They came by plane and by train and by foot, a dozen and a half of them, carrying bundles and suitcases and keepsakes, looking tired but relieved to have arrived in Berlin. No, these are not refugees, they are UM Journalism students, 18 of them, here on a study-abroad trip for the next three weeks. The disorientation many of them feel will be helpful as they begin to meet and study the challenges facing thousands upon thousands of refugees who made their way to Germany. The refugees’ goal is to escape war and find peace. The students’ task, a bit simpler, is to produce a series of articles about how the refugees adjust to their new situation.
The students are staying in a neighborhood called Kreuzberg, which has long been a crossroads for immigrants to this country. For decades, it was home to the Turks who came here during a big labor shortage in the 1960’s and 70’s, and helped Germany recover from war and become Europe’s strongest economy. Once Kreuzberg was a ghetto, but it has turned into a multicultural experiment, a mixing bowl where no one stands out as an outsider. As students are learning, many new refugees are finding their way back to this neighborhood. Kreuzberg has resisted the commercialization that has seized much of Berlin since the reunification of Germany in 1990.
Since the refugee crisis spiked last year, things have calmed down quite a bit, and the number of new arrivals has dropped dramatically. But as one pro-refugee activist told students today, refugees face months or years of adjustment as they come to grips with their new lives in Germany, and learn whether or not they can stay and prosper. Our students will begin to chronicle that adjustment, with articles appearing in this space and elsewhere in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.
Every Monday morning, adjunct professor John Twiggs started class with a countdown, reminding the students how much time remained for them to finish their documentary. That number started with 15 weeks, but on the first day of finals week, the countdown hit the final 48 hours of production.
The documentary, “Aging Out: Autism in Montana,” will premiere at the University Center Theater on Friday, May 13, at 7 p.m. as part of the Senior Showcase. However, the rest of the state will get to see the show on MontanaPBS on Tuesday, May 24, at 8 p.m.
Upper-level journalism students have the option to take the Student Documentary Unit every spring semester. However, this year’s group started researching ideas for the show back in December. A class vote revealed an overwhelming decision to pursue the topic of autism and how it impacts the lives of Montanans.
After more research, the students noticed a significant gap in autism care as individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) transitioned from school-age to adulthood. With the number of individuals being diagnosed with autism on the rise, they realized that the stress placed on the limited number of current care options for adults with ASD was ill-prepared to meet the needs of the incoming wave of adults on the spectrum.
“I want to do something that’s worthwhile, and I feel we have a good group to do it,” said senior Peter Riley, the director of the show. “Everybody knows we have each other’s back as a team, and everyone’s really stepped up and come to the table with some fresh ideas and some talents.”
The students traveled across Montana to follow the lives of four families, each with a child on the autism spectrum. As a class, they chose their main characters to reflect a diversity of ages, abilities, finances and access to care. The class spent quality time at home with their characters, attending therapy sessions and time at the workplace too. Students also interviewed autism specialists to shed insight on autism itself, the diversity care options and relevant legislation in Montana.
Once the group made the transition from shooting to editing, Twiggs told the class, “It’s time to take a hard look at what you do and don’t have. Get everything on the table that shows your best moments.”
Since then, the students have rewritten their scripts and finessed the edited footage to tell a story that speaks to the unique situations of each family, while also capturing the overarching struggles that unites them all.
“It’s definitely the most worthwhile thing I’ve done at the J-school,” said Andy Anderson, the director of photography. “It’s also been the hardest project I’ve worked on, without a doubt, but I think we have a really good pairing of people with skills. We just have killer writers and awesome videographers.”
The majority of the members in Student Doc will graduate the day after the documentary premieres on campus.
“I think Doc is a wonderful experience. We may not get the chance to do this thing for quite a while, if ever again, so let’s step out strong and leave with a product that we can be proud of,” Riley said. “I’m so thankful to be surrounded by a group of individuals that thinks that way too.”
Check out the 30-second and 60-second trailers for the documentary on the Facebook page, “Aging Out: Autism in Montana,” which will also air on MontanaPBS in the days leading up to the television premiere. Students also plan to post behind-the-scenes footage from the making the documentary, providing exclusive insight to their process and the families they followed.
The complete documentary will be available via the MontanaPBS website after the scheduled air date on Tuesday, May 24, at 8 p.m. Past documentaries from the Student Documentary Unit can also be accessed from their website.
The Advanced Audio class at the J-school just launched a podcast called Rest Stop Radio, telling the stories of human beings on the road. The stories come from people driving along Montana’s section of I-90, which covers the most miles of the longest interstate in the US.
Students talked with travelers at I-90 rest stops and recorded the conversations to get each story. In case of a lull, students carried playing cards with questions written on them that their traveler could choose to answer too. The class voted on a set of questions prior to reporting that helped set them up for success. Asking anything from ‘what do you miss the most?’ to ‘what’s the deal with those pants?’ the cards led to more genuine and intimate reactions and opened the door to some reporting fun.
Cole Grant, a junior in the class, came up with the premise for the podcast at the beginning of the semester. “I’m used to traveling. I’m used to going up to random people and talking to them when I’m out and about, so it’s pretty normal, you just have the recorder.”
“The rejection they get out at the rest stop is really true to life as a journalist,” professor Jule Banville said. “It’s a great thing to interview strangers and get them to tell you intimate things about their lives.”
The recorder chased away a few potential travelers who were only willing to talk off-the-record. However, making a compelling radio piece out of a 15-minute conversation proved to be the most challenging aspect.
“It’s all kind of flying by the seat of your pants,” Grant said. “The roughest part is trying to bounce off what they’re saying and figure out if that’s the story. Usually you have the story and then you find the quotes, but here you’re finding the quotes and then digging in from there.”
The same week Rest Stop Radio premiered, NPR correspondent Susan Stamberg was in Missoula to deliver the annual J-school Dean Stone Lecture, and she stopped by Banville’s class.
“She was absolutely curious about what the students were up to. She listened to parts of the first and second episodes of Rest Stop Radio and was truly complimentary and supportive, but still told them what they could do to improve it,” Banville said. “She also loved the same thing I love about what the students are doing—how they’re doing these quick interviews that are actually meaningful because they’re getting people to talk about their lives.”
Grant hopes to continue the podcast over the summer when he’s not busy with his internship at MTPR. “It’s fun. I see no reason to stop, you could just do it yourself,” he said.
“It’s such a flexible idea. I think this project has tremendous potential,” Banville said. “Even Susan Stamberg said the students’ work sounds professional and fancy, and she would know!”
Rest Stop Radio’s first episode features a motorcyclist who used to run drugs on I-90, but turned his life around after an arrest. The pilot also includes a moving interview with a traveling IT professional who’s no longer able to spend much time with his kids. According to Banville, “The show ends on a funnier note—you’ll have to hear it for yourself.”