Students Learn Journalism in Immersion Trip to South Africa

Monday, August 6, 2018

by Gordon Kender

In June, Saint Joseph’s University ran the first iteration of a new undergraduate journalism course, “Media & Cultural Studies,” a summer study tour in South Africa. The five-week program took eight students and two faculty members from Philadelphia to Johannesburg, Cape Town, Rosendal and Pilanesberg, where they covered stories for The Hawk.

While SJU boasts over 40 study tour programs, this unique course offers a month-long academic immersion and is the only program in South Africa. Instead of occupying classrooms, students in this program learned experientially, assuming the roles of foreign correspondents as they researched and wrote news stories under the guidance of instructors Shenid Bhayroo, Ph.D., and Jenny Spinner, Ph.D.

“I grew up and worked in South Africa as a journalist and professor, so I wanted to combine the access I had to the people both in the communities of journalism and academia,” says Bhayroo, founder of the course and assistant professor of English.

The course is designed to require no prior journalism experience. Notwithstanding a handful of pre-orientation meetings, the students learn news writing and multimedia storytelling on the ground. 

Each week began with an hour-long news production meeting at 8 a.m., where Bhayroo and Spinner would have students review around 11 weekly newspapers, searching for stories that inspire them. After, students met with local television news producers, reports and media consultants. Tuesdays and Wednesdays were spent in the field, reporting. After a final round of fact checking and edits, stories would go live on Fridays.

“We would share the work — some taking photos, others conducting interviews,” says Natalie Drum ’20, a communication studies major. “There was a sense of comradery pervading our various ages and skill sets, which made us feel like a collective and drove our success.” 

Fridays were dedicated to field trips and further learning about South Africa's history and politics. These included a visit to the Apartheid Museum and Nelson Mandela's Soweto home, now a museum; the Cradle of Humankind, an archeological site where the oldest hominin fossil “Little Foot” was unearthed; South Africa's Constitutional Court, former women's prison and gallows, and a three-day trip to Rosendal and Mautse, an apartheid-era white town and black township, in the Free State province. Students also met with influential South African figures, including LGBT rights activist and visual artist Zanele Muholi and a member of the South African Constitutional Court, Edwin Cameron, who spoke about social issues within the country. These weekly trips reflect the call to justice inherent in Saint Joseph’s mission, inspiring students to acquire new perspectives. 

“It was striking to me how engaged the students were in meaningful discussions of race and privilege, how disrupted — in a good way — they were,” says Spinner, associate professor of English and director of the Writing Center. 

Aware of how radically different this course is from the traditional classroom experience, Bhayroo structured strong individual and group support mechanisms, doing regular check-ins with each student. In the spirit of Saint Ignatius, students write free-flowing reflection papers each week, outlining their responses to the day's new experiences.

“When I came to Saint Joseph’s, I took a while to decide what I wanted to study,” says Alim Young ’19, a communications major from Philadelphia. “This trip taught me skills in visual and text media, story drafting and interviewing — giving me sufficient experience to become a foreign correspondent, a photographer or a writer for numerous news sources.”

Read the course’s reporting from South Africa in SJU’s student paper, The Hawk. 

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