They left for Turkey last May as a group of student reporters. They returned two weeks later as novice foreign correspondents.
The students in Nancy Benson’s all-female International Reporting course saw four pieces published online by The New York Times. Two of those articles also appeared in print in the International Herald Tribune, the global edition of the Times.
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The students also contributed to stories about Turkey for WTTW, Chicago’s public television station, and two of the nine students appeared on the station’s program “Chicago Tonight” to talk about their experiences.
The station also will broadcast a half-hour collection of the students’ reporting, “Illinois Travels to Turkey,” at 3 p.m. Nov. 18. WILL-TV, the UI’s public television station, broadcast the program in late September.
As part of the process, the students also had the chance to work with two professional journalists with extensive international experience.
Some of the student work was in the vein of a travelogue, with pieces on Turkish markets, mosques, games, comics, art, food and everything in between. (Find their blog posts through the “In the Field” section of the course website.)
But they also tackled difficult topics and situations, reporting on poverty, discrimination, the imprisonment of journalists, domestic violence and the devastating consequences of war in nearby Syria.
“This was a really good group of bold young women who were willing to overcome any obstacles they needed to in order to get to the story,” said Benson, a professor of broadcast journalism, who has led previous trips to China and Peru, and also to Romania, with a side trip to Italy.
Megan Graham, a May graduate from Downers Grove, Ill., recounted in an online post after the trip to Turkey how she had “graduated and barely thrown my hat into the air before realizing I was already halfway around the world and expected to do things and be things that I don’t think I would have been able to do or be just a year ago.”
The most challenging part of the trip came when the students visited a hospital and refugee camp near the Turkey-Syria border, where they interviewed refugees from the conflict in Syria.
“This weekend, I’ve heard some of the most heartbreaking stories of my life,” Graham wrote in a Twitter post, after visiting with wounded refugees. One man she met had had his leg run over and crushed by an army vehicle.
Lindsay Prossnitz, a May graduate from Woodstock, Ill., was one of two students admitted to the Kilis refugee camp. She described her experience there as “humbling.”
“I could never in my entire life imagine the brutality and injustice that these people were subjected to, and it took an immense amount of courage for them to recount these nightmares,” she said.
Her last interview in the camp was with a Syrian woman with five children, the youngest only 2 weeks old. The woman’s husband had recently been killed while trying to help other families cross the border and enter the camp.
It wasn’t Benson’s intention to have an all-female reporting crew; it just worked out that way.
Likewise, the “Arab Spring” had nothing to do with the choice of a Muslim Middle Eastern country as the focus of the class and destination for the trip, though it turned out to be very timely, Benson said.
Picking a destination for the course, usually scheduled about every other year, is determined mostly by where Benson can find funding. In this case, that came from a grant focused on raising journalism students’ awareness of Islam and the portrayal of Muslims. The grant came from the Social Science Research Council, with help from the Center for Global Studies at the UI.
The students spent the spring semester in class in preparation for the trip, which came immediately after commencement weekend. Benson brought in experts from the campus and elsewhere to discuss Turkey, the Middle East, Islam and Muslim society. They also visited the Central Illinois Mosque in Urbana to observe a prayer service and hear a panel discussion.
As she usually does for these trips, Benson traveled to the country ahead of time, over spring break, to finalize accommodations and travel plans, contact some potential sources, and arrange meetings with academic experts and foreign journalists.
She also lined up journalism students in the country, asking them to work with her students on stories, as translators and to provide a different perspective.
On the trip itself, Benson also had valuable help from two seasoned reporters: Susanne Fowler, an International Herald Tribune editor who had worked in Turkey, and UI alumnus Ash-har Quraishi, a Chicago native, a former student of Benson’s and a former CNN bureau chief in Pakistan, now a correspondent for “Chicago Tonight.”
Through pure chance prior to the trip, Benson also found a Turkish student, Seyda Aydin, studying journalism at Parkland College in Champaign, who just happened to be returning home at the time of the trip, and therefore became part of the crew.
Even with all this preparation and help, however, the students still were dropping into a foreign place and facing plenty of potential challenges and roadblocks, Benson said. They were warned that their original story might not work out as planned. They were urged to have a plan B and C.
Taylor Smith, a May graduate from Grand Rapids, Mich., understood all that before going. “I knew that I could put a good story together,” she said, “but sometimes I questioned my ability to do that in a place I was unfamiliar with, talking to people that did not always speak the same language.”
Despite that, Smith chose a difficult topic to report on: Turkey’s gay and lesbian community. It would become “by far, the most difficult story I have ever tried to put together,” she said. The subject was “one of the culture’s biggest taboos,” and many sources were reluctant to talk on camera.
In the process, however, she found a lot of similarities between the U.S. and Turkey and their LGBT communities. “Although they are in a different country, they still care about the same things that we care about here in the U.S.,” namely respect and equal treatment, she said.
She also learned there was no need to second-guess her abilities. “The trip definitely helped me gain a new confidence in myself as a journalist,” she said.
Others gained from the trip in similar ways.
“I came home and knew that I wanted to be a journalist for the rest of my life,” said Graham, now reporting for the Kokomo Tribune in Indiana.
Prossnitz’ experience cemented her desire to become a foreign correspondent. As a result of the WTTW connection, she’s working through November as an intern for “Chicago Tonight,” through their John Callaway Fellowship program.
Caroline Pahl, a May graduate from Lombard, Ill., did a segment for the broadcast video about Islam in Turkey and how Islam is misperceived in the U.S. Her experience from the class convinced her to pursue a career in long-form storytelling and documentaries, and she’s currently an associate producer for 20K Films in Chicago.
Benson said she believes this experience in foreign reporting can benefit students no matter what they might do.
“I think a student who wants to be a journalist should have a bigger sense of the world than just within the borders of the U.S.,” she said. “I just think it makes them more sensitive to cultural differences, even within the U.S., and it opens their eyes to the fact that other people may not live the way you live.