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Urban Cowboy: Back to school – journalism graduate school, that is

At this time of year, the University of Guelph is typically getting ready to welcome back students. In my office though, we’re getting ready to say goodbye. In fact, it’s something we’ve done every August for the past 26 or so years.
Urban Cowboy is Owen Roberts' weekly look at agriculture and food in Guelph.

Since 1989-90, we’ve offered a unique program in the Office of Research called Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge (SPARK). It’s a skill development initiative in which we teach students from all disciplines how to communicate broadly about research. They learn journalistic writing skills, earn money (we pay them – no unpaid internships here) and amass an impressive portfolio of published work that makes them very employable. Check out some of their work here.

Len and Erin 2Len Kahn and former SPARK participant Erin Calhoun.

Program participants have landed jobs many places in the Guelph area and beyond, particularly in the agri-food sector which is hungry for young professionals with such communication skills. One Guelph employer, Ontario Agricultural College graduate Len Kahn, President of Kahntact Marketing, has hired several former SPARKers in communications capacities; most recently, Erin Calhoun. 

“In my experience, the SPARK program equips students with the core communication skills needed to hit the ground running in the workplace,” says Kahn. “The program really sets these students apart from their peers in terms of writing and editing capabilities, attention to detail, and real-world communications savvy. I have hired numerous SPARK students over the years, and have worked with other former SPARK participants who are now in the industry. In all cases, it’s been a positive experience.”

But among the departing SPARK participants, we’ve never had two in the same year go onto graduate studies in journalism schools, like we do this year.

To a communications program like ours, that’s a very big deal.

Sameer and JoanneSPARK participants Joanne Pearce and Sameer Chhabra, heading for journalism graduate school.

The two are Sameer Chhabra and Joanne Pearce. Sameer just finished his Honours English degree at Guelph; Joanne is an Honours Bachelor of Arts and Science graduate. Sameer is going on to Western University in London, to pursue a Master of Media degree in Journalism and Communication. Joanne is headed further west – to the University of British Columbia, to study at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism.

They’re entering an exciting field, one that’s marked by huge changes to conventional journalism. Many print publications are closing. Traditional newsrooms are changing. Technology like smartphones and tablets have ushered in new formats for the news – quick, snappy, visual and  increasingly driven by the question what’s in it for me?, a variation on the age-old theme So what? and who cares?

But Sameer and Joanne have had their eyes opened about the changing industry, as observers, as SPARK participants, as prospective masters of the profession, and as volunteers at The Ontarion, the University’s independent student newspaper. Sameer began as an Ontarion volunteer in his second year, before serving first as the paper’s copy editor and then news editor. Joanne began as an Ontarion volunteer in her third year, and continued writing throughout the rest of her university career.

We actually started SPARK with two Ontarion writers, way back when. It’s full circle now that two current SPARK participants going on to journalism graduate studies would also have strong Ontarion roots.

So why journalism, and why now?

"For me, the question has never been difficult to answer," says Sameer. "I want to study journalism along with communications because I believe in the truth. The journalist who pursues the truth, therefore, is that rare writer whose words encourage others to question their realities and challenge their preconceived notions of right and wrong — of fact and falsehood."

For her part, Joanne’s upbeat about the future of journalism.

“The way we approach and read news might change, but people will always be curious about the stories journalists tell . . . stories of science advancements, world issues, travel. People want to understand, and I want to help communicate these vast, exciting topics. I want to help engage people in important discussions they might otherwise miss because the words feel foreign. Pursuing journalism lets me continue to learn and share exciting stories and ongoing interdisciplinary research.”

Good luck Sameer and Joanne. We’ll watch for your bylines, with pride.