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Student Reporting on Dialogue Represents Cuba’s Lives, Triumphs & Heartaches

The whole crew! Banner photo by Riley Robinson: a group of young girls dancing in the crowd at the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia parade in Havana.

Students on the Reporting in Cuba Dialogue of Civilizations, led by School of Journalism faculty member Carlene Hempel, recently returned back to Boston with new experience as international reporters. On the trip, students had the opportunity to conduct on-the-ground, real-time reporting, both in print and broadcast, for an online multimedia magazine found here. Three of the students, who focused their reporting on EGREM (or Empresa de Grabaciones y Ediciones Musicales) – the Cuban music label founded in 1964 – also had their work published in The Washington Post. School of Journalism undergraduate students Alejandro Serrano and Riley Robinson landed a full-length feature and multiple photo placements, respectively, while graduate student Zach Ben-Amots, also studying Journalism, had his video published, found here. At the same time, student Jose da Silva had his piece about how football (soccer) is growing in popularity among Cuba’s youth published in These Football Times, a branch of The Guardian

“Everything in Cuba was gorgeous,” described Zach. “The trip was amazing, and a real life-changing experience.”

With the option to focus on creating videos (under the guidance of professor Mike Beaudet, who joined the group about halfway through) or a more writing-based approach, the month-long intensive journalism experience allowed students to truly learn – and become immersed in – the landscape, politics, and culture of the communities they visited in Cuba. The group’s faculty leader, Carlene Hempel, has been a journalist for more than 25 years, and is no stranger to travelling with groups of Northeastern students. In the spring of 2009, Carlene took 25 students abroad to Egypt, Syria, and Qatar for five weeks to work as international journalists, which was a first for the School of Journalism. She then returned in 2011 to Jordan and Turkey with 19 student journalists and photographers, to Jordan in 2012, and to Spain in 2014 and 2015. In 2017, she took another 18 students to Greece to report about the Syrian refugee crisis there, among other things.

Now, in 2018, we can add Cuba to this impressive list of locations.

“The Cuba program was, in many ways, the most difficult Dialogue I have led,” described Professor Hempel. “It was hot, we were limited in what we could report on, and most of the students got sick from the food or water at some point. But it was also the most extraordinary of all the Dialogues. We absolutely loved it there. The people were spectacular – so generous and open and always happy to help us. The country itself is stunning, and many of the stories and packages we produced haven’t been done by anyone else because we were able to fully embed ourselves into the culture.”

Professional videographer Danny Mortimer, who served as the Teaching Assistant (TA) for this trip, is also experienced in travel. He had his first experience with trips of this kind as a CAMD student himself on the trip to Salamanca and Madrid, Spain in 2014. After that, he connected with Carlene about being a TA for future trips after graduation, and he has now been a TA for three trips: another journey to Spain in 2015, one to Greece in 2017, and of course, the Cuba trip this year. 

As a TA on the Cuba Dialogue, Danny was able to bring his experience as a professional videographer to his collaborations with the students, helping organize story ideas and assign deadlines.

“Since my day job is a videographer, I had the chance to help students that were interested in video with their pieces, whether it be shooting, editing or writing a script,” explained Danny. “Many of the students were more than capable of doing all that on their own, so I tended to be more of a glorified head-counter making sure nobody gets lost!”

For Danny, a personal highlight of the trip was the group’s excursion to Trinidad, which is about three hours away from Havana.

“We were able to stay with host families there, and being invited into someone’s home was such an incredible way to take in the culture and not feel like a tourist,” explained Danny. “Eating homemade food and spending the night talking with our host, his daughter, and their puppy was something I’ll never forget.”

From the perspective of a TA, Danny described another highlight as seeing how well the students were able to deal with the more challenging aspects of living in Cuba for a month – like rainy days, limited internet access, and language barriers.

“Despite obstacles, the students still had to write or produce their pieces like professionals, and I was very impressed by the work they were able to create despite all those things working against them,” described Danny. “Fortunately, one of the challenges that I anticipated ended up not being an issue at all. I was a little worried that people wouldn’t be friendly towards Americans, especially journalism students asking questions, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Everyone we encountered was not only warm and happy to answer questions, they seemed to genuinely love Americans and our culture.”

Of course, it helped that all of the students came to each interview or filming session fully prepared, professional, and ready to work.

“This particular group of students was quite remarkable,” continued Professor Hempel. “No one complained about anything – even once. Beyond the weather challenges, they had to get consent forms for everyone they spoke to, and they didn’t have wifi most of the time. Yet, they succeeded in every single thing they tried to do, which you can see from the multimedia magazine – it’s so impressive, and such high quality. I don’t know if I’ll ever again see a group this cohesive and hardworking and respectful and just plain fun!”

The talented group of students explored everything from EGREM and Cuban’s vibrant music scene, as mentioned earlier, to the strange yet magical world of pigeon racing, a feature written by undergraduate Journalism student Christian Triunfo, and the coexistence of Santería and Catholicism, written by student Paxtyn Merten. With incredible access to first-hand sources that made the stories come alive, they were able to tell Cuba’s rich story in an accurate, authentic, and meaningful way. The final projects effectively represent the lives and triumphs, as well as the heartaches, of the Cuban people.

Be sure to check them all out here.

“The packages the students created are rich and powerful,” Professor Hempel concluded, “and the experiences we had putting them together were life changing for all of us.”