By Julio J. Bermejo
Dominic Torres wasn’t getting what he needed from the interview, and he knew it.
Torres, a senior majoring in journalism at California State University, Fullerton, in Southern California, was on the outskirts of Tijuana, Baja California, in November at a residential shelter for child victims of sexual exploitation. He was there to interview “Lucy” (a pseudonym), a 21-year-old survivor of a childhood of abuse at the hands of her father. Her story was to be a central element of the multimedia news package on child sexual exploitation in the U.S.–Mexico border region Torres was assembling as part of his work in the university’s new course, “Specialized Reporting on Minorities of the Southern Border.”
Yet, even though Lucy had agreed to the interview through the shelter director, who sat translating between her and Torres, who did not speak Spanish; even though the camera was trained only on her hands; and even with the promised use of the pseudonym and an offer to alter her voice in the footage, Lucy was reluctant to offer any details of her story. Torres slowly switched off the camera and hung his head in thought. He faced a moment of truth: Would he try again to elicit details, or would he settle for what he’d gotten?
After a long period of silence, Torres asked the director, Alma Tucker, for her assistance in reassuring Lucy about the interview. In gentle tones, Tucker, who leads a binational organization dedicated to the rescue of women and children from sexual abuse and human trafficking, encouraged the young woman to speak about matters she had earlier expressed a willingness to discuss. Torres switched on the camera. And Lucy began speaking.
“The abuse started when I was four years old,” Lucy said, her hands fidgeting in her lap. “I thought it was something normal, because it was coming from someone who loved me so much. He was my father, and I didn’t think he would want to hurt me.” As Torres recorded, she told of the abuse and of the changing tactics her father used to control her as she grew older, going from a reliance on a young child’s naiveté to coercion and threats of violence. “Don’t wait until you feel like you’re drowning or that you want to die” before reaching out for help, she told the audience she envisioned watching the news story Torres would ultimately assemble.
In Spanish, there is a phrase, abrir brecha, which can mean both to open a path through an obstacle (think Shakespeare’s Henry V urging his troops “once more unto the breach”) and to create new opportunity. Last fall, first-year full-time lecturer and veteran broadcast journalist Jesús Ayala, with the crucial support of administrators and other faculty at Cal State Fullerton, a Hispanic-serving institution, abrió brecha for the 10 students — nine women, one man, the majority of them Latino — who enrolled in the border reporting course. The course was focused on building the participants’ broadcast reporting and multimedia production skills. Its culminating activity was a reporting boot camp Nov. 1 – 5 that took them to Tijuana and San Diego to report stories as professional journalists would. So while President Donald Trump hardened borders and hardened hearts against asylum seekers and immigrants ahead of midterm elections, the students moved through physical, systemic and personal barriers that can separate the student from the professional. It was movement accompanied by all the uncertainty and accomplishment one would expect of such a training experience or rite of passage.
Lucy’s responses were “kind of just beating around the bush,” Torres later said, reflecting on the interview. “I had to make a decision: ‘Look, I came out her for a story, and I need to get that story.’ That’s why I stopped the camera.”
Without asking for too much, he said, he needed Lucy to understand that “if you want me to tell your story, and you want me to make this story make a difference for society or raise awareness for something, then I need to know your story.” Without her firsthand experiences, as difficult as they might be to share, “your story is going to be out there for no reason.”
Torres’ story was one of the 10 multimedia news packages written, reported and produced by the students who participated in the boot camp. Each package consisted of a four–five-minute video news story and its accompanying online news article, along with photographs taken and infographics designed by the students. Leading up to the boot camp, the course was heavy with readings and lectures on topics such as a history of the U.S.–Mexico border, trade between Latin America and the United States, migration and human rights, the trade in illegal drugs, and border militarization. The students also were required to report a news story at midterm to hone their reporting and multimedia skills ahead of the boot camp.
For the instructor, an award-winning 15-year veteran of national broadcast news, the course and the timing created an opportunity to bring together two of his major interests to help prepare students for the realities of the journalism profession.
