2020 Gwen Ifill Fellows cover impactful stories in the midst of the pandemic
By Grace Vitaglione
PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs (SRL) works with local public media stations to create summer internships for aspiring journalists who are graduating high school through its Gwen Ifill Legacy Fellowship. This year’s fellows worked remotely over the summer to report on their communities during the Covid-19 pandemic: Xavier Dominguez at KRWG in New Mexico; Corie McCowin with NET in Nebraska; and Dariana Garcia with WHYY in Pennsylvania.
Xavier Dominguez, a freshman studying journalism and mass communications at New Mexico State University, began with KRWG his sophomore year. A producer recommended that he apply to the annual SRL student academy in Washington, D.C., where Dominguez became a fellow in 2018 and again in 2019.
“They really enlightened me to continue with this as a profession, hence why I’m doing journalism now,” Dominguez said.
As a Gwen Ifill fellow at KRWG, Dominguez produced a feature on rising unemployment rates in New Mexico during the pandemic. He was able to go into the station to shoot some of the video, but worked remotely on other elements like the graphics for the largely statistics-based reporting.
Dominguez said it was challenging to handle remote communications, and that he had to rely on more stock footage than he preferred because of the difficulties shooting B-roll. But the team at KRWG treated him as if he “were actually working there and not just a student, which felt good.”
To future student journalists, Dominguez said, “Take a risk. There’s so many opportunities out there, you just have to go out and look for them. It doesn’t matter where you come from.”
Dominguez said it was an honor to celebrate the life of the journalist Gwen Ifill, who was such a powerful figure.
“Being able to represent someone who’s already done so much in the industry for people of color and for females as well…is definitely something I’m honored to do,” said Dominguez. “I’ll take this with me for the rest of my life.”
Corie McCowin, a senior at Omaha North Magnet High School, was introduced to SRL through her digital media class, and participated in Rapid Responses and the summer academy.
McCowin worked with NET over the summer to report on students’ experiences with distance learning after schools shut down abruptly in the spring because of the pandemic. She said that while the process was one of the harder experiences she’s had in video production, she learned how to work through those challenges and grow her passion in journalism.
McCowin said it’s important for student journalists to not let themselves feel “belittled” by the title of “student” or let that stop them from following their passion. “Don’t be afraid to do something that you’ve never done before,” she said.
While she said she wishes Gwen Ifill were still here so they could meet, Ifill left a legacy of achievements that she continues to be motivated by.
“Being a young Black female, she has definitely been an inspiration,” McCowin said.
Dariana Garcia is a sophomore at the Community College of Philadelphia studying liberal arts, and hopes to transfer to Swarthmore College to study film and global studies. She has always been interested in how movies and TV shows are made. When a teacher introduced her to SRL and video production in her sophomore year of high school, she “fell in love with it.”
When Garcia received the notification that she had been chosen as a Gwen Ifill fellow, she was in the middle of a Zoom class and struggled to hide her excitement. Over the summer, she worked with WHYY to cover the issue of transportation to school during the pandemic, as many students in her area take public transportation.
Garcia said it was difficult to navigate poor Internet connection in Zoom interviews. It was a challenging topic, but became clearer as she did her research.
“I learned that it’s okay if my story changes, because my story went from transportation to focus on schools then to focus on student concerns and finally back to transportation…I had to learn to adapt to that,” she said.
Garcia said one of the biggest lessons she learned was to have more confidence in her abilities.
“I’m really proud of myself. I did it, even if it was remote, and I shouldn’t undermine my skills because I got this opportunity for a reason,” Garcia said.
Garcia said she finally has an idea of what she wants to do, and that she was grateful for the chance to honor Gwen Ifill.
“I’m very thankful that she has opened the doors to such a hard industry to break into,” said Garcia. “Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of women or women of color, but she was there and she was representing a whole bunch of people. It was really inspiring and I’m thankful this opportunity exists, and that it’s allowing youth to get experience and to get their foot in the door.”