When Elida Perez was a student at the University of Texas at El Paso in search of a school that would continue challenging her desire to write, she enrolled in a new multimedia, bilingual communications class called Borderzine.
Soon, Perez found the class was giving real-time meaning to core courses in history, math, science, justice and language.
As an aspiring multimedia journalist, Perez was thrust from the classroom and into the larger El Paso community covering the sometimes violent, always exciting life of people on both sides of the United States-Mexico border.
“I really liked the fact that it (Borderzine) gave students the opportunity to go out there and write about what they had been learning,” says Perez, 33, now a staff reporter for the Statesman-Journal, the daily newspaper in Salem, Ore.
With an initial $15,000 seed grant from the Ford Foundation and soon afterward a four-year $400,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Borderzine is approaching its fifth anniversary with much to celebrate about its efforts to train aspiring Hispanic journalists using the populations on both sides of the nation’s 2,000-mile border with Mexico as its practical classroom.
The brainchild of veteran journalist Zita Arocha, the web-based multimedia, bilingual news reporting program has been woven into the communications education fabric of UT El Paso. It has spread across the country to include a dozen other colleges serving students along the U.S.-Mexico border, from UT El Paso to Imperial Valley College in Southern California. It has trained nearly 150 students, including Perez, with reporting assignments that expand their learning capacity in other classes and understanding of border issues.
At the same time, Borderzine alums like Perez say it has improved the skills students need to move to the front of crowded employment lines at news organizations as they boast far more technical skills and practical reporting experience than many counterparts who are not in a Borderzine class. That has allowed the school to place more than 100 students in internships locally and with national news organizations ranging from Scripps Howard newspapers to The Associated Press. The Borderzine website, www. borderzine.com, draws about 10,000 viewers a month with viewers clicking in from 93 countries around the globe. In addition to students along the border, Borderzine has run contributions from students in schools as far away as Illinois and Florida, according to webmaster Lourdes Cueva Chacon.
“The bottom line is there are very few, if any, programs in the nation that train Latino students in multimedia and get them jobs,” says Arocha, director of Borderzine and a faculty member at UT at El Paso. “Most Latino kids are going to HSIs (Hispanic Serving Institutions) and a lot of these schools have no journalism program or maybe one course. They are not going to Columbia Journalism School. That makes it really hard for them to get a job in the media.”
“Borderzine is one of the first programs to do multimedia, bilingual journalism training in a systematic way and a broad way,” says Arocha. “These kids are the new voice of the people along the border, and we’ve got to move them from the classroom to the newsroom.”
Michael Philipps, president and chief executive officer of the Cincinnati-based Scripps Howard Foundation, shares Arocha’s global view, noting that demographic trends in the nation speak loudly to the need for such journalism education efforts as Borderzine.
“It serves a real need,” says Philipps, whose media-backed foundation has been expanding its support of higher education programs at schools with a history of serving minorities. The Scripps Howard Foundation is the principal backer of the journalism school at historically Black Hampton University, and, in recent years, the foundation has been eyeing ways to boost its support of journalism education at HSIs.
In that context, it has been a supporter of Borderzine, along with other media groups such as the Dow Jones News Fund. Philipps says the nation is going to see a huge increase in the presence of Hispanics across the spectrum from buying power to media consumption. That trend requires investments in education programs that will get employers and employees prepared for their future.
“Borderzine serves the kind of needs that will need to be addressed in the future,” says Philipps, adding it will help produce the kind of newsroom professionals “with the sensitivity” needed to report intelligently on border issues.
In addition to the core journalism class at UT El Paso, Borderzine is credited with energizing journalism education efforts at other HSIs along the border.
At Imperial Valley College, a two-year community college in Imperial County, along the California-Mexico border, the school’s alliance with Borderzine has helped sustain the school’s interest in keeping and expanding its small journalism education program.
“The online component is something they (students) can work toward over the semester,” says adjunct professor Gina Germani.
She says Imperial Valley has no campus newspaper. Thus, getting stories published on an established, nationally recognized news wire gives students a goal to work toward.
“Not everyone gets published on Borderzine,” Germani adds, explaining that only the best work of the semester is offered to the web service.
This past summer, Borderzine unveiled its “Mexodus” project, a collaboration among journalism students in the United States and Mexico. Their assignment: to explore cross-border issues. Arocha said students from UT El Paso, California State University Northridge, and Tecnologico de Monterrey in Chihuahua and Mexico City reported and produced a series of news stories last spring under the direction of professional journalists. More than 40 students from the four schools participated, Arocha says.
The final news package, published in August, includes 30 stories in English and Spanish and includes photos and videos, Arocha says. Several established news organizations, including the Scripps Howard News Service, La Opinion and the El Paso Times, have agreed to publish reports from the project.
“Borderzine is definitely a linchpin for our department’s mission,” says Dr. Frank Perez, chairman of the UT El Paso Department of Communication and an enthusiastic backer of Borderzine.
“It lets them really link theory with practice and gives them an appreciation of how theory can help them navigate the professional world,” says Perez, a non-journalist with a degree in communication theory. “We’ve got nothing but good feedback on how this (Borderzine) has helped them (students) acclimate to the real world.”
Perez says the Borderzine project has earned the “uncompromised support” of UT El Paso’s leadership, from President Diana Natalicio down the line. “All see the value this project has,” says Perez.