The chance to combine journalism and politics “was just perfect,” said Ayala, who as an undergraduate majored in political science. “It just seemed like the perfect time to teach it.” In the syllabus he distributed to the class in August, he noted that “there is no other issue in the news right now that is more polarizing than the border debate.”
Ayala said his learning objectives for the course were simple. “I tell my students at the beginning: ‘I want you to be employable.’ That is my number one goal. There’s no point in getting the degree if you’re not going to be employable or if you’re learning things that are not going to get you hired.” His second objective, if simple to articulate, was nevertheless ambitious: for the boot camp and course “to be a transformational experience,” he said. “That’s really it. But for me, in general, with all my courses, it’s really just those two things.”
Each student pitched and produced her or his own story. Their eventual pieces reflected some of the variety of human experience at one of the world’s busiest land border crossings and the city of 1.3 million people immediately to its south at a moment of heightened international interest. The stories ran the gamut, from the experiences of families participating in the migrant caravan then making its way to the U.S.–Mexico border; to Tijuana’s community of Haitian migrants, who fled Haiti in the wake of a 2010 earthquake there; to Uber’s arrival in Mexico and its impact on Tijuana’s taxi industry and drivers; to lighter fare.
Ayala, who teaches mostly upper-division courses, said he treats his students as working professionals. “When you come into my class, you should treat it as if you were coming into a newsroom.” In a working newsroom, he said, journalists are expected to write on deadline — and write well — and they are expected to shoot video skillfully. “I demand all of that from them. I really do. Because I don’t want them leaving our campus not having had a real taste.”
Participants agreed the boot camp reflected that philosophy. Regina Yurrita, whose story on families separated by migration took her to Friendship Park, where the first of two U.S. border barriers is opened on weekends so people can see and speak with family or friends on the Tijuana side, said Ayala’s course was different from traditional courses. Most courses are taught in a classroom or anchor studio, said the senior, who was interning in the local news division of a TV network-affiliate. But the boot camp, which provided only one complete day for reporting in Tijuana, “at my internship, that’s what I see. Reporters go out in the field, they have one full day to do it, and then they should be prepared to air it that same day. So, it was awesome.”
Senior Jessica Cárdenas, who reported on the experiences of Central American asylum seekers and caravan participants, called the first-hand exposure as a reporter to issues of migration, “life-changing.” The stories the students reported and the conditions under which they reported them cannot be found near campus, she said. “Seeing it firsthand, and interviewing your source,” Cárdenas said, “and really seeing the rawness of the desperation, and their voice and their stories, that’s when you get to realize, ‘Oh my gosh, this is real life.’”
“I love this course,” she said. “It’s very challenging. It’s very heavy. It’s emotionally heavy, physically heavy. But this is going to be the determining factor for you, in order to decide, ‘Yes, I do want to pursue this,’ or ‘No, I don’t want to.’”
The border reporting boot camp and course were part of a larger effort in the university’s College of Communications to build a pipeline of qualified, savvy Latino and other graduates ready for careers in mass communications, including in Spanish-language media.
Inez González, director of the college’s Latino Communications Institute, which is leading the effort, said the news and entertainment industries are recognizing their underutilization of diverse talent, but they are also industries with “high barriers to entry.”
Those barriers appear to produce an underrepresentation of Latinos and women, among others, that continues to mark the American newsroom. Latinos are almost 20 percent of the U.S. population. Yet, according to 2018 research by the Pew Research Center, they make up only 10.5 percent of the TV news workforce and 7.1 percent of TV news directors. Every year, according to Poynter, women receive the majority of degrees in journalism and mass communications. Nine of the 10 participants in the border reporting course were women. Yet, according to research by the American Society of News Editors, women were only 39.1 percent of all newsroom employees in 2017 — up less than two percentage points from 2001.
González said the institute and its courses help provide and develop the two missing components that prevent students and graduates from overcoming key barriers to entry: strong career-relevant training and a network connecting them to industry internships and jobs.
“Industry wants prepared students,” she said, and existing pipelines might lead to “typical elite schools that might not have a lot of diversity. Now we’re really changing the conversation by preparing [students] really well, not only in the classroom, but outside of the classroom.”
Ayala said he saw firsthand the newsroom bias against state university students during his 15 years in the broadcast news business.
