The Community Experience

by Khadija Ahmed

Ten UMass students  and Nicholas McBride- “Nick” to some, “Professor” to others, climb up the granite steps leading to the High School of Commerce at 1:15 pm on the last Wednesday of January  2015.  They belong to the Community Journalism Class at UMass Amherst.

 Prof. Nicholas McBride

 Prof. Nicholas McBride

These UMass undergraduates try to mentor students in this underfunded and neglected school. “This course directly puts students in a high school with more problems than usual,” McBride, the founder and mentor for the course,  said.

“My students can find out the reality of the education system from the experts themselves, and help become a part of the solution,” he said.

A destination in itself, 415 State Street, Springfield, has a grandeur appearance in contrast to the street of tiny shops, adjacent to this building resembling a monument. The entrance is locked, but there is a doorbell, tight security and metal detectors. No one is roaming the hallways; apparently you also need a key to use the bathrooms.

The veterans of Community Journalism lead the way to Ms. McGlone’s history class. There are about 15 students in room 125, and  they are all dressed in what resembles Target employee apparel, red polos and khakis. McBride, who normally avoids addressing an audience or speaking for too long, makes a short impromptu speech; “Hope you all had a wonderful break. We are happy to be back.”

The returning college students are comfortable. Take Whitney Hollister, junior and returning UMass mentor. She finds an empty seat and knows exactly what she has to do. Her strong rapport and familiarity with two male high school students is apparent from the casual and friendly conversation that instantly ensues. New UMass students stand around awkwardly, unsure of the protocol.

Bevilacqua talking to a Commerce student after school. 

Bevilacqua talking to a Commerce student after school. 

Brian Bevilacqua, the TA, gestures to his fellow students as they try to settle in. At last week’s  information session he had said, “This class is different from the other journalism classes, because we’re not just reading and writing about it. You’re going to see real problems. This course reminded me why I got into journalism in the first place.”

On an ordinary day, there is work to be done, but it is advising week for the high school students. It is the UMass students, first day back after a four week winter break; there is catching up to do, and new introductions to be made. There are no assignments to be looked over; casual conversations take over. In the room next door, Mr Evans English class is taking place.

 Terry Belanger and Justina, a.k.a Flowers are casually talking while trying to read their books. Justina is into witchcraft and the supernatural. She is enjoying semi-reading, the contemporary novel, “Witches,”  but begins to ramble on about “American Horror Story” for a good half hour before finally sharing a poem she wrote last semester, “The Phoenix,” as part of a project with Bevilacqua.

Bevilacqua, whose names literally means “drink the water” in Italian, went on to share the assessments of the high school students he mentors. “Flowers can chew your ear off,” says Bevilacqua. “And Terry loves reading difficult classics in his spare time,” and sure enough Belanger was reading “The Iliad.” Bevilacqua continued, “The size of the book does not deter him taking on the challenge. He is as smart as he looks.” Later, Belanger discussed his artistic interests, showing his sketches and enlightening Bevilacqua about how to maximize the use of the left side of his brain.

Despite Belanger’s diverse interests and potential to excel at school, he puts up a care-free attitude that shouldn’t be misinterpreted as lazy. “Terry is bored in his classes, and if you ask why he isn’t taking the more challenging IB or AP classes offered at this school, it’s because he doesn’t have the grades. If you ask why he doesn’t have the grades, he has been to eight schools in the past three years,” Bevilacqua said.

He is upset that Belanger didn’t get the chance to excel. “Colleges will never know Terry’s personal struggles or know his true potential,” the TA said. But the quirky student continues to smile and share his intellect with the Community Journalism class, occasionally adjusting his glasses, characteristically moving his fingers and insisting he doesn’t like to talk in front of people.

Another Wednesday, some of the students ask to go to the auditorium. There is an impressive stage, worn out chairs that seats an audience of 200, a decent lighting and sound system, even a grand piano. There’s a lot of buzz from the Grammys. Daniel Quinones, a junior at Commerce, is snapping his fingers. He’s also dancing- funny dancing.

Keyla Ortiz, a high school junior, speaks hesitantly, “I only ever talk to Chelsie,” she said. Chelsie Field is a second semester UMass senior who only became involved in Community Journalism because she needed another class for the major.  But she continued taking the class in her last semester because it “added new meaning to why I wanted to pursue journalism,” Field said.

 “It allowed me to have one on one time with students like Keyla and engage and learn from students younger than me,”Field said. She fondly remembers how she became good friends with Ortiz after their second encounter. “Keyla laughed and said, “I knew you had a white girl name.””

 Ortiz has lived in Springfield since she was 18 months old. She really values her family and being close to home.

“I never left, never plan to leave, unless my family does. I like being around them,” she said. “My family has my back no matter what. they will help me out. If I move, I will have no one to go to.”

Ortiz is content with her opportunities and satisfied with living in Springfield.  She wants to attend Springfield Technical Community College, “It’s right across the street from here,” she said. “But if I get accepted, I wouldn’t mind coming to UMass.”

She has become fond of the UMass students and remained involved with the Community Journalism program since her freshman year.

“I’ve had some of my best moments in this class. I loved the field trip to UMass last semester.”

