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When media matters

When students signed up for a two-week trip to Africa, they thought they’d be roughing it without hairdryers and Facebook. What they got was a journey to the part of journalism that changes lives.

Posted July 23, 2014
By Chrysti Shain, '85, journalism


Students in the journalism school have lots of opportunities for school trips. Posters line the walls for treks to New York, Washington, D.C., Europe and beyond, each offering experience and adventure.

One summer trip gives students that and more, teaching them the impact journalism can have on a faraway place and bringing the students closer to themselves and each other through the power of storytelling.

"I think it was a great lesson — the media still can matter," said Associate Professor Van Kornegay, who has spearheaded a trip to Africa the past two years. "Telling stories on a lot of different channels can change peoples' lives."

In the summers of 2013 and 2014, Kornegay and Scott Farrand, a visual communications instructor, took small groups of students from different majors to Malawi, a landlocked country in southeastern Africa where aid organizations are trying to help improve life for villagers. The first journey turned out to be such a powerful experience that the two professors made a second trip, and are considering making the experience into an annual expedition.

"Everybody writes better when they're passionate about something," Kornegay said. "This really drives that lesson home for them in journalism education. It gives the students a chance to reach in there and get their hands dirty, and put their hearts and souls in it. It gives you a reason to care."

Making a difference

Both years, students were sent out in pairs, with each pair responsible for a video story and a written story. They also prepared Facebook posts for the page of the Ministry of Hope, an aid organization working in the area that the students visited.

"We went to do a story on a medical unit and learned the village's water pump was broken," said Daniel Shelley, a senior visual communications major from Summerville, S.C., who was on the first trip. "Some women had to walk a mile to get to the new water source, and the water opened them up to diseases."

Shelley's group did a story on the broken water pump and posted it to Facebook and the Ministry of Hope website. Good story, everyone thought. Then they moved on to other things.

"A month after that, I was lying on my couch in Charleston, eating chips, and I got a call: 'Your video got enough donations to fix the water pump ,'" Shelley said. "I'd never really experienced that before because I'd just cover things around campus. It just shows you that journalism can help just as much as a doctor if you do it correctly."

On the first trip, Farrand met a woman who designed and sold beads and donated the money to help the villagers. There was one problem, though. The beads had no packaging.

Once back at USC, Farrand issued a challenge to his students: "Let's solve this communication problem. Let's solve this design problem," he told them. "​How can we give these beads greater value so they can be sold to more people?"

The parameters were steep. Their design could only use one piece of paper, with one printing and no glue. In other words, make a box that costs almost nothing that folds together.

"At first I was really nervous about the project," student Megan Everett said. But after she started looking for ideas, she got excited.

"I knew I was going to go on the trip and it was going to be an awesome experience to go present her the ideas and see how happy she was​," Everett said.

It's a real-world lesson about possibilities.

"It's showing them how the media matters," Kornegay said. "That was the personification of that."

What to post

Students on the 2014 trip spent time analyzing social media posts and trying to drive traffic to their stories. They almost doubled their number of followers on Facebook and also learned the value of writing strong opening sentences for big impact.

"These students have an idea of the way they use Facebook and social media — they just want to pop on, see some pictures and pop off," Kornegay said. "Our base is different — they want to read stories. And the stories that were most popular were the ones that were crafted and well written."

The students also knew they would have very limited access to Wifi and the Internet, which forced them to really think about the kinds of posts they value.

"I just didn't worry about what my roommate was doing that day — what he was having for lunch," Shelley said. "You didn't worry about the materialistic things. I think this year I've used social media more to promote worthy stuff instead of saying, 'Just had a Coke Zero today. It was pretty good.'"

And the trip did something else — it brought them closer together.

"As a result, the students ate together, talked," Kornegay said. "The students are now really close. All attribute it to being out of a mediated environment."

In other words, they bonded.

"We just became super close because we didn't have our technology like we would back here," Shelley said. "We just talked to each other.

"Here, if you're in a group of five, at least two of them will be constantly checking their phones. We're always worrying about what Kim Kardashian is wearing or what the latest score is.

It really forced us to get out and talk to people."

A new way to see

On both trips, the students took photographs of the people they met. While doing so, they quickly realized something was different: These people were not posing.

"A lot of them don't have mirrors and they don't know what they look like," Shelley said. "We would take their picture and then turn the camera around, and they would get the biggest smile you've ever seen."

The students had brought a portable, battery-powered printer with them, so they were able to make copies of the photos and post them up in a central gathering place. They weren't prepared for the crowds that gathered to see the images.

"We take selfies — now the word of the year — and we all have our poses." he said. "They weren't thinking anything. It was just 100 percent them. They were so proud."

Portraits from the first group became an exhibit at 701 Whaley, and work from the second group might get similar treatment.

"It was really cool to go in and see our pictures, and seeing people not knowing who I was, saying, 'Wow that's a really cool picture,'"Shelley said. "My parents drove up for it. All my friends came. All my hard work paid off. People were able to experience a little of what I experienced." 

Some recognition

The Malawi trips were partially funded by a USC Dobson Service Learning grant and partial scholarships from donors. And the project was recently honored by winning the prestigious Best Practices in International Education award for Student Philanthropy from the National Association of Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

That's high praise for the group and for the school, recognizing the long-standing impact the students' work will have on life in a small village in Malawi.

"It was a spiritual journey," Kornegay said. "I don't think that's what they signed up for, but that's what they got."

And that impact will live on in the lives and careers of students from USC.

"It was school, but none of us thought of it as school. We thought of it as an adventure," Shelley said. "I did worry about whether I was in the right major or not. Now I know that I'm going to love what I do, and it can take me anywhere."