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Newswriting Class Explores Untold Stories of Chicago Immigrants

March 15, 2005

By Belinda Lichty Clarke, MSJ94

Chicago has an unofficial reputation for being one of the more immigrant-friendly cities. However, undergraduates taking Newswriting 301 this quarter discovered that there are many issues facing the Asian, Mexican, Puerto Rican and Eastern European communities in Chicago that don’t get reported in the news.

The 15 students, led by Assistant Professor Michele Weldon and Greg Stephan, an adjunct lecturer in broadcast, developed in-depth group stories as well as 15 individual profiles on immigrant families, educators, volunteers, nonprofit directors and business owners. Additionally, they condensed their print work into five separate 5-minute broadcasts which were shown to students and faculty on March 11 at the McCormick Tribune Forum.

"The students worked incredibly hard on a difficult topic requiring them to move around to many different neighborhoods in Chicago and interview sources, often with an interpreter,” Weldon said. “They showed great reporting skills far beyond our expectation.”

The five news segments covered a variety of topics. The first, “Welcome or Warning: Does the City of Big Shoulders Embrace Immigrants with Open Arms?” discussed the issues faced by immigrants who are permanent residents looking to obtain citizenship. The three students working on this angle talked to community members who use local services for citizenship preparation, including the New Americans Initiative in Chicago. 

The second story focused on some of the daily hurdles immigrants face, for example overcrowding in the public schools and neighborhood crime, specifically in Pilsen, which is Chicago’s large Mexican/American community. 

“I was struck by how easy it was to find what we were looking for,” said Melanie Wong, BSJ07. “It was not hard to find people to provide examples for the issues we had heard coming from the community leaders.” 

The third student group chose health care as their topic and found immigrants to share their stories about how people of all ages, many who are uninsured, are forced to either neglect their routine healthcare or look to the community for help. As part of their story, the students interviewed a teenager named Leonardo Sanchez who is suffering from kidney disease. Sanchez relies on public aid for his daily dialysis, however his family has started a local fundraiser to collect enough money for a transplant, which the government will not cover.

According to the students, it wasn’t until the end of the project that they discovered Sanchez as the source who could best "put a face on their story.”

During the presentation, the topic came up about whether or not the students had deliberated putting the phone number on their broadcast to help generate donations for the Sanchez family. According to Weldon, the students wanted to post the number but she felt that doing so compromised the objectivity of the students’ report.

The fourth student group talked to immigrants who for various reasons are currently living in the U.S. but who plan to return to their native country. The segment, called “Should I Stay or Should I Go: Immigrants Face a Culture of War of Two Worlds,” cited the language barrier as a driving factor for those immigrants who want to return home. The students covering this topic admitted to having to address various roadblocks during the course of their reporting, namely that the sources they had identified to interview had either moved or wouldn’t call them back.

“You just have to go with what you can get, which I guess helped us be more creative,” said Mike Laskasky, BSJ07.

The fifth and final story profiled a Chicago group called Changing Worlds which, among other things, has helped create a program in one Chicago public elementary school, Hibbard Elementary, that teaches students about cross-cultural understanding through oral history, writing and art programs. In fact, said Weldon, Changing Worlds was the driving factor for making issues in the Chicago immigrant community the focus of the student projects this quarter.

As part of her individual reporting, Laura Moore, BSJ07, said that she was shocked by the lack of similar programs in place throughout the country.

“I expected to be inundated with groups but found surprisingly few,” Moore said. “The Changing Worlds program is unique, but it’s growing.”

Kay Berkson, board president and founder of Changing Worlds, was on hand for the presentation and commended each of the groups for their hard work, specifically the Changing Worlds group for their comprehensive coverage. The student broadcasts and expanded print stories for this course will be on the Medill Web site starting in April in the Student Work section.

Topics: People