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Student Journalists on Front Lines of COVID-19 Coverage 

University of Utah student Andrew Goaslind takes a rapid COVID-19 test, Nov. 18, 2020, in Salt Lake City.
University of Utah student Andrew Goaslind takes a rapid COVID-19 test, Nov. 18, 2020, in Salt Lake City.

College student journalists have been at the forefront of university COVID-19 coverage, breaking news stories about campus outbreaks and holding university leadership accountable for its handling of the pandemic.

But COVID-19 has been a challenge for students, too, as many college papers have had to maintain virtual newsrooms, cut back print editions, and struggle to build rapport among their remote teams.

Student newspapers have offered a unique inside scoop about how students are navigating the pandemic.

“We know of student hospitalizations that the university doesn’t because they have to be self-reported to the university,” said Eli Hoff, managing editor for the University of Missouri’s The Maneater.

“And we as students are more likely to get in contact with those people than university administrators can or middle-age town newspapers can because we’re students, they’re students and there’s more of a connection there,” said Hoff.

Because they are on the front line of coverage, the responsibility is large, Hoff said.

“There’s more of a burden of responsibility on us as student journalists to be on the ground for whatever reporting we can and being the first to get that kind of information just because we have access to it. It kind of falls to us to report it,” he said.

Matt Cohen was a sports reporter for the Indiana Daily Student at Indiana University in Bloomington before switching to the enterprise team when most collegiate sports events were canceled because of the coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease.

Michigan University fans watch during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Indiana at Memorial Stadium, Nov. 7, 2020, in Bloomington, Indiana.
Michigan University fans watch during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Indiana at Memorial Stadium, Nov. 7, 2020, in Bloomington, Indiana.

“Being stuck on Zoom is hard,” said Cohen. “It’s been a challenge trying to really be in depth in your reporting when you can’t be there.”

“Journalism wasn’t meant to be done remotely,” he said.

Being insider and outsider

Covering your peer group is another challenge for student journalists.

“It’s hard because Greek life students here never want to talk to me or the media, because we always make them look bad,” Cohen said. “And they’re not wrong, that’s true.

“But also, you know, they do stupid stuff like throw parties of 100 people in the middle of a pandemic and there’s not really a way to put a positive spin on that … so it’s hard to actually get access, but I got better as I got more into it,” he said.

Cohen said he received some criticism from fraternities and sororities after reporting on the suspension of several IU students following large football celebrations when Indiana University beat Pennsylvania State University, commonly referred to as Penn State.

“I think sometimes people have a hard time differentiating what is the media and what is the school, and people were all coming after me about not letting college students have fun or whatever. Not letting them be kids,” he added.

The IU Barstool — a sports and pop culture blog popular on campuses nationwide — tweeted a meme mocking him, he said. Cohen said he took it in good humor.

On the COVID front lines

Being on the ground, collegiate journalists are a watchdog of their university’s handling of the coronavirus.

“We just had an issue where we asked the question: ‘How many students report their own cases?’ And we found that 60% of students don’t even know how to report their own cases to the university,” said Maxwell Mayleben, editor in chief for The Reporter at Minnesota State University at Mankato.

“So, our numbers look really good, but are they reflecting what it actually is? We’re asking those kinds of questions,” he said.

“We’ve also been doing a lot of editorials this year, too. Basically, kind of calling out the university and asking, ‘Are you doing enough?’ or ‘Is it too much?’ We’re taking a stance on what we want to see from the university and what students should expect from the university,” he added.

Challenging institutions

At the University of Missouri System, President Mun Choi blocked students on Twitter at the beginning of the semester because of criticism following his handling of the coronavirus on campus.

“That’s obviously a concern because his Twitter account is something used to send public information and in a pandemic that’s extra important,” said Hoff.

Students filed what’s called a sunshine request to gain access. By morning, Choi had unblocked everyone.

“So that was reassuring to see, and we were proud with the sunshine case that we were able to legally prove it was a public account,” he added.

“We’ve made them mad on occasion. We’ve done some coverage that is negative and done some editorials that are very, very critical of them. We called for the resignation of our university chancellor at the start of the school year. We haven’t been afraid to do that, but we’ve been able to remain entirely independent,” said Hoff.

Megan Mittelhammer, news editor for The Red & Black, an independent student newspaper serving the University of Georgia, said accountability was one of the things the publication focused on most this semester.

“Towards the end of summer, before the start of the semester, we had a UGA housing employee die of COVID, but the university refused to report the name and acknowledge that COVID was the cause of death, so we had to find out through the county coroner. And so, a lot of students, faculty, [and] staff were obviously upset,” said Mittelhammer.

UGA said the school’s privacy policy didn’t allow it to comment on the death of an employee, Mittelhammer said.

