Missoula to Berlin: The Field Experience

Missoula to Berlin members and Dean Larry Abramson listen to tour guide Alischia Kusche in Berlin. Photo by Sachi Sinhara.
Missoula to Berlin members listen to tour guide Alischia Kusche in Berlin. Photo by Sachi Sinhara.

Today in Berlin, a new piece of journalism was born. Maybe that doesn’t qualify as news, but if you had the chance to be there at the birth, you might share my appreciation. 18 UM J School students put together a web site bursting with articles, photographs, graphs, charts and social media. Their focus is a major story on the world stage: the refugee crisis facing Germany, and specifically Berlin.  The miracle is that many of them had never written for publication under deadline before, and no one had every done so in a foreign country. The quality of this work, and the experiences that led to it, is solid proof of what our school believes: the best way to train journalists is to put them in the field.

The UM J School backs trips overseas because they provide a concentrated version of the classic journalism encounter: stepping into a strange world, pulling back the veil and then making sense of it for an audience. Confronting that challenge in a foreign country raises the challenge to the tenth power, making the learning process is that much more intense. Here in Berlin, students have had to talk their way into asylum homes, youth shelters, burial facilities, bike cooperatives and many other nooks and crannies of the refugee world. They’ve struggled with setback after setback: interviews that were cancelled, crabby bureaucrats who refused to return their calls, and the endless challenge of working in foreign languages. They figured out how to move ahead, and save their stories. I can’t think of a better learning experience.

Last Saturday night was our deadline for filing our final stories, and our students experienced the Sturm and Drang of crunch time. Students kept the train on the track, contacting each other about final corrections, and editing copy over and over. At some points, the faculty went to bed, and the students took over. They took ownership of the enterprise, pushing each other to polish the final product. Once again, that’s a learning experience that’s hard to create in the classroom.

As we wrap up our work here, we’re sitting down with students to get their assessment of their three weeks in Berlin, and the months of preparation that got them here. Almost without fail, they remark on how different it is to work in the field versus doing classroom assignments. They all see how they could have been smarter and more successful if they had asked a few more questions, taken photos from different angles, or tried just a little harder. Those are the real lessons they will take into the newsroom, or to whatever field calls to them. You can see their work here. Thanks to everyone who helped our students get here, and watch this space for more news.

Larry Abramson

 

Missoula to Berlin Update: The Optimistic Generation

Montana Journalism students are shown around the headquarters of Moabit Hilft, where a team provides clothing, food, and basic amenities to refugees as they wait for their asylum claims to be processed.
Montana Journalism students are shown around the headquarters of Moabit Hilft, where a team provides clothing, food, and basic amenities to refugees as they wait for their asylum claims to be processed. Photo by Shane Thomas McMillan.

It’s hard to imagine what’s going on in Germany today. But try this: imagine you live in a country that has the opportunity to accomplish two earth-shattering, history-making achievements in the space of one generation. First, you are able to reunite a country divided completely by the Cold War, and you manage to do this while actually improving your status as the most powerful economy in a united Europe. Second, you have the chance to change your reputation as a creator of refugees (during World War II) to one known for its “Willkommenskultur,” and you attract about a million refugees from all over the planet. And rather than taking on this challenge with a sense of resignation or obligation, you do this with a sense of joy and optimism. It is that sense of hope that is greeting the 18 students from UM’s Journalism School, as they get to know Berlin and seek to understand the refugee crisis.

In the press, many of the stories about the refugee crisis focus on potential problems. And like good journalists, these are the kinds of issues our students are asking about: what if the growing number of Muslim families insist on expressing their culture by demanding accommodations in school? What happens if all these refugees stay, and if more arrive? What if the right wing resistance to immigration grows more powerful? These are the important issues students are probing as they visit refugee camps, immigrant neighborhoods, NGO’s and other groups who have been affected by the new arrivals.

Many immigrants of course are still unsure about whether this can be a permanent home, or whether they will want to stay. But we have already met dozens of Germans who seem convinced that immigration is their chance to do something good, perhaps even great. Young people in particular are seizing this chance to help immigrants and figure out solutions with a sense of creativity and fun that is hard to describe. But we will try to do that in a series of articles, videos, radio pieces and social media posts in the coming weeks.

Follow the group and their adventures on Instagram!

By Larry Abramson

Missoula to Berlin Update: May 26, 2016

photo shows MT journalism students walking down a sidewalk.
The group explores their new neighborhood along the Landwehr Canal in Kreuzberg ,Berlin.

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.

By Larry Abramson