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, Bethel Alaska and Nogales Arizona/Sonora. The next project is tentatively planned for Northern Uganda in 2018.
Well, we made it! I am currently blogging to you live from our house for the next two weeks, nestled in the hills of Nogales. After two days of travel, we are all exhausted.
We started our journey Saturday morning and stopped in Raton, New Mexico, and continued our journey early this morning to arrive in Nogales around 7 p.m., totaling two 12-hour driving days.
If you have never ridden in a 12-passenger van plastered with the Creighton logo on the side, then you are missing out because it’s quite the experience. While I may have spent most of my time in the car sleeping or watching the scenery go by, I learned a lot about myself and fellow passengers.
I learned that while we may have been getting to know each other for only one week prior, spending 24 hours in the car really allowed us to bond. I now know that Dr. O’Keefe is a big fan of Taylor Swift, Dr. Zuegner isn’t afraid to challenge the other van to a dance competition featuring her signature cactus dance, and I wouldn’t have pictured all of us laughing, singing along in the car, or walky-talkying to the other van a week earlier.
Even though we’re all exhausted, we are ready to take on these next two weeks together!
The first week of bootcamp was officially over and I was more than ready to get on the road.
After 10 hours of driving through Nebraska and Colorado, we found our way to Raton, NM. We will get up early once again tomorrow to set off for our final destination.
There are two other Marias on this trip so my companions have taken to calling me “Goose.” In high school, my friends gave me the title. At first I despised it. There’s nothing cute about geese but they refused to change my animal because it was “perfect.” I couldn’t make any sort of connection besides the fact that I walk with my feet out.
Their reasoning was deeper than I had originally thought. They explained that I tend to not be afraid to confront people if something is bothering me. They talked about the exuberance that I bring into a room when I walk in. I’m protective of my friends and committed to team work. I had never really thought of myself like that and once I reflected on it, I became a proud goose.
Once my classmates had brought out my spirit animal name again, I decided that I really wanted to use those traits these next few weeks. I’m excited to get to know the traits and qualities of my other classmates and give them an animal to be proud of. Geese are team players and I want to build up my incredible backpack team. I can’t wait to encourage them to do their best work and see all of us develop as not just as individuals, but as one.
Even though these are basic questions for any traveler I find myself struggling to come up with sufficient answers. The only thing I have been able to muster up are shallow responses like I am afraid of flipping the van, or I’m excited for sunshine and a different terrain.
I have had a hard time understanding why I can only answer these questions with such shallow responses because it is a contradiction. We are about to attempt something incredibly complex balancing journalism and theology while telling a multi-faceted story, and all I can think about is the van playlist and pacing my car snacking.
The reality is I do not yet understand or truly comprehend the complexity of what we are about to do. This is why I am struggling to answer these questions. I do not really know what to look forward to or to be anxious about.
However, I have not been able to decide if this is me being unprepared or having the unique ability to walk into a situation without prior bias and judgment.
I will not be able to answer this question until we are back in Omaha, but either outcome I will have gained insight on how to approach similar situations in the future. Until then I will continue to ponder the refreshing landscape, the temperature in the vans, and the best way to sleep without mouth breathing too loudly.
I’m looking forward to a lot of things on this trip that will take place over the next two weeks. We’ve learned an amazing amount of things in the classroom this past week, and I’m ready to put everything that we have learned into practice to make this documentary. We’ve all had some great people, I.e. Nico Sandi, Carol Zuegner, an Dr. John O’Keefe, leading us in this journey and helping us learn everything we need to know.
After a long day of traveling, I can guess that most of us are already pretty tired from having to sit in two 12 passenger vans for 11 hours all day. With another 11 hours to go tomorrow, we’ll probably be just as tired once we reach our destination! But it will be more than worth it once we get to start working on the film and get to hear the stories of those we’ll be interviewing, More to come once we finally make it to Arizona!
Greetings! Maria Watson here, facing a daunting task of putting words to my hopes and anticipations for my Backpack Journalism experience.
I recently (two days ago) graduated from the beautifully Jesuit Nebraskan paradise, Creighton University. Is there a more appropriate way to celebrate my newly acquired “adult” status than to have one last earth-shattering Creighton-led immersion?
For those of you unfamiliar, Catholic Jesuit philosophy serves as the backbone of the Creighton experience, challenging students to love more, serve others for the greater glory of God, care truly for each human we encounter, and believe in the power and beauty of community, faith, and justice. It pushes us to think about life through lenses of empathy, critical thought, and hopefulness.
With that in mind, it’s all too natural that the Journalism and Theology departments here at Creighton partner to host a “Backpack Journalism” program that travels the world searching for stories that have the ability to shed new light on faith and justice issues in the greater community outside of our own Creighton bubble. Students and faculty/staff members work together to create a documentary striving to capture the essence of culture witnessed and stories told during the experience.
