Teenage love has been the topic of hundreds of entries in the semiannual high school journalism contests run by the Journalism Education Association. That didn’t stop the short documentary “Campus Romance” from earning an honorable mention at JEA’s 2016 National High School Journalism Convention in Indianapolis.
“Maybe it was the cultural difference and the novelty of the topic that attracted the judges, I guess,” said Yuqiao Zhao, a student at Hangzhou Foreign Language School in Zhejiang, China.
Producing the documentary wasn’t without its difficulties. High school relationships are widely regarded as inappropriate, even taboo, in China, Zhao said. As a result, most young couples declined interviews.
“For those who agreed to be interviewed, most of them were also dating each other without telling their parents,” she said.
Zhao and her documentary co-creator Heyou Pan were among the seven students from China who attended JEA’s 2016 national conference. They formed a small contingent among the 4,000 other high school students at the conference, but one that JEA China executive director Jason Zhu hopes to grow.
Zhu is chief executive officer of a Chinese nonprofit organization called Youth Impact China, which he started in 2015 to provide extracurricular programming for high school students in subjects such as business, finance, biology, art and design. Although his professional background was in business, he also saw a growing interest among students in media-related fields, so Youth Impact China approached JEA and became the organization’s first foreign affiliate in February 2016.
“After decades of economic development, there is increasing popularity of right-brained subjects like art, media, filming and design as those needs are increasing for the whole society,” Zhu said.
Culture of Technology
Technology certainly plays into that learning curve, as well. Zhu said most hardware and software training occurs in technical programs or trade schools, which are not as highly regarded as universities in China. From a parent’s perspective, the technology-intensive careers are not as sought after, and therefore technology training is not prioritized, either.
Free online video tutorials make up the bulk of students’ technology training, and as a result they tend to focus on user-friendly software such as iMovie to create their products.
“Usually students have to learn the software skills on their own,” Zhu said. “Most of their skills are still at the very elementary level.”
At the conference, Zhao was impressed by instructors’ use of the Adobe Creative Suite to create designs using Photoshop and InDesign. She also was fascinated by using Pinterest for design inspiration. (Although blocked by the Chinese government’s firewall, nearly every student affiliated with JEA China knows how to use VPN to circumvent those restrictions.)
“Chinese education about journalism — which is still very limited — is more focused on the theories,” Zhao said. “Technology is somehow more undervalued, making us vulnerable when completing actual tasks.”
In partnering with JEA, Zhu said he hoped to tap into an established curriculum and training model for young journalists.
“We have more emphasis on introducing the established programs overseas than building everything from the scratch originally in China through our own research and development efforts,” he said. “This is not only more efficient for us in China to put the high-quality education program in place, but it also aligns with most U.S. education institutions on their vision of global expansion.”
Even with the partnership, there are still challenges for JEA China. Aside from the language barriers and restricted speech and press, Chinese education strongly emphasizes traditional math and science courses in preparing students for the high-stakes Gaokao, the national college entrance exam that largely determines a student’s higher education prospects.
“Journalism is not in the exam agenda or curriculum at all,” Zhu said.
But there is a niche for JEA China to fill. About 300,000 of China’s 20 million high school students attend international preparatory schools with a clear plan to attend college overseas, mostly in the United States and Europe.
“Unlike their peers who otherwise are locked in the traditional Gaokao-oriented education system, these students have invested a lot in extracurricular activities and have an appetite for advanced skill learning outside their traditional curriculum,” Zhu said.
It’s from that pool that JEA China recruits participants to attend the semiannual conventions in the U.S., as well as JEA China’s own summer conference. In 2016, JEA China’s inaugural conference attracted 63 students to Suzhou, a city in the Jiangsu province on the northern border of Shanghai. Zhu hopes to grow the number even larger in 2017 by expanding programming to include broader research and information literacy education.
“We’re modifying the position of the event from a ‘journalism career-oriented event’ to an ‘investigation and youth-observation oriented activity,’” Zhu said. “We’re not sure if such positioning will work and make sense to the students. But we do hope we could get more students to participate this year.”
Part of those plans include further cultural exchanges. JEA China is hoping to pull students from U.S. schools — both at the high school and collegiate level — to take part in the summer conference.
“It would a precious cultural exchange opportunity for the Chinese students,” Zhu said, “especially as we are planning to create opportunities for the American students to join the convention directly and work with Chinese students on competitions.”
Mark Newton, the president of the Journalism Education Association and a teacher at Mountain Vista High School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, said the national organization is attempting to find ways to partner with JEA China while still catering to its primary membership of American students and teachers.
“We don’t have a template for how we work with foreign affiliates,” Newton said. “We are just trying to give them as much advice and guidance as we can about how we teach journalism in America.”
In the United States, that educational model is increasingly tied to competitions. While JEA’s conventions offer nearly 300 instructional sessions, example, students can also compete in nearly 75 competitions as individuals or as part of their broadcast, magazine, newspaper, online or yearbook staffs. The prospect of winning national awards is especially appealing to administrators who control travel budgets, as they see such recognition as quantitative proof of their school’s academic success.
That mentality is amplified in China, Zhu said.
Students attending international preparatory schools are looking for accolades they can add to their college admission portfolios, so conference and travel that don’t include those opportunities are seldom pursued.
“The competition is important and necessary to create useful, tangible results,” Zhu said, “and justify the learning time the students spent.”
Newton said he met with the contingent of Chinese students during JEA’s convention in Indianapolis, and he was impressed with that eagerness to learn.
“They were bright, curious, polite,” Newton said. “They were very focused on the competitive aspect, but they really wanted to take in the educational component, too.”
Zhao, who is trying to decide between a major in communications or sociology in college, agreed. And she was acutely aware that some of the most important lessons she learned came from outside the formal presentations
“The idea of a conference instead of a pure media contest attracted me,” she said.
Her favorite moment from the convention came when she was sitting in the lobby of the convention hotel when two American students approached her and asked for an interview.
“After several questions, they were surprised to find out that I was from China and traveled all the way to Indianapolis for the conference,” she said. “I was flattered as they kept asking questions about my documentary, my school and about journalism in China.
“I could see the passion and curiosity of being a journalist in them, and the other wonderful people I met at the convention — those who sat on the floor when a lecture hall was filled, and those who argued about the election energetically across the corridors. Overall, it was a 10 out of 10.”
Kelly Furnas is a lecturer in multimedia journalism at Elon (N.C.) University and faculty mentor to the student-run Elon News Network. He is the former executive director of the Journalism Education Association and instructor at the 2016 National High School China Journalism and Media Competition.