News & Commentary, Spotlights

Student Journalists’ Work and Voices Vital During Pandemic

Student photographer takes a photo of a florist working during the coronavirus pandemic.

Understanding challenges and opportunities in higher education requires understanding “the student experience”—which, in California, encompasses hundreds of campuses, multiple pathways toward a degree, and many diverse communities.

Recognizing this and seeking to improve their coverage of higher education, news outlets CalMatters and EdSource launched programs in January to tap into the expertise of student journalists. Two months later, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the state’s college campuses.

But the upheaval has fueled, rather than stopped, the work of student journalists. These new reporters have played a critical role in providing the statewide audiences of CalMatters and EdSource with information and insight on higher education’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

“These students were seeing things on campus and getting access to sources EdSource likely could not get as fast on its own,” said Daniel Vasquez, who edits and coordinates EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps.

Omar Rashad

Students have reported on the challenges of online classes, the student campaigns for flexible grading policies, and the struggles faced by student parents and those who are housing insecure.

CalMatters’ College Journalism Network and EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps, funded by College Futures Foundation, have a total of nearly 30 participants so far that represent California Community Colleges, California State University, and University of California campuses across the state. The programs provide training and mentoring, and students receive stipends for their work.

“It has been really inspiring to see these students jump into covering the pandemic even as they coped with disruptions to their own lives and academic careers,” said Felicia Mello, editor of CalMatters’ program.

Kilmer Salinas

Many of the student journalists also have ramped up their work at their campus news outlets, which have continued publishing online and have even added email newsletters and podcasts. Publications at seven California State University campuses formed the Cal State Journalism Newswire to more easily share resources and stories and improve their reporting on system-wide issues.

CalMatters contributor Omar Rashad, who is editor-in-chief of The Union at El Camino College in southern California, said he is proud of the vital role that student journalists are playing. “While I hear many campuses are offering important services to their students, I also hear many students are unaware of them being offered,” he said. “It’s understandable that these times are stressful. However, knowing how to communicate with your student body is extremely important.”

CSU Los Angeles student Kilmer Salinas, who participates in EdSource’s program, said that the experience has increased his commitment to raising student voices and perspectives. “Their stories matter,” said Salinas, who also reports for his campus outlet. “I know someone is out there who will read it and be grateful that a certain situation is getting the coverage.”

Marlene Cordova

CSU Los Angeles student Marlene Cordova poured her fears into a column, laying out the pandemic’s potential to derail her goal to be the first in her family to receive a four-year degree: What if she gets sick? What if she gets her family sick? Does she need a second job to help her family? What if she is too distracted to do schoolwork? What if she needs to make up classes this summer, but cannot afford it?

When the column was published in EdSource, she was elated. Amid uncertain times, Cordova, who also writes for her campus outlet, said she feels grounded in her career choice: “What I like about being a journalist is listening to people open up to me. It’s a beautiful experience when I get to write. Then to have someone read it, relate, and gain from it—it’s amazing!”


Lead photo: Janette Villafana, a student at CSU Long Beach and a member of the EdSource California Student Journalism Corps, takes a photograph while documenting the impact of the coronavirus-related closures in California. Photo credit: Rigoberto Guillen.