Story by Eric Schucht
Photo gallery captions by Srushti Kamat
For many journalism students, interviewing a stranger can be uncomfortable and awkward. Add a language barrier and being thousands of miles away from home, and you have quite a challenge. In December 2016, 21 UO School of Journalism and Communication took on that challenge — and ended up better for it — when they traveled to Sri Lanka with the SOJC’s Global Stories program.
The adventure began in fall term, when all students accepted into the Global Stories program took a class to prepare for the trip. The class focused on the history and context of Sri Lanka, an island nation located off of the coast of southern India. Working in groups, students researched and presented on many cultural aspects of the former British colony.
SOJC Assistant Professor Ed Madison and Senior Instructor Lisa Heyamoto developed the Global Stories program because they saw a need to take journalism students to interesting places while taking them out of their comfort zones. In previous years, Global Stories students have traveled to Nepal and Cuba.
For the 2016-17 school year, Heyamoto and Madison originally discussed taking Global Stories to Southern India, but in the end they decided on Sri Lanka. During the course of the 25-year Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009) and the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in 2004, the region has faced many hardships over recent years.
“We saw an opportunity to do a story on recovery and how people in a developing country deal with that,” Madison said.
Madison and Heyamoto planned out the trip a year and a half in advance in partnership with the Holden Center for Leadership and Community Engagement. They also contacted Sarvodaya, a Sri Lanka-based non-governmental organization that helped the group with logistics for the trip, such as housing and transportation.
SOJC students Srushti Kamat and Kyle Hentschel were the group’s coordinating producers, responsible for budgeting, planning and organizing the trip. They also chose the trip’s theme: Transition. The goal, Madison explained, was to find and write stories that showed how Sri Lanka had changed over time as well as what it’s changing into.
In Sri Lanka, students practiced a form of reporting known as “backpack journalism,” where journalist are thrust into areas with little prior knowledge or experience to report on tight deadlines with few resources. The student journalists traveled to different villages, and with the help of translators, interviewed, wrote and produced multimedia stories about members of the local communities.
Although challenging, this approach gave participating students hands-on practice and helped them build valuable skills
Journalism senior Andy Field is already using what he learned from the trip to prepare him for future assignments.
“I’m doing [a Charles Snowden for Excellence in Journalism] internship at the News-Review in Roseburg, and I’m not as scared anymore,” Field said.
One of the stories Field worked on in Sri Lanka was about policing in a small village. After writing a piece on the topic, he realized that, in backpack journalism, it’s best to start with a focus on personal stories and develop the topics that arise.
“I’m going to have my eye out for interesting people, and I think I’ll be successful,” Field said. “That’s something I learned from Sri Lanka: Focus on the people.”
In her leadership position, Kamat describes her role as “backpack management.” The trip helped her discover her passion for producing.
“This really shaped my year,” Kamat said. “And it totally shaped what I want to do with my life.”
When they returned to Eugene, the group published all the articles, photographs and videos they produced during the trip on their Steeped in Sri Lanka multimedia website.
But Kamat and Hentschel wanted to do more with the group’s work. So they organized an exhibit in the Allen Hall Atrium in March. The goal was to bring Sri Lanka back to Eugene and show the SOJC students who didn’t go on the trip what the place was like.
For the exhibit, they tried to completely transform the Atrium to suggest the landscape of Sri Lanka. They decorated the room with a tropical theme and served Sri Lankan tea as a backdrop to the photos from their trip hanging on the walls and videos playing on laptops around the space.
“We loved it!” Kamat said. “Because at the end of the day, we made something.”
For the Sri Lanka multimedia website, Kamat, Hentschel, and fellow team members Key Higdon, Judd Smith, Kylie Juggert and Mackenzie Moran received second place in the 2017 Hearst Multimedia IV Team Reporting Competition. The prize included $2,000, which the students plan to donate to relief efforts in Sri Lanka.
According to Madison, the next Global Stories trip will travel to either Zanzibar or Madagascar. No matter the destination , Madison says the SOJC students who go on the trip are sure to be outside their comfort zones — and better off because of it.
“Doing things you haven't done before helps us grow,” Madison said. “If we only do what we’re familiar with, we don’t grow much.”
Eric Schucht is a senior pursing a bachelor's degree in journalism from the SOJC as well as a minor in multimedia and a certificate in film studies. He has worked for the Daily Emerald as a research and sustainability reporter, columnist and videographer. His focus is on electronic media and web-based reporting.