“So that was kind of the first little hint of like, ‘OK, what else? Are they not going to report before we go back to school? Will they report these numbers accurately?’ " she said.

Mittelhammer also said The Red & Black reported on the reliability of the University of Georgia’s COVID-19 self-screening tool, DawgCheck.

FILE - Protesters march opposing in-person classes at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Aug. 17, 2020. More of the state public universities are opening for the fall term.
FILE - Protesters march opposing in-person classes at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Aug. 17, 2020. More of the state public universities are opening for the fall term.

While it is mandatory for faculty, staff and students to report a positive COVID-19 test through DawgCheck, some people don’t, she said.

“So, towards the middle of August, when everybody was back, we had sorority and fraternity parties downtown. We saw a big spike in cases about two or three weeks later after we got back,” she explained. “What’s accurately being detected on campus?”

Remaining steady

For most student newspapers, the pandemic has also forced a once busy newsroom onto a virtual platform, often delaying production and making it difficult to build rapport among members.

“Normally, we would have weekly staff meetings in person, but now it’s all on Zoom, as if Zoom classes weren’t enough,” said Mansoor Ahmad, an international student from Pakistan and the photo/web editor for The Reporter at Minnesota State University at Mankato.

Maneater’s managing editor Hoff said that because of their remote work it has been challenging to build a sense of camaraderie among the members.

“I’m able to read a lot of content, see a lot of bylines, but I’m not able to know the person behind that byline ... know who’s stuff I’m editing,” said Hoff.

“It’s hard when my only interaction with someone is through Google Drive comments,” said Hoff. “I’m trying to be super-duper nice in the comments because I don’t want to go in with harsh edits and be the jerk editor because we meet through Google Drive.”

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Studying STEM? International students have funding options

FILE - Founder & CEO Uma Valeti peers into one of the cultivation tanks at the Upside Foods plant, where lab-grown meat is cultivated, in Emeryville, California, Jan. 11, 2023.
FILE - Founder & CEO Uma Valeti peers into one of the cultivation tanks at the Upside Foods plant, where lab-grown meat is cultivated, in Emeryville, California, Jan. 11, 2023.

US News & World Report takes a look at funding options for international students pursuing STEM degrees in the U.S.

The article explains the different kinds of scholarships and grants and offers tips on getting part-time jobs and private student loans. Read the full story here. (March 2024)

US campuses are battlegrounds in free speech debate

Students hold up a photo of University of Southern California 2024 valedictorian Asna Tabassum in protest to her canceled commencement speech on the campus of University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, April 18, 2024.
Students hold up a photo of University of Southern California 2024 valedictorian Asna Tabassum in protest to her canceled commencement speech on the campus of University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, April 18, 2024.

This week the University of Southern California canceled the graduation speech of its senior class valedictorian at a time when there is a growing debate over the limits of free speech on American college campuses.

USC’s Asna Tabas­sum, a Muslim biomedical engineer major, was selected from among 100 outstanding students to address the graduating class of 2024 this May. However, the school withdrew the invitation for her to speak at the graduation ceremony citing safety concerns.

Tabassum denounced the decision, which she attributed to her public support for Palestinian human rights. She said it is part of “a campaign of hate meant to silence my voice.”

Students carrying signs protest a canceled commencement speech by its 2024 valedictorian who has publicly supported Palestinians on the campus of University of Southern California, April 18, 2024.
Students carrying signs protest a canceled commencement speech by its 2024 valedictorian who has publicly supported Palestinians on the campus of University of Southern California, April 18, 2024.

The school maintains it is a safety issue, not about free speech. School officials say they received an alarming number of violent threats after selecting her as speaker.

USC is one of many American universities that have struggled with policies over free speech and campus protest since October’s Hamas terrorist attack on Israel and the continuing fighting in Gaza. After weeks or months of on-campus protests and rallies, schools have been taking more forceful action to punish protesters who administrators say have become disruptive.

On Thursday at Columbia University in New York, police arrested more than 100 students who had gathered on campus for pro-Palestinian protests. The school’s dean wrote that the protesters had been told several times that they were violating university policies and would be suspended. The students say they were exercising their free speech rights.

At Washington’s American University, protests in all campus buildings have been banned by the school’s president since January. Under the new policy, students may not hold rallies, engage in silent protests or place posters in any campus building.

Protests and safety

University students have a long history of engaging in political activism. From the Vietnam War to abortion rights, universities have played a key role in American political debates.

However, students now say that schools like AU with a long-standing protest culture are silencing protesters with new rules.

Arusa Islam, American University student body president-elect and current vice president, says the policies are preventing an open discussion about U.S. foreign policy.

“Indoor protesting was never a problem, it was never an issue before October 7th,” Islam said. “Students were allowed to put up posters in buildings and students were allowed to have a silent protest.”

