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University of Missouri

Journalism in Every Language

J-School students take a crash course covering the United Nations.

Vavara Fomina had recently completed MU’s convergence journalism course, but she wasn’t convinced that she could actually do convergence journalism. So she decided to find out — in a foreign country (Italy), speaking a non-native language (English), on deadline.

Fomina, a master’s student in the School of Journalism, travelled with four other J-School students on a short-term internship-based study abroad trip to cover the Fifth Global Forum of the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations meeting February 2013 in Vienna. They were accompanied by J-School Professor Reuben Stern and Global Programs Director Fritz Cropp, who organized the excursion.

The trip earned her credits toward her degree and a world of confidence.

From St. Petersburg, Russia, Fomina worked seven years as a television reporter before accepting a Fulbright Scholarship to come to Columbia. However, her role in her former job – interviewing, writing – was limited compared to what she was asked to do at Mizzou, which is everything: filming, interviewing, editing and writing.

It’s very challenging to be self-confident under conditions like that,” she says. “You work on equal footing with professionals. Being a student is not an excuse.”

In Vienna, the students divided the labor, with Fomina handling video and sound editing, which was outside her comfort zone. Their task was to produce a video each day of the conference summarizing the day’s events. But a U.N. forum is not must-see-TV. “The characters are not vivid at all – they’re talking heads,” Fomina says.

But when the talking head is the Secretary General, the entire press corps still scrambles to get a shot of him. “I remember people would yell, ‘The Secretary General is coming down the hall!’ And you’d run to get him,” Fomina says. “It’s very chaotic.”

They also, thanks to their advisers, got to record the audio in multiple languages.

Cropp remembers sitting in a meeting with UN Web TV officials before the summit started, talking about what the students’ jobs should be. At one point in the discussion, the U.N. officials said that all the videos would first have to be sent back to New York to be dubbed in all five of the U.N.’s official languages.

To which Reuben said, famously, ‘I don’t really think so,’ ” Cropp remembers. Stern then listed his students and the languages they spoke — English, Chinese, Spanish and Russian. And, he said, they were working alongside a team of journalists from the Middle East and North Africa that could certainly handle Arabic, the fifth language. “ ‘We should be able to do this thing right here.’ ”

Even though Cropp had helped assemble the team, he was still amazed. “It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever — I was just sitting there thinking, ‘That’s pretty cool.’ ”

What was even cooler was how the experience boosted Fomina’s confidence. Working with equipment that wasn’t second nature, with a group whose language wasn’t her native tongue, on strict production deadlines proved to be a task she was up to. “I need more time than native speakers, but I can do it,” she says.