Left: Maliha Khan, Right: Yesenia Reinoso
Today, numerous adult-led youth media organizations work to enhance youth development, expression and voice for teens through radio broadcasts, films, print and a wide variety of media outlets. Throughout New York City alone, these organizations empower and teach media to (collectively) hundreds of young people each year. However, youth media organizations may be overlooking the power and potential of the college student mentor/volunteer in the field. A recent activity conducted by undergraduate college students at Pace University (New York City), reveals the potential of the field to engage with volunteers and service-credit college students—an important and valuable group that is currently under-resourced.
Youth, Media & Democracy
This past semester, students interested in taking part of a youth media civic engagement project—since all Pace students are required to take a civic engagement course—could register for the course “Youth, Media and Democracy.” Led by Emilie Zaslow, assistant professor of Communication Studies at Pace University, the purpose of the course was for students to analyze how young people use media as tools through which they can document their lives, concerns, and desires, produce social change and put democracy into action.
Throughout the course, we observed young citizens who serve the community by generating media juxtaposed with the government and mainstream media’s criticism of teen apathy. As a class, we questioned what role media—particularly youth generated media—plays on youth civic engagement.
Civic engagement, as Peter Levine writes in his book, The Future of Democracy: Developing the Next Generation of American Citizens, refers to a person’s actions that have a positive effect on society. Media created and disseminated by youth have such an effect and are therefore an important contribution to our democracy. This is not just any kind of media; youth media portrays some kind of message about issues relating to the youth.
The field-work part of the course assigned teams of two to three student volunteers to eleven different youth media organizations operating within New York City. As volunteers for Youth Media Reporter, we acted as participant observers of the overall course experience, gathering information from our peers—who visited EVC, DCTV, Vision Education and Media, Radio Rootz, Politrickin’, Scenarios USA, YMR, Children’s Pressline, the 52nd Street Project, and HarlemLive—to understand the genuine need of organizations in the field.
As participant observers, we received excellent insight into the myriad of ways youth contribute to the future of the field and to the greater society by making media. Students described the attitudes of the staff members of the youth media organizations as very positive and uplifting. Employees were “highly motivated,” they explained. The positive attitudes of the staff rubbed off on the students. Students said they were eager to work with their assigned organization, particularly in direct contact with the youth. College students are eager for the same meaningful connections and relationship-building as teen participants of youth media programs.
What seems to hinder youth media organizations from involving undergraduate students is not entirely based on external, outreach issues—such as developing partnerships with faculty at local universities—but internal issues. These include lack of time to gain from using us as a viable (and free!) resource, funding to provide space, and support staff who could manage extra volunteers adequately. According to Professor Zaslow, “Students had very little understanding of the constraints under which such organizations operate.” She continues, “The next time I teach the course, I will require students, through project-based work, to research their organizations’ funding sources and budgetary challenges.” Clearly, involving volunteers is an issue of additional staff time and staff support—but one that college students might be able to help investigate, analyze and evaluate for improvement through field-placement.
Suggestions to Integrate College Students in the Field
To engage college students with the field in a manner that takes into account the capacity issue of most youth media organizations, we have the following suggestions to offer.
Tap the power of college students as an ally and resource. The recent presidential elections are a clear depiction of how young adults of voting, college age can use their power. As Rashid Shabazz writes in his recent YMR article, “Obamania: A Reflection on New Media Tactics Drawing Youth to the Voting Booth,” youth media organizations “‘should immediately [begin] hiring youth to design the next generation of sites and media tools for youth voter engagement. Youth need to be hired, and focus grouped and educated about what they can do to get involved.’” College students are an impeccable resource for the field and its future.
Establish protocol for effectively integrating college-level volunteers into youth media organizations. College students have particular needs and constraints that should be taken into consideration before accepting them as volunteers. Take full advantage of their knowledge and skills and desire to be part of the community. Professor Zaslow explains, “When students wrote about their experiences as volunteers in the various organizations, they often expressed frustration about the ways in which they, as resources, were being utilized. They desired more meaningful work and felt that some of the administrative tasks they were given were tiresome.” Rather than assign tasks such as filing or photocopying, students ought to be engaged; for example, to observe staff meetings, trainings and workshops, co-manage the organization’s website, promote the organization through advocacy and public relations work, advise and mentor youth, and/or learn how organization raise and manage funds. Youth media organizations should assess the needs of both the staff and student in a one-on-one conversation, to get a clear understanding of how to manage time constraints and the busy schedules of both parties.
According to Professor Zaslow, one of the biggest challenges she faced when she was reaching out to youth media organizations was that the model of course-embedded civic engagement did not match the model that most organizations used for volunteering. Some youth media organizations do have established internship programs but such programs require students to make a greater time commitment to the organization and require students to be vetted through an interview process, which may not possible when attempting to place 30 students in organizations between the time they register for classes and the time the semester begins. Professor Zaslow explained, “It is important for youth media organizations to be aware of college students’ needs but it is equally important for the course to meet the needs of the community. I see great value in the university and the community working together to integrate college students into the important work being done in the field of youth media.”
