Emerald swings for the fences

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Emerald Wright-Collie climbs the stairs to the enter the auditorium at Allegheny College’s commencement ceremony on May 14, 2016 in the Wise Center. Wright-Collie graduated with a bachelor of arts in communication arts and a minor in journalism in the public interest. Photo by Cheryl Hatch/c. 2016

Outside the Box, by Cheryl Hatch, Copyright 2016

Each semester in our news writing class, I give students an assignment to interview a professional journalist. Below are the opening words of the assignment.

Have fun and aim high. This assignment is for you. It gives you an opportunity to network and learn from a professional journalist. Be bold. Prepare well. Ask thoughtful, intimate questions.

 I then ask a few students which journalist they’d like to interview. In my first semester at Allegheny, a woman in the back of the class said Anderson Cooper. A few students laughed, snickered possibly. I asked the student why she chose Cooper. She’d followed his coverage of Katrina. She admired him and his work.

She sent emails and called his office. She wrote a letter that I passed from a friend to a friend to a relative of Cooper’s. She worked all semester to score the interview. She didn’t get it. She did get the assignment and made the most of it. As a professor, I value and encourage that kind of failure.

That’s Emerald. She swings for the fences.

During our “Story Next Door” journalism conference in 2014, Emerald studied the work of the speakers and made sure to meet each of them. She didn’t know about f-stops and exposure, but she knew she wanted to learn more about photojournalism. She sought out Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Michael Williamson of The Washington Post and spent an afternoon with him on the Ernst Trail, learning to see light and moments.

At our conference this year, Emerald took a point-and-shoot camera to Erie and documented the arrival of a refugee family from Somalia and the neighbors who welcomed them to their new home. Her photo of 8-year-old Adna Hirsi ran in the Erie Times-News.

When she was exploring media relations as a career path, she followed a lead and contacted an Allegheny alumnus who worked in marketing for the Miami Heat. She met with him over her summer break. When she wanted to learn more about sports reporting, Emerald contacted an Associated Press reporter who covers the Marlins and studied him as he covered a Major League game.

Emerald also swings and misses. She missed deadlines. She missed classes. She missed appointments.

We started meeting every Friday.

We talked about the internship she was completing at The Meadville Tribune. During these conversations, I realized Emerald was up against some tough odds and demanding circumstances. Allegheny can be a challenging environment inside the classroom and outside it. Each year, nearly every semester, Emerald had an obstacle to surmount outside her college life—outside her control. She persevered.

There were a few semesters when she wasn’t sure she would return. And she always returned.

People think I’m stupid, Emerald said, during one of our conversations. They act surprised when I say something intelligent.

I assured her that I’d had the same challenges in my career. I told her I consider it a tactical advantage when people misjudge and underestimate me. I carry Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote in my head for just such occasions: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

As an educator now, I follow the example of professors who made a difference in my college career. Dr. Rob, who died earlier this year. When I was knocked off balance and off course my sophomore year, his words and strong presence helped me right myself.

And Jim, my adviser and photojournalism professor. I got a B+ on one of my first photojournalism assignments. I asked him what I had to do to get an A. He asked why I wanted an A. Because it’s there, I thought. Because an A is the best score, I said.

He told me my prints were too flat, not enough contrast. No true white or true black, not enough tonal range. I spent hours in the darkroom and went through boxes of photo paper on each assignment. By the end of the semester, I knew how to print. And I earned that A.

That’s one of the reasons I treasure Emerald. She never gave up—even when the going got tough. She pursued her education with grit and gusto.

I tell students that how they show up in the classroom is how they’ll show up in life.

Emerald shows up. She keeps showing up.

She reminds me a bit of me. I swing for the fences, too.

Emerald has smarts. No doubt about it. She also possesses the skills and qualities that I can’t teach, skills I deem valuable in a career and life. Emerald has moxie. She shows determination, resourcefulness and undaunted initiative. She can read a room and read people. And call b.s. from a mile away.

With her family in attendance, Emerald will graduate on Saturday with a degree in communication arts and a minor in journalism in the public interest. With her senior composition, she tied together all her interests: media studies, journalism, basketball, social justice. In her comp entitled “James the Savior: An Analysis of the Construction of a Cultural Myth in his Return to Cleveland,” she analyzed the messages that LeBron James embodies in photographs.

Emerald’s got game. And she’s got a job. After graduation, she’s moving to New York.

While she’s there, I bet she’ll score that interview with Anderson Cooper.

 

Note: I offer my congratulations to the 2016 Allegheny College students who’ll graduate Saturday. I want to especially acknowledge and thank Emerald, Christina, Meghan, Becca and Chloe; we all started at Allegheny together, and it has been my privilege to work with and learn from you. Congratulations to the parents, family members, friends, professors and staff who helped you cross the finish line, the stage and the threshold to your new lives and careers.