A handful of Commerce students, including Ortiz, attended Wilbert Rideau’s talk, “Can a Free Press Flourish Behind Bars” and book signing last year at the Cape Cod Lounge. Not only was it Ortiz’s first time at the UMass campus but she was inspired by Rideau’s story and take home message. The former death row inmate is now a capital defense consultant and award winning prison journalist . “It was really interesting how he became a journalist in prison and changed his life, she said. “I really admire how he preached that we all make mistakes and that doesn’t make us a bad person.” All students in Ms McGlone’s class received a copy of his book, “In The Place of Justice.”

Ortiz said she has hope she can do anything she puts her mind to. She has as a strong, confident personality and likes to take on new challenges. She looks forward to trying out for softball and using her free time more wisely. “I don’t even know how to play but I want to try, and see for myself- hopefully I can stay more active and productive that way.”

Back in Ms McGlone’s class, Quinones is participating as a serious student, a complete change in his personality from the day he was goofing off in the auditorium.

“The stuff she talks about like history of “gangs” makes me want to pay attention,” he said. “Ms Mcglone looks at community violence. I don’t live in the best neighborhood, I have a lot to learn, and she’s really nice.”

Ortiz shared a similar level of appreciation for Ms McGlone, “I don’t like history, but I like her class because she makes the class relevant,” Ortiz said.

Quinones shared how Ms McGlone enlightened the class about the Ebola virus through news footages.

“A few weeks ago we watched a short CNN documentary and saw how many people in East Africa couldn’t go to the hospital and receive medical help, but in the US only like four people were affected and everybody made such a big deal about it.”

Ortiz jumped in about the unfortunate and biased portrayal one normally sees in the media, “I had no idea that there was no place to accommodate many patients in East Africa. It was really horrible looking at the reality there,” she said. 

On this particular Wednesday, March 11th,  Ms McGlone directed the attention of her class to the media’s portrayal of the racist chant by SAE members at University of Oklahoma. Different students stood up to voice their opinions.

“Racism should be illegal. Just like bullying is really bad, it’s hurtful,” said Ortiz. Collectively, students of Commerce said that not a single fraternity member tried to put an end to this, and had clearly performed this chant on multiple occasions because many were singing along and knew it by heart.

Nia Decaille, senior at UMass continues to  participate in CJ without being officially enrolled in the class. She facilitated a discussion in the classroom based on the responsible roles of fraternities and sororities, and proudly wore her AKA sorority jacket. She is affiliated with the oldest Greek letter organization, Alpha Kappa Alpha’s chapter at UMass, originally founded by African American college-trained women which continues to provide strength and opportunities for a sisterhood.

The discussion explored the topics of privilege, ignorance and political correctness. There was also a stimulating debate among the validity of using the ‘n’ word.  Some students like Fynta Sideme the word shouldn’t even be used among Black community members.

Two brothers are also very involved in the CJ course. Jose Rodriguez was born and raised in Springfield, and his half brother and twin look-a-like Derek Thompson, has been living in Springfield for the past 6 years. They miss their old mentor Javaria Khan, a Mount Holyoke student who took Community Journalism for five semesters. According to Thompson, “the class is fun, and lets us have a good time.”

Look I can play the piano,” Thompson said, switching gears. He is self-taught in piano through Youtube videos.

A lot of hidden talent is portrayed during this informal session as the brothers and their friends play and rap, something they normally wouldn’t get the chance to do. According to Thompson, “The only thing close to music is choir, and I’d rather play the piano than sing.”

Thompson and Rodriguez admit they aren’t always on their best behavior and don’t enjoy studying a lot, “We feel bad because sometimes we give Ms G a hard time by misbehaving,” said Rodriguez.

While the brothers love first block gym, they head over to their next class, English, and sit patiently and go over questions and answers with Mr Evans, their favorite teacher. The class should be up to chapter 16 for “Their Eyes are Watching God.” After being given some time to catch up with their reading, the students begin watching the movie based on the book.

According to Khan, most of the students at Commerce don’t have the structure to perform well or the motivation to do their work. “The High School of Commerce isn’t very highly ranked. Students feel they are close to falling off the grid and are automatically discouraged from trying very hard in school because of lack of future prospects.”

Back in the other classroom, a different set of Commerce students are working with their mentors. Pio Romano, a UMass Journalism major and senior, easily adjusted, despite this being his first and last semester to be involved in Community Journalism.

He is working with Jorge Colon, a high school junior. Romano, who volunteers at WMUA, the college radio station, filmed the New England Public Radio field trip for Commerce Students involved in the CJ program. Students were given a tour and introduced to procedures and the routine followed, as well as the equipment used at NEPR. UMass graduate J Kyle White Sullivan, was actively involved with radio on campus and now works at NEPR. He was very informative during the entire session. Romano encouraged Colon to submit his rap poetry to Sullivan and now Colon’s first audio publication, “STRENGTH” can be found under the section “National Poetry Month” on the NEPR website.

After school, the bell rings and as is customary, the UMass students stick around for over an hour to discuss a philosophical book chosen by McBride. The first two books assigned for the course are “Representations of the Intellectual” by Edward Said, and the “Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy and Civic Courage” by Paulo Freire.

According to McBride, “Journalists have become increasingly out of touch with the majority of the population.” He continues to discuss the importance of the stories of the working class, the poor, and the minorities who are often overlooked in the mainstream media. He tries to connect the readings for the class with the importance of changing the education system in America by encouraging students to be open minded and aware of complex social structures.