. They see where they are in this world of haves and have-nots. They really get that by the time they leave.”

The biggest learning occurs when they get back home, Smith said. “They start asking themselves questions. They really begin to think about how they’re consuming things, how much stuff they consume. There is this deflation, this existential ennui when they come back and see the superficiality of this culture. It smacks them in the face.”

As an educator, Smith said the trips to South Africa have been among the most rewarding experiences of her teaching career.

“I find it exciting but it’s also incredibly challenging,” Smith said. “It’s quite emotional. There are moments when you don’t know what to do with your emotions. I’m exhausted when I get through there.”

Indiana University’s Kelly has had similar experiences.

“My greatest thrill as a teacher has been students telling me that their trip to Kenya changed their lives more profoundly than any experience they have every had,” he said. “That’s not just once, that’s nearly every student following each trip. It’s amazingly gratifying.”

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