Backpack Journalism at Creighton University is a collaboration between the Theology Department and the Journalism, Media, & Computing Department. It came about because of a theologian interested in social justice and filmmaking and a journalist and an artist interested in filmmaking and social justice.
Each summer, a small group of students travels to a community in search of a story. Led by professors Dr. John O’Keefe, Tim Guthrie, and Carol Zuegner, the students immerse themselves in the communities, interviewing, filming, recording, and writing. When they return to Creighton, they take the stories they have collected and develop them into a short documentary film. The Backpack Journalism documentaries have been accepted at several film festivals, including the Omaha Film Festival. The class has traveled to such far-flung places as the Dominican Republic and Uganda. In 2014, they will head north to Bethel, Alaska.
Throughout the past year, a few things were certain about Kari Welniak: She’d had a smile on her face nearly all the time, she was working hard in her classes, and she had a Back Pack Journalism poster hanging on her bedroom wall.
“I took it off the bulletin board,” she said with a sly laugh. “I saw, ‘Do you want to travel to Alaska?’ and I knew I wanted to go, so I kept it.”
This is a normal trend for Welniak. Her decision to go to Alaska wasn’t the first she’d known for sure as something she wanted to do.
Born and raised in Omaha, she knew almost right away that Creighton was the best fit for her for school, and also a pretty obvious choice for her to pursue her dream of becoming a dentist.
Although she was unsure where exactly she wanted to end up as a dentist, her passion was evident. This year, she began working as an assistant for the dental practice through Creighton’s dental school. The school offers discounted dental appointments to members of the local community throughout the year. As a sophomore, Welniak holds tools and assists the dental students, but even talking about that simple act would cause her eyes to light up.
A similar light came to her eyes when the group drove past a dental clinic in Bethel, Alaska. Her eyes fixated on the building, she began asking questions about the clinic, the patients, and the needs of the community.
“While we were up there, Stan talked to me about it. And you know they need dentists up there,” Welniak shared. With a large population living in the villages, far from any kind of medical care, the thought of all the lives that could be changed simply with a dentist in town captivated Welniak.
“I don’t know, there’s just something so cool about the work that you do with your hands, and difference you can make in someone’s life.”
Participating in service for others and to her community has been a deep, growing passion for Welniak. In addition to working in the dental school’s clinics, she has also partaken in a number of service opportunities throughout her life. The Yup’ik way of sharing, and taking care of each other then really inspired Welniak.
“The community in Bethel was so awesome. Like, it’s made me want to find that kind of community here in Omaha, and at Creighton. The kind that really works together to help others.”
An experience of a lifetime, it’s hard to say where her time in Alaska will take her in life.
As long as she can share her talents and soon-coming dental skills with those who need it; that all she hopes for. When asked what she’ll miss about Alaska, besides the community, Welniak couldn’t help but laugh.
“I’ll miss the cold. When I was little when it’d snow here and it’d be like 30 below and everyone would be inside, I’d be outside playing.”
With her love of the cold, and strong passion for serving others, if Alaska ever needed a kind-hearted dentist, sounds like she’d be a perfect filling.