Three years ago, Medill Media Teens began with only six student mentors, all of which Program Director Sarahmaria Gomez could fit in her car, and less than a dozen Chicago teenagers.
Now, Medill Media Teens has grown to 32 mentors and 30 high school students. On Saturday, May 19, the program’s teens graduated, and had their work featured in a celebration at Medill’s downtown newsroom. It was a culmination of a year of overcoming fears, learning to report and bonding in the program.
“The environment created by the program allows students to open up and become more comfortable,” Gomez said. “We see students who may not necessarily be stars in their academics, but they excel and thrive during the program.”
Medill Media Teens teaches the teens who enroll the basics of journalism and sends them out into Chicago to report on different topics using multimedia. Medill students work with the teens as mentors, teaching them about reporting and how to use the technology.
After the graduation ceremony, a parent told Gomez how much of a change she witnessed in her daughter at graduation. She said her daughter talked very little about her Medill Media Teens experience during the year, usually giving one word answers before disappearing to her room.
So when her daughter stood up and shared how much the program meant to her, she was shocked. It was a side she hadn’t witnessed before.
“I can’t even believe that was my daughter up there saying how much she loved this,” the mother told Gomez. “I didn’t even know my daughter could speak in public like that.”
It’s the meaningfulness of the skills and relationships developed through the program that stand out for the students involved. Mentorship is a large aspect of the program, with two Medill student mentors pairing up with two high school students, creating mentor families. The families work together throughout the program, building relationships that go beyond teacher-student to friends.
Stephen Autar (BSJ15) was a mentor to Kobi Howell, a sophomore at Urban Prep Academy, and Alexis King, a junior at Hirsch Metropolitan High School. Autar developed a close friendship with Howell and King after a year of working together and growing to know each other outside of their lives as journalists.
“We became friends along the way, telling jokes and talking about life outside of Medill Media Teens casually and naturally and in the least forced way possible, and that's just amazing,” Autar said. “They don't have to let me into their lives, but they chose to and that's such a privilege and so humbling.”
In the early stages of the programs, one of the difficulties students face is nervousness and fear about approaching random people for “man on the street” interviews. Gomez has students film a video with these interviews at the beginning of the program, but slowed the program down this year, changing that first video to an audio story. Interviews for audio stories, in Gomez’s experience, are easier to get people to agree to than video stories.
As the program continues, students continue to build their confidence in their interviewing skills. This year students did a project focused on violence, and interviewed people about the topic.
Pieces created on this topic stood out to several of the mentors. Creating them involved demonstrating sensitivity when conducting the interviews along with a level of skill to properly handle the topic.
“I think I appreciate the stories that come from the heart, because I realize how hard it is to interview people about tough topics,” said mentor Megan Joyce (BSJ14). “For example, Tashjorie's [Johnson] piece on the death of Jeremiah's [Sanders, another student in the program] mom really moved everyone who listened to it. She was sensitive to his responses and crafted a beautiful story about how his mom still influences him today.”
Students experience growth in a variety of areas during the program. Marissa Smith, a teen in her second year of the program, experienced an improvement in her reporting ability.
“I think Medill Media Teens has helped me grow as a person in social skills and technology skills,” Smith said. “I am able to talk to more people and not be so shy.”
Teens who complete their first year with no unexcused absences receive a camera kit. Second year participants earn a new Macbook with Adobe Suite.
“Media Teens is definitely the best thing I have been involved with through Medill,” Joyce said. “The program is an opportunity to give back what you have learned to the Chicago community. I think it's definitely hard to get this kind of fulfillment through student publications, or other activities. You realize how much you have learned at Medill, when you are able to become a teacher yourself, and help others.”