Beyond the Border: The Teachers' View

Yvonne Latty of New York University and Celeste González de Bustamante at the University of Arizona developed an innovative way to provide journalism students with hands-on experience covering immigrant issues. Here's how they did it.

Dart Center West intern Brittany Birkett talks to journalism professors Celeste González de Bustamante, University of Arizona, and Yvonne Latty, New York University, about “Beyond the Border,” a project of the Dart Academic Fellowship, held at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in June, 2010.

How did the Dart Center Academic Fellows training help shape the Beyond the Border Project?

Celeste González de Bustamante: The Dart Center academic fellowship provided the impetus for the Beyond the Border project. Even before the fellowship was over, Yvonne Latty and I began to discuss how we could incorporate what we learned through some sort of collaborative project. After I gave a presentation about trauma and reporting along the U.S.-Mexico border, Prof. Latty told me that she was interested in bringing her students to the Arizona-Sonora border, and she invited me to bring my students to New York City, another area that has experienced historical and contemporary conflict. Over the 2010 summer we developed the project and were able to obtain enough funding to carry out the project, thanks in part to support from the Dart Center. 

Yvonne Latty: I travel to an underserved community every fall with my NYU grad students to do a multi-platform, deadline-driven project. I had thought about going to the Arizona-Mexico border, but did not have a clear vision for the trip until I heard Celeste address our group about the border during the fellowship. I knew immediately that I wanted to figure out how to get my students there. I thought we could do important work. And, as the daughter of a Latina immigrant, it really resonated with me.

How has your partnership with each other contributed to your students' learning?

González de Bustamante: Many of my students have said that this project has been life-changing for them. They were able to gain real-life, hands-on experience reporting on some very sensitive subjects. Some students interviewed people who crossed through the deadliest part of the U.S.-Mexico border, who are struggling in New York City, who after great hardship are thriving in one of the toughest cities in the country. It’s clear, though, that they feel better equipped to work in conflict areas after having participated in the project.

Latty: Celeste was extremely helpful in planning and shaping our stories. Many of her students drove my students and their intimate knowledge of the area and the issues really helped inform our reporting. It was invaluable and really helped our package.

How do you prepare your students for interviewing people who have been exposed to trauma?

Latty: Before we left for the border, Jim MacMillan, a Dart Ochberg Fellow who teaches with me and traveled with the group, led a trauma workshop for students. I also had freelancer, Monica Campbell, who has spent time covering Juarez, speak to the students on what they could expect in that area. She spoke to them about the migrants and what they had been through. My students are also exposed to trauma in their very first assignment for me: they cover the annual 9/11 memorial service at Ground Zero. Trauma reporting has always been a big part of my program, but now I really address it and it has a name, while before the fellowship it was just the kind of reporting we did. Now we talk about it, we troubleshoot, we talk about how to talk to people and I tell them it is OK to feel, to be human.

González de Bustamante: Trauma and conflict stories are all so different, so it’s almost impossible to prepare students for every situation. Nevertheless, I have tried to developed a few in-class assignments to help students get an idea about what they need to think about before jumping into an interview or reporting assignment that involves a person who has been through a traumatic experience. I developed an exercise in which students have to conduct the all-too-familiar “death knock” interview.  Students really took the exercise seriously and I think they now feel better equipped to go out and do this type of interview, which is very common for rookie reporters.

What types of trauma and/or conflict did your students face while gathering their stories? As educators, what role did you play in helping them overcome these challenges?

Latty: One of my students went to the morgue and looked at dozens of bodies of undocumented migrants. Another who walked the migrants' trail ran into a group that begged them for help. They all spoke to dozens of people battling various forms of trauma, even the Americans who live near the border and are against illegal immigration are suffering from their own trauma. I talked to my students, listened to them, encouraged them to talk about how they felt and tried to be there for them emotionally through the process. I have come to realize what was missing in my career where I was pushed and pushed, but no editor was there for me when the stories were very hard on me emotionally.

González de Bustamante: Most of the students involved in the project had never been to New York before. They were quite apprehensive about “parachuting in” to the largest city in the country and having to report on really serious issues in a matter of a few days. They prepared as much as they could before the trip, such as setting up logistics, but some things they just had to experience first-hand to understand. Some students interviewed people who had harrowing stories about crossing in the Arizona desert, others talked to immigrants who’ve been victims of hate crimes. I tried to talk to the students as much as I could at the end of each reporting day and throughout the trip. We did a lot of informal debriefings about what they experienced, and I think that helped tremendously.   

How have your students' experiences in Arizona/New York prepared them to face conflict or trauma later in their careers?

Latty: My students have covered conflict and trauma. They know how to do it; they are not afraid. I am very confident that they will do tremendous jobs when faced with these types of stories. They are now all experienced immigration reporters and each one of their stories dealt with conflict or trauma. I can't say enough about the 17 students who traveled with me. I am so proud of them and the work they did.

González de Bustamante: Without a doubt, all of the students in the project feel much more confident now about their reporting abilities after participating in the project. They can apply what they learned in New York and along the U.S.-Mexico border to just about any place in the world. 

How do you envision the future of the Beyond the Border Project?

González de Bustamante: I hope to carry out the project again in future semesters. I am open to having another group of students from UA and NYU have a similar cross-cultural experience. I also think there is great potential to expand the project to other parts of the country and world. Certainly, I will continue to look for support for this program. It has received very favorable reviews by the students, faculty, and the wider community, so that makes me hopeful that future funding can be secured. 

Latty: I hope we do it again. It was awesome for my students and I learned so much working on this project. It was one of the highlights of my teaching career.