“Elite school students get respect,” he said. “And then you might get a student from a Cal State Northridge or Cal State Fullerton. And I’ve seen it, I’ve seen employers turn up their noses, like, ‘Oh, God, state students.’ Automatically the assumption is that their education is inferior.”
But an experience like the border reporting course “sets an even playing field,” he said. Ayala also teaches the institute’s Spanish-language TV news magazine, “Al Día.” It won a 2019 Broadcast Education Association excellence award in its first year after being converted from an extracurricular activity to a credit course.
Broadcast journalism, in Ayala’s view, is a field where ultimately “it really doesn’t matter where you went to school. All that really matters is ‘What do you know how to do?’”
From a practical perspective, he said, his border reporting students likely did much more last fall than many students in more prestigious programs. “These are hireable packages.”
“Students from Berkeley didn’t go to the border,” said Ayala, who earned his bachelor’s at the UC campus. The work the boot camp participants did, “that on a resume looks amazing. And suddenly you’re asked, ‘Writing sample?’ ‘Here you go.’ ‘Video reel?’ ‘Here you go.’
“Students at CSUs deserve these types of experiences,” Ayala said. “These experiences shouldn’t just be for the USCs or Northwesterns or Columbia Universities of the world.”
One of the groups that might be benefiting most from the new educational and networking opportunities the Latino Communications Institute is developing is first-generation college students. Today, students whose parents have not attended college make up almost a third of Cal State Fullerton’s undergraduates. The resources marshalled by the institute, working with instructors, administrators and industry partners, “help these first-generation college students with limited social capital get into the industry,” the institute’s González said.
Xochilt Lagunas is one of those students. The senior used the boot camp to report on the lives of Central Americans and Mexicans living in a Tijuana shelter as they awaited the opportunity to apply for asylum in the United States. A self-confessed “very sensitive person,” Lagunas spent hours in the shelter listening to stories of violence, threats, fear and compassion. Yet, she was able to maintain her composure, she said, till she was in her rideshare heading back to the hotel where the students, Ayala and other faculty were staying. She said the border reporting course had been a true growth experience for her.
“I treat this class as if it’s also a job,” Lagunas said. “It’s taught me that things are always going to happen. Bad things are always going to happen. There are going to be times when the laptop is going to crash. And I’ve improved, definitely.”
Before the course, she said, “I would just collapse in tears and, ‘Oh, my god, I’m so stressed out!’ But now I hold in my tears, and I stay strong, like, ‘Okay, I’m going to try to figure this out, and I’m going to fix this. Because crying is not the answer.’
“So I definitely feel that it has made me stronger,” she said. “This course has definitely made me stronger as a person. I feel proud of myself for how I’ve come this far.”
Lagunas attributed her sense of accomplishment to the fact that she had been able to apply what she learned in the course to an important story on what was her first visit to Mexico.
“I honestly feel that [the course] did prepare me. I’ve never been to Mexico. This is my first time in T.J.,” she said, using a common nickname for Tijuana. “I had no idea what’s going on here. My parents are from Mexico, but I never had that background. I don’t travel.
“So, the fact that I was able to do this, and not only that, apply the knowledge of what my professor was the whole time talking about, and what I’ve been watching on TV, especially right now since the whole caravan situation, it really hit me,” Lagunas said. “It made me see a part of that in actual, real life and experience it. Not me just hearing it from TV or from word of mouth, but actually in person. A person actually telling me their story.”
If it is a question of improved employability, participation in study abroad programs appears to produce tangible benefits when the time comes to find that first post-college job. According to research conducted by study abroad provider IES Abroad, graduates who had studied internationally were twice as likely to find a job within a year of graduation than were those who had not studied internationally. And a survey of employers by the European Union’s Erasmus study abroad program found that 64 percent of them said international experience is important in their recruitment efforts. The same percentage said that employees with international experience are more likely to be given greater job responsibility.
Yet, even with the university’s proximity to the border — a 2 ½-hour trip by car or train — the opportunity to build journalism skills by reporting on current events, and the benefits of participating in study abroad, the boot camp in Tijuana was a tough sell to university officials.
