Comm students spending spring break on the job as reporters in Hong Kong

Twenty-four Penn State journalism students know spring break does not mean a break from hard work for them. 

They’ve been preparing since the start of the semester for a weeklong trip to Hong Kong during spring break as part of the international reporting course offered in the College of Communications. The students know their work will only intensify as they travel to the other side of the world and use their skills to cover a variety of stories while on location in the Chinese city that ranks as a global financial and trade center.

Among the two dozen students in the course -- COMM 402 International Reporting -- are broadcast, multimedia and print journalism majors. 

Faculty members Tony Barbieri, the Foster Professor of Writing and Editing who spent 34 years with the Baltimore Sun, including stints as an international correspondent based in Moscow and Tokyo, and Bu Zhong, an associate professor in the Department of Journalism who worked for a decade at China Daily in Beijing, the CNN bureau in Washington, D.C., and CNN World Center in Atlanta, before arriving at Penn State, bring valuable expertise to their roles leading the class.

In previous years, Barbieri guided trips to Mexico City, Shanghai, South Africa and other locations for the international reporting course. Much of the success of those trips, as well as this year’s trip to Hong Kong, relies on weeks of preparation before the students, Barbieri and other faculty members ever leave Happy Valley.

This year that preparation included a series of presentations about Chinese culture and history, as well as emphasis on social customs and even traffic guidelines. Along with their own expertise, faculty members engaged experts and journalists from Hong Kong via Skype, and students were required to make presentations about the city and country.

“It’s a smart group of students, so we’re challenging them,” Zhong said. “They’re talented enough to reach for extraordinary stories, and that’s what we want. The expectation is that they’ll represent Penn State and themselves well. At the same time, the focus for the trip is getting the stories. Of course, the cultural experiences are important and we want them to enjoy themselves. But, most of all, we want them to focus on their stories. We want them to tackle meaningful things -- impact stories.”

Along with work on those longer-form stories, students will provide daily information from their trip as part of a blog and share updates on Instagram and Twitter (#PSUinHK). 

Students, who had to apply last fall to be a part of the class, appreciate the expectations. Along with a mix of skills, class members also bring a variety of experiences to the opportunity.

Megan Flood, a senior from Stamford, Connecticut, is no stranger to international travel. In 2013, she completed a study abroad program in Europe -- visiting Amsterdam, Berlin, Cologne, Dublin, London and Paris.

During her sophomore year in high school, Flood took a two-week trip to China for spring break. She lived with a Chinese family for four days in Shanghai.

“I enjoyed the trip to China," Flood said. "I got to see the cultural differences and similarities between the U.S. and China. The way parents in China interact with their kids is similar to that in my family."

Although the 24 students comprise the largest international reporting class in the history of the program, students appreciate the personal attention they have received from faculty members leading up to the trip.

“The professors have really done a great job in all aspects, making sure we know everything we need to,” said Matthew Allibone, a senior from Delran, New Jersey.

Allibone plans on writing about the "umbrella revolution" and the Occupy Central Movement in Hong Kong. Although he’s comfortable approaching people to do his job, Allibone thinks it will be a challenge to get people in another country to talk to him.

Likewise, Marielena Balouris, a senior from Pittsburgh, worries about finding the right people to interview for her stories. “It’s tough when you have no connections to people there nor have any first-hand sense of what the city is like,” said Balouris.

Barbieri and Zhong have crafted important partnerships that should benefit the students and enhance the success of the trip. That includes building a relationship with Hong Kong Baptist University, which will serve as a home base for faculty and students during the trip. In addition, other guides and translators will be used to assist the traveling party.

Along with the 24 students, Barbieri, Zhong and fellow journalism faculty members Curt Chandler, a senior lecturer, and Katie O’Toole, a lecturer and longtime contributor and personality for WPSU-TV, will make the trip.

Marie Hardin, dean of the College of Communications, will accompany the team, as will Jackie Jones, a professor of journalism from Morgan State University, and a two-person production team from Penn State Public Media -- producer Catie Grant and videographer Mark Stitzer.

Partnerships play an important role in the trip for Hardin as well. She plans to meet counterparts at three institutions during the trip. Along with administrators and faculty at Hong Kong Baptist University, Hardin also plans to connect with officials at Macau University of Science and Technology and Shenzhen University. 

For all those reasons and more, the international experience gained through an “embedded course” -- when the travel happens in the midst of a normal semester -- represents a cornerstone for the educational approach of the college. Each of the majors in the college has, or is developing, a similar course to provide students important international experiences.

Shannon Gethard, a senior from Ocean Township, New Jersey, feels the classroom preparation has been beneficial. Still, she anticipates getting to work on site most of all. “We have been planning but it is during execution we will truly understand how to get about our projects,” Gethard said.

Overall, the students are excited about the chance to step out of their comfort zone and focus on the chance to develop and hone their international reporting skills. They also look forward to experiencing Asian culture in one of the world’s top financial centers.

“I am excited about the reporting," said Evan Romano, a senior from New Jersey in print journalism. "I have barely traveled my whole life. I am looking forward to seeing Macau, it’s visually stunning and I am sure, fun as well.”  

Last Updated March 09, 2015