It’s been a couple days since I said my tearful goodbyes to 10 international journalists with whom I had the pleasure to meet, befriend and travel with as part of a nine-week program called the World Press Institute, based at the University of St. Thomas. I’m the part-time program director under Executive Director David McDonald.
The journalists are by now mostly home to Australia, Bulgaria, China, Colombia, Finland, Ghana, Israel, Kuwait, the Philippines and Russia. They may not see each other for many years, but through social media and modern communications, they will certainly be in touch. They are only a click away.
And they will have some wonderful memories to share with each other and with their friends, families and colleagues back home. In their four weeks in Minnesota and five weeks on the road across the U.S., they became a family of journalists, spending pretty much every waking hour together.
I’m struck by how easily international boundaries, cultures and historic disputes seem to fade away when people actually get to know each other intimately. And that also goes for stereotypes and images that others have about America. For sure there has been much to criticize about American foreign policy over the years. But like other groups of WPI journalists before them, these 10 found much to like about the U.S. and its cities and people.
They traveled to New York, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Miami, Tampa, Austin, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, as well as Ely and Tracy, Minnesota. They visited traditional news organizations like the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal; broadcasters like CNN and NPR; and online news groups like Politico in Washington and the Texas Tribune in Austin. They also met with business leaders, political leaders, pro- and anti-immigration reform groups, pollsters, think tanks, foundations such as the Gates and MacArthur Foundations and they even saw how Boeing assembles planes outside Seattle.
They almost always had interesting reactions to what they saw and the people they met.
The journalist from China was touched by the renewal of a friendship with a man he had met a few years earlier in California. “Ralph, almost 80, who lives in Berkeley for decades, told me his life stories and his views of life and society,” he wrote. “I, more than 40 years younger than him, who is from Beijing, told him my challenges, struggles and confusions in my life. Sometimes I feel the distance between different cultures and ages is so short that he seems like my grandfather.”
The Colombian journalist was moved by the prayer of a Muslim colleague from Kuwait. She wrote: “I will remember the time I saw him praying and will conclude once again that, in spite of knowing different prophets or being guided by different clerics, we praise the same God. And I will conclude it was God’s plan for me to meet him.”
And about an Israeli colleague, the Colombian said: “I will pray for all of them, and all the people who live around them, whenever someone is shouting the word ‘war’ in the Middle East. One day, we dream, Israel and Palestine will be able to be neighbors instead of enemies. That day I will hold a glass up and say out loud: L’chaim, my dear Ami, this one is for you.”
The Russian journalist, who has visited the U.S. before, was struck by our strong non-profit sector: “I’m angered and irritated listening to very typical anti-American discourse: ‘You, Americans, have complex of world boss, you think you can dictate to all world what to do.’ I feel anger because of people who use this discourse have never said a single positive word about the American non-profit impact and influence to this world. So sad.”
An Australian broadcaster was moved by broadcaster Dan Rather’s passion for journalism at age 81. Rather inscribed a copy of his book: “Don’t let the dream die. Courage.”
The journalists often offered insights into some of our oldest problems as when the Kuwaiti observed about the immigration debate: “They (the immigrants) pick the fruit that ends up on dinner tables across the nation, keep streets, restaurants and hotels clean, care for the elderly and build houses and skyscrapers. Their children who are born here have U.S. citizenship and American mannerisms. Most of them are law-abiding people with deep cultural and familial values. A compromise that would allow them to stay and build their lives will be good for them as well as America.”
A journalist from the Philippines described his feelings about his colleagues: “I am leaving with nine new friends, and many others whom I’ve met along the way; I am taking with me many learnings. Pack 10 strong-headed, opinionated, alpha-type personalities all together for 9 weeks. There’s a word to describe it: stressful. But it is also incredibly enriching! At first, you see so many cultural differences. Name it: food, room organizing skills, spirituality, journalism principles, outlook and view of the world. After nine weeks, you realize, the commonalities outweigh our differences.” There were many more moving comments from the other journalists as well.
I will miss these journalists. They are engaging, smart, dedicated and funny. By the end of their time here, they could imitate their colleagues’ introduction in the same English accent whether the colleague was from Colombia, Russia or Kuwait. They could finish each other’s sentences. I am also secure in the knowledge that journalism in their countries will be stronger because of them and because of what they learned, both good and bad, about America. Farewell my friends. You can read more about what they found during their journey around the U.S. at: http://www.worldpressinstitute.org/wpi-reports/blog