Twenty Bethel University journalism students went on a class trip to India last January to build their skills in social justice journalism. They had no idea how much they'd be applying what they learned when they returned to the Twin Cities — and how much the experience would change them a full year later.
"I've been trying to see those who are marginalized, and to see those who are oppressed," said Will Jacott. The 22-year-old Bethel senior majoring in graphic design was among students on the trip who later pushed the university's student newspaper to cover the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd while in police custody, and other social unrest here.
"I'm blessed to be super privileged, and I think it's important to share my voice and share my resources with those who are."
Molly Korzenowski, a 21-year-old senior, said the trip "really brought your attention to inequalities in your own country and even your own family."
The three-week trip was part of an unusual January-term course at Bethel, where the goal was to produce a print magazine and web publication telling stories about life in rural India. While the students started with a day of sightseeing in Delhi — visiting the Taj Mahal and Gandhi's tomb — they spent the bulk of their time in Haryana, a state some 80 miles northeast of the Indian capital.
"It was really going into a space where very few journalists have been," said Scott Winter, an associate professor of English and journalism at Bethel who led the trip. "They didn't do it like CNN — you know, 'helicopter journalism,' just coming down for a day to look at the destruction and leaving. It was three weeks of finding out who these people are, not just what their tragic circumstances were."
The 20-hour flight and five-hour drive into the countryside took the student reporters well out of their comfort zones. "A lot of these kids come from very staunch, evangelical families — in the best of ways," said Winter. "They had never encountered being the only white person. Most had never encountered and seen an entirely different culture."
To help the students get their bearings, they worked in teams of four which were matched with journalism students from colleges in India who served as translators and guides to local customs.
Jacott said he didn't know what to expect. He went in most excited to work on some of the feature stories the students had identified in their preliminary research. He was curious, for instance, about the so-called "snake man of Haryana," a local legend that says he has helped remove more than 27,000 snakes from homes and even from inside farm equipment.
There were some moments in Delhi that Jacott regrets, like the time he and some other students took pictures of a little boy who was begging for food. "Looking back, I would have preferred to help him because [taking his picture] wasn't doing anything to help with our stories, but maybe just our own Instagram accounts."
As the students spent time in rural villages, Jacott learned that there were bigger, more impactful stories to tell. The group decided to focus their magazine on the issue of women's rights in India — the ways in which women are being left behind in the biggest democracy on Earth. Among other things, Jacott helped produce a short video documentary about the domestic violence suffered by a mother and daughter, and how both found ways to protect themselves and take leadership in their households.
"We don't want to victimize any of the people whose story we told, and we don't want people to feel bad for them — because they're really strong," Jacott says. "But the issue of women's rights in India are very important ones because a lot of times, especially in rural areas, they're not recognized."
It took time and patience for the students to persuade their subjects to share their stories, however.
That was especially true in the case of Murti, a local woman who runs a small business selling milk from her six buffalo as well as fire-starters she makes from their dried manure. At first, she was reluctant to reveal details about the domestic violence she and her sister had suffered, or her struggles to gain financial independence, especially when a male student was doing the translating, said Korzenowski.
"In this patriarchal society, it was hard for women to talk about certain subjects in front of a man," she noted. The students eventually sent a female translator and "she really opened up to us about how it really felt to be in that situation," Korzenowski said.
Korzenowski said she found Murti's story "inspiring," and that it made her think more deeply about the status of women — both in India and back home. "It just kind of inspires you to look at the world in a more critical way."
Most nights while in India, the students held editorial meetings in an impromptu newsroom they set up in their hotel's banquet room. "We had to do a lot of processing about what we were seeing — and talking about what does hope look like in this family's life and how do I deal with it?" said Winter. The students also talked about how the hardships and inequities they were seeing affected their faith.
Soon after the students returned to the U.S., the world changed. As the students were sending their magazine to the printer, the global COVID-19 pandemic altered daily life on campus and off.
The students, though, were hungry to keep telling tough, nuanced stories, said Winter, the Bethel professor, who also serves as an adviser for the student newspaper, the Clarion. He's been teaching at Bethel for about seven years, and most years students at the newspaper don't do much reporting off campus. This year, though, the students who had gone on the trip pushed to cover the social unrest in the Twin Cities following Floyd's death.
"They know they can do it," he said of the students. "Everything is easier now for the students because they had to do it in a second language and [overcome] ethical issues."
Jacott echoes that. "I think we had already kind of been forced out of our shell a little bit and forced to go into uncomfortable situations," he says.
The magazine runs more than 100 pages, with a mix of in-depth pieces on social issues with lighter feature stories. They did end up writing a piece about the snake man of Haryana, who has more than 30,000 subscribers on YouTube.
Winter said it was important for the students to learn about the broader cultural context of the social justice stories they were telling, just as any outsider covering Minneapolis should know about the vibrant music scene as well stories about crime and racism.
So far, the magazine has won two awards from the Universities and Colleges Design Association. It is available free online at seektextura.com. The print version can be purchased for $15, with all proceeds going to Sambhav, a volunteer organization in Haryana that the university partnered with to set up the trip.
The university plans to continue the model in the future, hoping to run a similar student reporting trip next year, most likely to either Costa Rica or Guatemala.
And for the students who made the journey to India, many hope to get jobs after graduation that let them continue to help raise the voices of those who aren't often heard. "My plan," said Zach Walker, another Bethel senior who went on the trip, "is I'm never going to stop telling stories like that."
Jeffrey R. Young of St. Paul is an education journalist and host of the EdSurge Podcast, a weekly look at how education is changing.