“As far as the university is concerned,” Ayala told his students a few weeks into the semester, “we’re going to Syria.”
A reputation for drug-related violence appears to have dogged the border city. Yet, according to the U.S. State Department, crime in Baja California related to the traffic in illegal drugs typically is focused among criminal groups themselves, and, as in any heavily-touristed city, the most common threat to Tijuana visitors appears to be pickpockets and purse snatchers.
The media propagates an image “that all of Tijuana is dangerous,” said Dean Kazoleas, director of the university’s Maxwell Center for International Communications, “and it’s not.”
University risk management officials were wary of allowing students to work in Tijuana, said Kazoleas, who was instrumental in securing approval for the boot camp. “The idea of just going and basically wandering in Tijuana and reporting” would be seen as too risky, he said. “So what I suggested is that we perhaps work with our partner, CETYS University, and have a program at CETYS Tijuana. The program would be centered around CETYS Tijuana, and they would help us coordinate things. And [Risk Management] said yes.”
Kazoleas and the Maxwell Center have, in recent years, built a relationship with the multi-campus, Mexican university’s Ensenada location, 70 miles south of Tijuana. Since 2016, Cal State Fullerton communications students have studied there during winter and summer sessions, working with local students on tourism-based public relations projects.
Even as the boot camp participants focused on their news packages, learning in more formal forms continued to take place. The students, faculty and host CETYS officials began the first full day in Tijuana with a visit to a Foxconn maquiladora, or duty-free factory, and a CETYS panel on the North American Free Trade Agreement and its replacement under the Trump administration. On their first day back in the United States, the students were given a border tour and briefing by U.S. Border Patrol officials.
According to students, Ayala prepared them well for their encounters with economic and immigration policy at institutional and personal levels.
During the Border Patrol’s presentation, Cárdenas said, “I’m like, ‘Oh, my god! He literally did teach us everything, with the readings, the classes and everything.’ It was just so much material, but it was material that we needed to know.”
Without that intensive preparation, she said, “we would be there not knowing anything, not understanding anything, not knowing what questions to ask. That really, really prepared us.”
Ayala also emphasized the importance of having a command of one’s story subject and its context when on the job market, Torres said. “That was the first thing Jesús told us on the first day. He said, ‘I’m trying to drill you guys with information because when you guys go into a job interview, they’re not going to say, “Oh, how was your Mexico trip?” They’re going to say, “How do you feel about NAFTA, and them taking it away and making a new one?”’
“Outlets are going to ask about current events and compare that to your work,” Torres said. “They won’t restrict themselves to the package, the story.”
In the field in a foreign country, the students relied on each other to get their work done.
“That day that I went to go shoot,” Cárdenas said, “Jesús went with me in the morning. But after that, I stayed at the shelter by myself for two or three hours. And then Brandy [Flores] and Maricela [Pérez], they came to help me finish with everything.
“And after that we went to Maricela’s shoot,” she said. “And we just kept going one place after another, and we were able to finish all the stories, all in time. They helped me with mine, I helped them with theirs. And we finished on deadline.”
Most of the credit for the boot camp’s vision and success goes to Ayala, said the Latino Communications Institute’s González.
“Jesús took the environmental advantage that we are two hours away from another country, and took the students to report on this very critical issue, where all eyes were on the refugees,” she said. “The fact that the students were able to cover this story, in the way that they did, in another country, is really extraordinary.”
It is late Saturday afternoon in Tijuana, after a full day in the field for the boot camp participants. They’ve spent their time in shelters interviewing waylaid asylum seekers and deported U.S. veterans, speaking and riding with taxi drivers nervous about the arrival of ridesharing in their city, traveling dirt roads to reach the canyon home of Tijuana’s Little Haiti and interview some of its residents. Most of the students have trickled back into the hotel, and now they are gathered around a long, tall table in a lounge area off the hotel’s lobby. Fingers tap out stories on laptops or scroll through text messages, emails and news on mobile phones lying on the table, amid cameras, microphones, notebooks. Students chat or listen to music through earbuds and headphones. The scene easily could be one of foreign correspondents deployed to a news hotspot anywhere on the planet, getting the work of journalism done.