“And now we don’t have that right anymore,” she added. “We have been silenced and it is affecting us greatly.”

American University’s president, Sylvia Burwell, says the school’s new policies are intended to ensure that protests do not disrupt university activity.

Burwell also referred to recent events on campus that “made Jewish students feel unsafe and unwelcome.” She added, antisemitism is abhorrent, wrong, and will not be tolerated at American University.

While administrators insist that they are making narrow restrictions in the interests of providing an education, critics say the policies have a far-reaching effect.

At Cornell University, where new rules took effect in January, Claire Ting, the executive vice president of the Cornell Student Assembly, said the policies have had an unsettling effect on campus.

“The campus climate at Cornell has been tense surrounding free speech in recent times,” Ting emailed VOA.

Ting said that both students and faculty feel the policy has had chilling effects on free expression.

“Students report facing arbitrary, escalating punishment for violating the policy, with the policy itself lacking clear outlines for the consequences of civil disobedience,” she added.

In its new policy Cornell warns students that disciplinary action may be taken if protests impede people or traffic, damage school property or interfere with the school’s operations in any way.

In its campus-wide notice explaining the new guidelines, the school wrote that the new policy would ensure that expressive activity is allowed but must remain nonviolent.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, also known as FIRE, has tracked free speech issues on American campuses.

FIRE and College Pulse have produced an annual survey, since 2022, ranking colleges based on their policies and what students say about the free speech climate on campus.

This year the group reported that “alarming” numbers of students say they self-censor or “find their administrations unclear” on free speech issues.

“College campuses have always been places where students have been unafraid to express themselves and with the recent Gaza conflict after the 10/7 attacks, it’s been very heated on both sides of this issue,” said Zach Greenberg, the senior program officer of FIRE.

Harvard ranked last in this year’s survey. FIRE said the school punished some professors and researchers over what they had said or written, and students reported a poor climate for free speech on campus.

The controversy came to Congress late last year, when Harvard’s president testified over complaints of widespread antisemitism.

Israel-Hamas War Brings Controversy to US Campuses  
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“I don’t think you’d find many students on campus right now that would say we are the model for flourishing free speech and ideas exchange in the country,” said J. Sellers Hill, president of Harvard’s school newspaper The Harvard Crimson.

“But I think you’ve really seen that be acknowledged by administrators and it seems to be something they are dedicated to taking on.”

As the head of The Harvard Crimson, Hill manages the paper’s 350 editors and 90 reporters, who’ve covered, in detail, the ongoing free speech/protests controversy and the resignation of former President Claudine Gay following her testimony to Congress.

“I think no one would dispute Harvard has work to do and progress to make,” Hill said. “I think it’s a tough sell, for me, that Harvard is uniquely in its own league in terms of intolerance of speech. That doesn’t square with what I have seen on our college campus or on other college campuses around the country. I think Harvard is held to a higher standard.”

Proposed settlement offered over financial aid allegations

FILE - The Yale University campus is in New Haven, Connecticut, on Dec. 4, 2023. A group of colleges and universities - including Yale - have agreed to settle allegations of deceptive deceptive financial aid tactics, according to a report published in The Hill.
FILE - The Yale University campus is in New Haven, Connecticut, on Dec. 4, 2023. A group of colleges and universities - including Yale - have agreed to settle allegations of deceptive deceptive financial aid tactics, according to a report published in The Hill.

A group of U.S. colleges and universities have agreed to settle a lawsuit alleging deceptive financial aid tactics, according to a report published in The Hill.

The schools would pay $284 million to plaintiffs who were enrolled full-time and received financial aid between 2003 and 2024.

The schools have denied the allegations. (April 2024)

Universities in Middle East building research relationships with China  

FILE - University students display the flag of the Communist Party of China to mark the party's 100th anniversary during an opening ceremony of the new semester in Wuhan in China's central Hubei, September 10, 2021.
FILE - University students display the flag of the Communist Party of China to mark the party's 100th anniversary during an opening ceremony of the new semester in Wuhan in China's central Hubei, September 10, 2021.

As China bolsters research relationships with universities in the Middle East, the United States has taken notice – especially when that research involves artificial intelligence.

Reporting for University World News, Yojana Sharma has the story. (March 2024)

Tips for staying safe while studying in the US

FILE - In this Feb. 26, 2019 photo, Sgt. Jason Cowger, with Johns Hopkins University's Campus Safety and Security department, walks on the university's campus in Baltimore.
FILE - In this Feb. 26, 2019 photo, Sgt. Jason Cowger, with Johns Hopkins University's Campus Safety and Security department, walks on the university's campus in Baltimore.

Recent news events have raised safety concerns among some international students studying in the United States.

Adarsh Khandelwal, writing in the India Times, has tips for staying safe from the moment you arrive until the day you complete your studies. (March 2024)

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