Students relish 'Flyer' experience
Chay Reigle may speak for three fellow Bluffton University students when he sums up how he spent part of his summer vacation, in Phoenix, Ariz.
“In just a week,” notes the public relations major, “I beefed up my resume; got real-world experience in journalism; worked alongside professors; attended a convention filled with passionate, socially responsible people; and even got to experience the infamous dry heat.”
That checklist also applies to Bluffton students Donald Isaac, Kate Ellis and Kerry Bush. With Reigle, they helped produce the Phoenix Flyer, the daily news sheet at the Mennonite Church USA national convention July 1-6. Working with them were Dr. Zachary Walton, an assistant professor of communication at Bluffton who served as editor, and his wife, Karen Bontrager, a 2004 Bluffton graduate who was largely responsible for page layout and helped with editing.
The triple-digit temperatures didn’t generate the only heat felt by the students, who did the writing and photography for the four-page publication under a nightly 11:59 p.m. deadline. Because they covered many events that lasted past 10 p.m., “on most nights, at least a few of us were in the office writing and editing up until the deadline,” says Isaac, a reporter along with Reigle and Ellis.
“I liked the idea of being on a deadline, though,” the Bluffton senior adds, “because it gave me an idea of what it might be like to work for a newspaper.” Isaac, from Dayton, Ohio, is a broadcasting and journalism major who currently hosts his own internationally syndicated radio show, “The Chillout Sessions,” based at campus station WBWH-FM 96.1.
“The students certainly got a much better sense of what a newsroom might be like,” says Walton, also a 2002 Bluffton alumnus. “They shined under deadline, and that was great to see.”
But that didn’t surprise him—Walton chose the students for the job based on their performance in his Writing for the Media class last fall. Bluffton had accepted the assignment in Phoenix after Hannah Heinzekehr, an alumna and a planning coordinator for the convention, requested the university’s help with the news sheet.
“I saw a fantastic opportunity for students to be in an intensive journalism environment where they could put what they learned in the classroom to use,” Walton recalls. At the same time, he says, the work represented a chance to serve the larger Mennonite church—a sentiment shared by Bush, a Mennonite student and the primary photographer in the Bluffton group.
In addition to time management skills—a benefit also cited by Ellis from dealing with the workload and long hours—Bush, a junior, says she learned “more about what goes on behind the scenes at a convention I attended multiple times as a youth.”
The graphic design major from Bluffton was the “unofficial” social media manager as well, Walton points out. “She raised the visibility of what we were doing” with the printed convention publication, he says.
Sharing office space in the convention center with representatives from Mennonite World Review and The Mennonite magazine also exposed the students to models of church journalism, he notes.
Although her three peers don’t share Bush’s Mennonite background, they have internalized Bluffton-taught values and perspective, which helped inform their stories, according to Walton.
For instance, he says, Ellis, a senior broadcasting and journalism major, recognized the name of Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder when it came up in a session about Mennonite martial arts. As a result, the Kidron, Ohio, native and current Lima, Ohio, resident was able to ask more questions about how Yoder influenced the teaching of martial arts among Mennonites. And that, in turn, produced a better story, Walton explains.
“There’s a fingerprint of Bluffton on the Phoenix Flyer, in a way that’s unique and distinctive,” he maintains.
The students’ coverage included stories about matters of concern to the church, such as youth attendance, and about immigration and other controversial issues that were not part of official convention events, Walton says. One day, Ellis, a former Lima News photo intern who also assisted with photography and photo editing in Phoenix, joined a group that traveled nearly 180 miles to tour the Mexican border at Nogales. Accompanying the group, too, was Kenneth Krehbiel, a local photographer who volunteered to take photos for the Flyer.
The work introduced the young journalists to diverse and intriguing people as well. Isaac interviewed two pastors from South Korea and Bishop Victor Umoabasi, president of Mennonite Church Nigeria. And, says Reigle, “I heard a lady offer a prayer in Navajo, interviewed a leader of a radical advocacy group and sat down with a peacemaker from Mennonite Church USA.”
“I learned,” adds Reigle, a junior originally from Bluffton, “that no amount of coursework can substitute for real-world experience.”
“Success was inevitable with this group,” Walton says. “I’m very encouraged about the type of journalists Bluffton is sending out into the world.”
And would he do another version of the Phoenix Flyer with a different staff? “Absolutely,” he asserts. “I am already looking forward to the 2015 convention.”