Yet, the struggles, triumphs and growth the students experienced were evident too. Speaking with a classmate, Viviana Borroel, who reported on the plight of deported veterans, ran through a litany of the challenges, large and small, she encountered and overcame to get her story. As if finally allowing herself to feel the full weight of the day’s effort, her eyes welled with tears as she spoke. Torres, whose eventual story on child sexual exploitation had begun as a story on sex trafficking across the U.S.–Mexico border, went over the change with Ayala, seeking his teacher’s affirmation of his work and the piece’s new direction.
The changes that occurred over the course of the semester and during the boot camp were not limited to the stories. The students themselves appeared to change, as Ayala had hoped.
Cárdenas, who reported on asylum seekers and caravan participants, had an internship with an entertainment news outlet at the time of the course. She had intended to pursue a career in entertainment media, she said. But speaking back on campus after the boot camp, she said that, while entertainment journalism has its place, “now I would never pursue entertainment.”
“How do you compare interviewing a Central American woman,” Cárdenas asked, thinking back to one of her interviewees, “who is here with her two sons, after having her family members killed, and then her threatened, leaving the country, and now she’s stuck at a migrant shelter, when she did everything the right way, she was an attorney? How do you compare [that to] an entertainment story, like ‘Kim Kardashian did this today’?”
Lagunas, who reported on the lives of asylum seekers inside a migrant shelter, said that, under Ayala’s instruction and supervision, she had found both her voice and her audience.
The young woman who conducted her own interviews in the shelter said she speaks “basic Spanish” and that, when she encounters formal Spanish in books and other media, her reaction is “Oh, that’s not me.” But through her work in Ayala’s courses, especially the “Al Día” news magazine, she is able to express herself confidently and effectively, she said.
“Me doing live shots through ‘Al Día’ in Spanish has given me the opportunity to just be myself and express things my way to the Latino community, but in an easy way for people to understand.” Formal language can feel exclusionary, she said. “That’s the reason why I try to use simple Spanish words. So that others that are like me can understand.”
The success of the boot camp appears to be creating new opportunities and new direction for the university’s communications students and faculty. The border reporting course is scheduled to be offered again in the spring 2020 term. Ayala said he plans to reduce the amount of time spent on the U.S. side of the border during the boot camp to give the students more time to report from Tijuana. The course also has created interest among communications faculty for teaching in study abroad programs in the Americas, said the Maxwell Center’s Kazoleas. Creating connections between the university and Latin America is “relevant,” he said. “It’s culturally important, especially given the demographics of California and our students.”
The journey the students went on was both a physical and a mental one. And its biggest impact may have been on their own self-concept.
Two weeks into the semester and the border reporting course, Torres faced a crisis. His financial aid package had fallen through unexpectedly, he said, and he considered dropping out because of the difficulties he would face in trying to pay for the semester.
“But I realized how much I’m involved,” he said during the boot camp. “And one of those involvements was Jesús’ class. And I realized I couldn’t just drop it, because this is a big opportunity. And coming on this trip, it just emphasized it even more.”
Even in those earliest weeks, Torres said, through exposure in class to the issues and struggles surrounding the border, “I already had this idea of ‘How could I drop out and be complaining about (financial aid) right now, when there are people in Central America and Mexico who don’t have an opportunity of their government giving them anything?’”
Torres had already made three trips to the border prior to the boot camp to do research and shoot his midterm story for the course. By the time of the boot camp, through his work and under Ayala’s tutelage, Torres’s relationship to journalism had changed and grown.
“Two days before I came out here,” Torres said during the boot camp, “somebody asked me why I was going to Mexico. And I said, ‘Well, I’m a journalist,’ and I said it with confidence. I’d never said that before, but I said it with confidence: ‘I’m a journalist. I’m going down to Mexico to film a story.’ That’s the first time I had said that.
“I don’t see (Ayala) as an instructor. I see him as a boss,” he said. “I don’t see this class as a class. I see this as a job, more so.
“I feel like I’m a producer. I feel like I’m a journalist. I feel like I can say that.”