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Emerald Wright-Collie greets President Jim Mullen as she receives her diploma at Allegheny College’s commencement ceremony on May 14, 2016 in the Wise Center. Photo by Cheryl Hatch/c. 2016

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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In troubled times, language can divide or bind us

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Outside the Box, a  column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2015

When I was in teenager, my father announced at dinner one night that we’d be moving to Saudi Arabia. I didn’t know where Saudi Arabia was, but I wanted to go. After the meal, I went downstairs and pulled out an atlas and found the large desert country on the other side of the world.

I couldn’t wait to go. I wanted a change and an adventure. I parted with my beloved Ford Mustang, which I had purchased with my hard-earned fast-food and waitressing wages. We landed in Riyadh and I discovered we had moved to a country where women were banned from driving.

The dictates of the culture and laws of the land clipped my teenage wings and quashed the independence I’d enjoyed in America. I couldn’t leave the house on my own. I had to be with a male companion—my father or one of my younger brothers.

I was both frustrated and enchanted with my new home. I loved the vast desert landscape with its hidden wadis and rolling dunes, the Bedouin traditions of hospitality, the history, the bustling ancient suqs. And the language.

I left Saudi Arabia to attend college in rain-soaked Oregon. I had decided to become a foreign correspondent, so I majored in journalism and French. I studied Russian as my second language. It was a different time; Arabic wasn’t offered.

When I graduated, I went to Cairo to begin my journalism career. I have a knack for languages and I picked up the Egyptian dialect by ear—in the streets, the markets, taxis. I worked with a tutor to improve my understanding. My Arabic served me well in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Egypt; but, it was conversational at best and I dreamed of being fluent.

My second year at Allegheny, the college began its Arabic program and hired a professor of Arabic and invited a Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant, both named Reem. I asked Reem Hilal, the professor, if I could sit in on classes.

Ahlan wa sahlan. You are welcome.

Both women assured me I belonged in intermediate Arabic. I wasn’t so sure. I spoke colloquial Arabic, but I could barely read or write it. Plus, we’d be studying classical Arabic, al-fusha.

My vocabulary carried me for a while. I soon learned being a student and being a student as a professor are two different things. When I was a student, I spent hours on my studies of French and Russian. I attended my language labs and conversation tables. As a professor, students come first; my own class comes last. I told Professor Hilal I needed to start over in beginning Arabic.

I love being a student. It reconnects me to what it feels like to be facing the front of the classroom rather than facing the class. As a student, I still get nervous when the professor calls on me to write on the board. I feel badly when I don’t do my homework.

I get to witness the stress of the students. After one exam, I walked into a gathering of classmates outside Ruter Hall. They were talking rapid-fire, a few smoking cigarettes. They were giddy with relief that they’d made it through the midterm. It made me remember the remarkable pressure to perform that students impose on themselves. I was once that student, minus the cigarette. Now I walk out smiling if I’m able to finish the exam.

In learning a language, I’ve found I learn about the people who speak it and their culture. I also learn about my culture and myself.

When I was a student in France, I quickly realized that I could translate my English into French and still miscommunicate by missing the nuances of the words, body language and culture. Americans are generally an exuberant, happy-ending-loving, bordering-on-hyberbolic people. We love words like amazing, awesome, fantastic. If it’s cold outside, I might say it’s freezing. Il ne fait pas chaud, it’s not hot, is the likely French rendering of the same weather.

As I was finishing this column, I ran into Salah Algabli, a Yemeni who is the current Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant at Allegheny. I asked him if he had a few minutes to talk about learning a language.

Sure, when you hear a language, you will get to know the people, the culture and, sometimes, the faith, Salah said. Learning a language helps you understand the deeper meaning of the words. You learn how to understand and express happiness, sadness, gratitude, friendship.

In Yemen, there’s an expression, taht al rasa, or al rasa, Salah said. It literally means “under the head,” however, if a stranger came to a village and said al rasa to the chief, it truly means “I am under your protection,” a cry for sanctuary that the villagers are bound to honor.

Salah noted that when he first came to America he would start his conversations with questions, as he would in his homeland. How are you? How’s your family? How are your children? He realized people would look at him strangely.

They felt like I’m a creepy person, Salah said. What might be creepy in America would be considered rude if he didn’t do it in his country. In Arab cultures, it’s expected to make such extended inquiries into the health of friends and loved ones.

Salah said he’s learned the American equivalent. “What’s up?” He now asks that one simple question.

