On the first day of most of my classes, I invite students to introduce themselves by describing their dream job. Without fail at least one — or sometimes two or three out of a class of 20 — will share their ambition to become a foreign correspondent.
A photojournalism student fantasizes about capturing life in remote villages for National Geographic. A reporter imagines herself covering wars in the Middle East for the New York Times. A videographer hopes to travel the globe for Al Jazeera.
I applaud these lofty goals and often steer such students to international internship programs like those sponsored by the Associated Press and Reuters. But I know such internships are highly competitive and most students don’t make the cut.
So I’ve searched for other ways to help students prepare for careers in international journalism. A few years ago I started working with the Institute for Education in International Media (ieiMedia), an organization that collaborates with universities to create study-abroad programs aimed at teaching multimedia journalism and foreign reporting skills.
From journalism student to foreign correspondent
Rather than traveling around and seeing the standard tourist attractions, participants in ieiMedia programs live in one place for the whole four weeks and immerse themselves in the local culture. Students get to work with interpreters and produce stories about the community for the project website. Some publish their work in professional news outlets, too, either local publications or ones back home. More than tourists or students, they feel like foreign correspondents.
In 2007, I taught with ieiMedia in Cagli, Italy, a small hilltown in the Marche region. In 2009, I started ieiMedia’s program in Urbino, Italy and then directed the organization’s summer multimedia program in Perpignan, France in 2010 and 2011. Last summer I launched an international reporting program in Jerusalem. (To read more about that, see Forcing Students to Step Outside Their Comfort Zone.)
Students sometimes use these experiences as a stepping stone to careers in international journalism. Erin Banco, a student in the 2009 Urbino program, later reported on the Arab Spring in Cairo and is now covering conflict in Iraq. Morgan Brinlee, who participated in ieiMedia’s 2010 Perpignan program and then its internship program in Istanbul the following summer, went on to work for an English-language daily and then a news website in Istanbul. Maya Shwayder, one of last summer’s Jerusalem students, now reports on New York City and the United Nations for The Jerusalem Post, a gig that may lead to a foreign reporting assignment down the road.
An Australian student who participated in the Jerusalem program said the study-abroad experience helped pave the way to her current job in broadcast journalism.
“IeiMedia Jerusalem helped enhance my career plans,” Bianca Britton, now a videojournalist/reporter/editor for News Corp Australia, wrote in an email interview. “During my interview for my current job they were immediately impressed with my reporting in Israel and they said it proved my interest in not only international news, but news itself. Having that type of experience on my resume extremely helped set myself apart from other applicants.”
Providing structure, letting go
One of the trickiest parts of leading a journalism study-abroad program is knowing how much to guide students and how much to let them find their own way. After all, they are all adults, but they are still students. And for some this might be their first experience navigating a foreign country.
In Israel, we arranged trips to the Palestinian cities of Hebron and Bethlehem, but several students went to the West Bank on their own, figuring out Palestinian bus schedules and even finding their own interpreters.
“I had to understand the process of getting there, finding the right people to talk to, and planning correctly to ensure … a safe, and enjoyable trip over the border,” said Britton, who blogged about her experiences traveling to the West Bank and produced a multimedia story on life inside Palestinian refugee camps.
Another student got a taste of what it’s like to be a Palestinian traveler when she forgot to bring her visa for the border crossing back to Israel. “I know that if I had been a Palestinian with no entry permit and not an American without my visa, I would have never been able to set foot inside Israel,” Mallory Moench wrote in a blog post about the experience.
The stresses of study abroad
Friends and colleagues rib me about my glamorous summers abroad, but the truth is leading a group of students around a foreign country can be mighty stressful. Just think of all the challenges you’ve encountered while traveling overseas and multiply that by the number of students on your trip. That begins to give you a sense of what’s in store.
Directing a study-abroad course takes resourcefulness, persistence and a stomach for the unknown. In my five years of leading study-abroad programs, I’ve had to deal with bed bugs, delayed luggage, a stress fracture, plumbing problems, countless missed flights, a stolen bag, a concussion and a lost passport. I’ve sat in emergency rooms and clinics in every country I’ve visited and had to confer with American consulate officials and local police. In Israel two students found their way to a Palestinian protest in the West Bank where a demonstrator was shot. (My students, both intrepid young journalists, came away unscathed, but my heart missed a couple of beats when I found out where they’d been).
As they say in the U.S. Army commercials, it’s the hardest job you’ll ever love.
10 Tips for Taking Students Abroad
Want to lead your own study-abroad program? Here are some tips:
1) Start early. It can take a year or more to make all the arrangements necessary for a faculty-led study-abroad program. You and the administrators you work with will have to arrange lodging, meeting or classroom space, transportation, guest speakers, tours, insurance, academic credit, possibly interpreters, and at least some meals.
2) Find an in-country partner. Look for a university or language school or a media, government or non-governmental organization based in the country that can help you work out the logistics. To start, search the web for other study-abroad programs based in the region you want to visit. Send out feelers to organizations that might want to work with you or help you find local partners.
3) Work with your international programs office and other administrators. Foreign travel makes college administrators nervous. Be prepared to fill out a lot of forms and get approval from multiple university bureaucrats before you can take a group of students out of the country. Double- and triple-check that you’ve gotten all the proper permissions and submitted all the necessary paperwork long before your departure date.
4) Plan orientation activities. Walking tours and scavenger hunts are good ways to help students get acquainted with a city, and small-group activities will help students get to know each other quickly.
5) Make contact with local news organizations. Try to arrange a tour of a local (or international) newspaper, news website, or TV or radio station or invite media professionals to speak to your group. Sometimes you can even arrange for students to shadow a reporter or do a mini-internship. Find out if the media organizations will consider publishing your students’ work. A local press club or journalism organization may also be of help.
6) Be flexible. While you need a concrete and carefully planned itinerary, be open to opportunities that may arise. And be ready to make a shift if things fall through, as they often do.
7) Line up cultural activities. Even if you’re planning a rigorous academic program, be sure to arrange for some fun stuff that will help students get a sense of the local culture – a cooking, dance or craft lesson; tours of local attractions; food or wine tastings; music and theatre performances; etc.
8) Keep them busy. College students visiting foreign countries have a tendency to drink, sometimes heavily. Those under 21 often want to take full advantage of the more liberal alcohol policies in the country they are visiting. Plan plenty of stimulating evening activities so students don’t spend every night at the local pub or bar.
9) But don’t overschedule. The biggest complaint I’ve gotten from students is that they don’t have enough downtime. Build free time into the schedule, so students can explore on their own or just hang out.
10) Be ready to play Mom (or Dad). When you’re leading a study-abroad program, you’re much more than an instructor. Be prepared to deal with medical emergencies, broken hearts, homesickness, roommate conflicts, love triangles and other challenges. Pack a first-aid kit and a box of tissues. You’re bound to need them.
Rachele Kanigel is an associate professor of journalism at San Francisco State University, where she advises Golden Gate Xpress, the student newspaper, and teaches reporting, writing and online journalism classes. She was a daily newspaper reporter for 15 years and has freelanced for magazines and websites, including U.S. News and World Report, TIME and Prevention. She has directed summer study-abroad programs for ieiMedia, the Institute for Education in International Media, and is the author of The Student Newspaper Survival Guide. Follow her at @jourprof.