Establish an important and visible role for college students in youth media organizations. Think career-bound. Providing undergraduate students with a visible role in youth media organizations affords an inside view of field. The more welcoming it is, the more we will want to come back and be a part of this work. Though college provides students with the necessary book-smarts to transition into chosen careers, it does not always supply the necessary experience to choose or review career options. Having genuine field experience can enhance students’ knowledge about prospective careers and help guide them in the right direction. Through such career pipelines, college students can investigate potential careers in youth media through field-work placements. In addition, the experience of these youth media placements will be carried to the many different organizations and careers that students choose; therefore, expanding the knowledge base and visibility of the field.
For Zaslow, this is a key. She explains, “Our students majoring in Communication Studies have tremendous opportunities at major media corporations throughout the city; they are interning, and subsequently working, at top media companies. However, the field of youth media was new to most of the students. They had no idea that such work was being done, the power behind the processes and the productions created in youth media organizations. I’d love for more of our students to have an opportunity to experience careers in alternative media, particularly youth media.”
Encourage dialogue between college students and teen producers. After providing a preview and brief workshop with college students, allow more opportunities to work directly with youth producers. Teens and college students are a perfect match. As Peter Levine writes in The Future of Democracy, “To varying but significant degrees, young people live in a world of their own, influencing one another and making decisions without their parents and other adults even being aware of what they decide.” We are the best mentors that can speak to teens, eager to offer experience and advice. In many ways, college students can better relate to the issues faced by young people since they are the issues we faced just a year or two ago but we rarely have such an opportunity for dialogue. David Buckingham, author of The Making of Citizens, explains that the process of change is inherent to youth politics, “[enabling] young people to express their views on issues that directly or indirectly concern them, yet on which they are rarely consulted.” If college student volunteers consult teen producers on the issues expressed in media, we will increase a civic-sense to the generation behind and ahead of us. We have witnessed the positive effect of this dialogue, which encourages the teen to pursue a college education and the student to pursue a career in youth media. It’s a win-win situation
Engage college students as a new and important young adult audience for youth media products. College students are also an important target audience that educators in the field ought to tap. Typically, the field focuses on building a youth to youth or youth to adult audience base. As a demographic in transition from young adult to adult hood, we are an extremely important audience to the field, serving as a bridge between teens and adults. Creating opportunities for the college student in youth media programs—as both an audience and advisor—can increase the reach and scope of the field as it expands as well as the many goals for youth empowerment the field holds. Key to this process is providing a platform for teen voice and expression that are heard not just with other teens or adult sympathizers, but college students.
Partner with academics and network with students interested in the field for service credit. Beyond this course, participants report that there are no existing outlets through which college students can effectively get involved in youth media for credit. By reaching out to college/university academics, youth media organizations can create a network connecting students to youth media organizations. Youth media organizations can contact the public outreach personnel at universities and provide them with exactly what kind of work they do and what type of assistance they are looking for from prospective volunteers. The university can then create a database (possibly through simple surveys of incoming freshman, transfer students, and existing students) of the students’ interest and abilities in relation to the needs of the youth media organizations. Once this data is organized, the students can be assigned to the organization that best matches their interests and abilities through relevant classes, such as the one described earlier. Academically, there should be more classes that are related to youth, media, and/or the government.
We Welcome You to Invite Us to the Field
College students have much to offer youth media organizations. They not only have time and requirements for field work or internships available but eager to learn about and affect the field. Youth media practitioners should reach out to a greater body of student volunteers, partaking in active discussion with college students through events at colleges. Such an investment will present a clear picture of what requirements students have to graduate and how to provide students with much needed field-work experience—especially in unique and unfamiliar careers as youth media. Similarly, college professors should actively provide their students access to information about youth media organizations and how they can volunteer for them—there is great interest to become part of this work.
Involving undergraduate college students is a win-win for the youth media field. Offering college students an inside look at how youth media organizations operate will certainly benefit organizations—we are prospective employers. As college students act as role models for teen producers and a receptive audience for their media, we are introduced to career options in the field and become part of youth, media and democracy.
Maliha Khan is a senior at Pace University, graduating with a dual-degree in Finance and Political Science and minor in Middle Eastern Studies. She is the secretary of the Muslim Students Association and president of Project Nur at Pace. Head of the New York Youth Wing of Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), a Pakistani political/social organization, Khan plans to attend graduate school for international affairs. She will be one of the many college students who plan to attend the Presidential Inauguration Seminar in Washington, D.C. in January, 2009.
Yesenia Reinoso, 20, is a junior at Pace University and is a Communications major. She has been volunteering at Youth Media Reporter since September as part of her Youth, Media, and Democracy class. She is currently employed with the Times Square Alliance.
Left: Maliha Khan, Right: Yesenia Reinoso