The other day I heard a piece on National Public Radio by Michel Martin, entitled “Grief Knows No Native Tongue—but We Must Listen, Whenever It Speaks.” She wrote it in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. She noted that on the same Friday that members of the Islamic State group launched the attacks in Paris, a bomb killed people at midday prayers in Yemen and a suicide attack at a Baghdad funeral killed at least 18 people. There were two attacks in Beirut that killed more than 40 people last Thursday.

These attacks killed people indiscriminately, regardless of language, faith, nationality, gender or age.

In troubled times, language can divide or bind us.

When I think of the victims of violence, including the refugees, I remember the expression Salah taught me.

Taht al rasa. I am under your protection.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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If it were me

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2015

Returning from vacation this summer, I pulled off I-80 in Pennsylvania at a truck stop to get gas. I filled up the tank, paid in cash, then I went to the restroom before heading home.

Back in Meadville, I stopped to get groceries. No wallet. Hm. I realized I must have left it in the restroom. I had about $100 cash in it. My first thought: it’s a truck stop; a lot of people pass through. If someone did find it and didn’t return it, I figured he or she needed the money more than I did. My mom felt certain someone would return it.

One problem: I had no idea where I’d stopped.

I knew it was a Travel Center of America. I checked my odometer: 183 miles. I called the corporate headquarters. A kind woman suggested I could have stopped at Milesburg or Lamar. She called Milesburg with me on the line. Nope. I told the woman that I remembered that the restroom was by the ATM machine and the sodas.

“That’s Lamar.”

I called Lamar. Loretta answered the phone. “Yes, we have it in the safe. Josie, a waitress, found it and turned it in.”

A few days later, I drove back to Lamar. I wanted to meet Loretta and Josie in person and thank them. I had a hand-written note for Josie. I tucked some money inside. I’ve worked as a waitress.

Josie tried to wave off my envelope. It’s a thank-you note, I said.

She accepted it. I shook her hand. I thanked her again.

“If it were me, I’d want someone to do the same for me,” she said.

I spent a chunk of my summer swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, spending hours reading books for fun at the beach and listening to programs by the British Broadcasting Corporation on my shortwave radio. The story of the summer was one of waves of refugees arriving on the shores of Turkey and Greece, fleeing the ravages of war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last Thursday in our journalism classes, we discussed the photo of the body of a 3-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan, a refugee who drowned and whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey. We discussed the ethical considerations of running an image of a dead child. The students agreed it was a harsh photograph that reflected a harsh situation. The world needed to see it, they concluded.

It can be too easy to turn away from devastation and horror if it’s not impacting your life, your family. You may feel there’s nothing you can do. By the end of the summer, I didn’t want to hear the stories. My heart hurt. And the stories stirred images of my own work when I had documented refugees fleeing conflict.

One BBC report told of women arriving hungry and exhausted from their odyssey across the desert and the sea. The reporter described how the women used their last shreds of strength and will to push their children onto the trucks, to hurl them to strangers if necessary.

My mind instantly projected a memory, an image of a time when I stood at the Kenyan border watching Somali refugees appear in the shimmering heat, near skeletons in ragged clothes heading for the hoped safety of a refugee camp in Liboi. When the women arrived, they would heave their children into the back of the United Nations trucks. They wouldn’t have any remaining strength to pull themselves onto the vehicle.

In August, before classes began, I listened to a report on National Public Radio.

Ari Shapiro was in Izmir in southwest Turkey where Syrian refugees board boats at night to cross to Greece. He shared the story of a man who joined 40 others who piled into a raft made for 10. The boat sank. Many died.

Smugglers and local merchants take advantage of the refugees’ plight. Shapiro reported that going rate for the short boat crossing to Greece is $1,200 per person.

He then told the story of another man, a Turkish merchant, who lets refugees charge their cell phones at his restaurant. He offers them water and food, free of charge. He lets women and children sleep in his upstairs offices, even though it’s illegal.

“These are people who are running away from war, and if I put myself in their shoes, I would appreciate it if someone would do the same for me,” said Ali Demir, the restaurant owner in Shapiro’s story.

When I was a young photojournalist, I wanted to save the world with my photographs. In my years in Africa and the Middle East, I realized that it’s my actions as a human being while I do my work as a journalist that make the difference. And we’ve talked about this in our classes, too.

No matter where we live, each day we are given opportunities to show kindness, to offer assistance.

As Josie the waitress in Lamar, Pennsylvania said, “If it were me, I’d want someone to do the same for me.”

As Ali the restaurant owner in Izmir, Turkey said, “If I put myself in their shoes, I would appreciate it if someone would do the same for me.”

If it were me. A thought that inspires action.

From one person to another, a simple, tender gesture of kindness can make a world of difference.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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