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From AJR,   June/July 2008

Field Trip   

Online Exclusive A growing number of journalism schools lead students on reporting trips abroad

By Melanie Lidman
Lidman is an AJR editorial assistant.     

On our last day in Vietnam, my reporting partner, Shira Yudkoff, desperately wanted to create a photo essay about Hanoi's street barbers, a tradition in the city's ancient, crowded streets. They sit on street corners all over town, snippets of dark hair swirling around their ankles. They hang mirrors on trees or fences and use worn scissors to create no-nonsense haircuts for passersby who plop down on their chairs. We were fascinated, but we spoke little Vietnamese, and our translator was only available for an hour.

So we did the only thing we could: we improvised. We presented each barber with a note we'd asked our translator to prepare. "Hello, street barber!" it read. "We are two American students writing a story about street barbers. Can we take your picture?"

Improvisation was just one of the reporting skills I honed on my trip to Hanoi in March, which was part of an international reporting class at University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Its two-year-old program is one of a growing number of journalism school initiatives that send students abroad for an immersion course in what it's like to be a foreign correspondent. Of the more than 100 journalism and communications schools certified by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, at least 20 offer some type of international reporting trip, according to an informal AJR survey. They range in length from a week to two months and explore far-flung corners of almost every continent.

Although some of the students aspire to report abroad professionally, the trend comes at a time when foreign correspondent jobs are disappearing. Still, professors argue that teaching their students the skills for international reporting is more important than ever. "We're kind of bound and determined to prepare a generation of students who are going to be good journalists out there in a global age," says Alan Weisman, an associate professor at the University of Arizona.

While reporting abroad, students take on an array of challenges not always found at home, from shaky Internet connections to unreliable interpreters to food poisoning. On Weisman's class' spring trip to Argentina, striking farmers blocked many major highways in the country, crippling the transportation system and stranding the professor at a truck stop for hours. He was never able to visit his students, who were scattered throughout the country. Those who were supposed to travel for their stories had to adapt to the travel restrictions or come up with new ideas. Despite the challenges, he says they still pulled off a superior final project, which ran in Tucson's Arizona Daily Star in June.

"One key is to get [the students] to basically learn how to 'work on the fly.' So much of what they do in our other courses is in a bubble," associate professor Kim Bissell of the University of Alabama wrote in an e-mail interview. Alabama started its program in 2005 and has offered trips to Switzerland and Italy.

Spring break and the beginning of summer are the most popular times for international trips. Most are coupled with a semester-long class, requiring students to familiarize themselves with the country's history, economy and political climate before departure.

When choosing destinations, schools focus on places and topics that resonate with a North American audience. The University of New Mexico has an exchange program with the Universidad Fray Luca Pacioli in central Mexico, which examines immigration issues on both sides of the border, says University of New Mexico associate professor Richard Schaefer, who leads the program for his school.

With the twin stories of economic growth and Olympic fervor, China is a popular destination. The University of Texas at Austin sent 15 students to Beijing in June. Other schools are sending students to cover the Olympics in August. Other nations in Asia and in Africa are popular destinations because the dollar stretches farther there than in Europe. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is running a trip to Thailand to create a multimedia project documenting the tsunami recovery.

These international trips differ from study abroad opportunities because they give students unparalleled freedom to go out and report, often mirroring what a professional reporter would do given a week to cover an international story. Final projects take on many shapes, but often the trips result in a high-quality product published by mainstream newspapers or broadcast outlets.

But the opportunity isn't cheap. Students usually pay upwards of $1,000 per week, depending on airfare, for the experience. Many schools try to defray some of the costs through grants and donations. Professor Nancy Benson of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign only runs trips every two years to have time to secure enough funding to lower the cost for students from $5,000 to $1,500 for a fifteen-day trip to China or Peru. Most schools offer additional scholarships, wary that the added expense is a financial barrier for their best students. During the last two years, the University of Maryland funded its trips through a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Despite the extra costs, the opportunities and experiences the students gain are priceless. Leslie Steeves is a University of Oregon professor who has been running a Media in Ghana course since 2004. "As Ghana is a small country, [students] have access to presidential candidates, government ministers, etc., not so accessible in the U.S. They gain firsthand insight into the difficulties of reporting in a developing country," Steeves wrote in an e-mail interview from Ghana's capital, Accra.

"Many experience extreme poverty for the first time," she added. "Many experience being a minority for the first time. They overcome great personal challenges--heat, humidity, congestion, fear of the unknown. They come home with accomplishments and portfolio material."

In an increasingly globalized world, more local stories will require a cross-cultural perspective. American reporters will benefit from their training in international journalism, whether they work for the metro, business or world news departments. "When you step outside your comfort zone, you find that there are other ways of seeing things," says professor Bob Stewart of Ohio University. "You learn the world is more complex and more interesting and that other people do have a legitimate view on things."