This year, I’m honored to be a part of this adventure, and in only five days, twelve students and four faculty/staff members will be packing up two twelve-passenger vans to make the 20+ hour trek to Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico. We will be spending the following two weeks exploring stories of migration from both sides of the Mexican-American border.
So why did I choose to embark on this pilgrimage, you may ask?
With a deeply rooted love and appreciation for both Jesuit tradition and journalism, I have dreamt of being a part of the Backpack Journalism experience since I was a freshman at Creighton. I was ecstatic when I learned that the project this year would center around border culture because it’s an increasingly relevant issue in today’s world. I absolutely love the idea of being a voice for the voiceless to shed a bit of light on the migrant situation in the midst of such controversy and political tension — hopefully fostering at least a little bit of hope along the way.
While I have heard from many that I will walk away from Nogales with a broken heart for the people suffering from the injustices of the system, I have faith that we will find some strength in learning about the selfless individuals that live and serve on the border as their vocation at the Kino Border Initiative. I’m not sure exactly what we’re getting ourselves into here, but I do know that Arizona sunsets and sunrises are the stuff of legends, and no matter what happens, seeing the cycles of the Arizona sun for two weeks will remind me that life continues to be inherently beautiful and that no matter how hard it gets, there is always something to be looking forward to in the coming day.
Over the course of the next 5 weeks, all of us participants will be writing here to keep you updated on our progress and stories as we dive into the border culture of Nogales. Please, keep us in your prayers for safe travels, strength, and open minds and hearts for what God has in store for us.
Yesterday, we created a small B-roll team to go shoot some footage around Omaha (it makes sense for the documentary, I promise). Myself and five others squished into Hannah’s vehicle, excited for the chance to take the cameras out again. We quickly realized something though: here in Omaha, people are terrified of cameras in public places. Everyone was very paranoid about our presence, and our filming was nearly always halted by security guards and managers.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but the greatest thing about Bethel was how open and accepting everyone was.
It seemed like everyone was willing to help us with our film. And we were able to take cameras everywhere: stores, public buildings, neighborhoods, wherever we needed, basically. And everyone we interviewed was honest, open and willing to share their stories. It was incredible.
Coming back home, it’s easy to see how differently we live as opposed to the people in Bethel. People here don’t seem as open or friendly. Everyone seems very closed off and in their own world. In Bethel, no one hesitated to ask about our cameras, our purpose, our background. Yesterday while we were out, no one cared what we were doing. In fact, it felt like everyone just wanted us to leave. Everyone was too busy moving onto the next thing they had to do, or walking around absent minded, distracted in the world of emails, texts or Twitter.
And I myself, am included in this. It’s very hard to break habits.
In Bethel, as you probably know, we didn’t really have cell service. For short amounts of time, we were able to connect to wi-fi, able to connect to friends and family. During the day, we were completely disconnected though, and sometimes it was really nice. We were present, we were observant, we were living in the moment.
Before our trip began, I had a feeling that we would learn a lot from this experience. I never knew how much it would teach us about the way we live, however. As I said before, it’s really hard to truly be present in the moment. I’m honestly terrible at it, craving a glance at my Twitter feed or needing to eliminate notification icons immediately.
I don’t want to continue these habits though. Bethel taught me how important it is to simply pay attention to your surroundings. When you step away from the problems of your own life, that’s when you gain the most from the world around you. That’s how you learn about the people around you. And that’s how you learn the most about yourself.
Hannah broke all the stereotypes of both: living in country, and living as only child. First because she enjoyed the simplicity of her town “Seward, NE”, a town of 6-7 thousands of population. Moreover, she moved out to the country when she was in 1st grade. The second stereotype was living as a single kid, she invited trees, sun, and stars into her life and they became her friends. With her imagination, she was the contemplative person who appreciates everything surrounding her, and the Ignatian person I met.
The thing about traveling is that once I go somewhere, I am never again the same person. Different air penetrates my lungs, different ideas cultivate my mind, and new people enter my vicinity.
Traveling to Alaska, the things I witnessed and experienced in Bethel changed me.
The air that penetrated my lungs was crisp and clear. It was seemingly untouched by pollution and did not encapsulate me like a blanket, as does the harsh humidity in Omaha. The air was free in the wide-open spaces, and was not disrupted by high skylines. As the air cleared, so did my mind. Without the distractions generally present in the lower 48, I was able to truly connect with the beauty of nature and with my own thoughts. Among the fresh air, I was shown the power of reflection in nature and in life.
The ideas that cultivated my mind were different and exciting. I learned the idea of treating food like a guest with love and appreciation, and the concept that food has a memory, which has caused me to think about the story behind the food I purchase. The idea of “military showers” (showers where you conserve as much water as possible) inspired me to be more conscious of my water usage while the kindness and hospitality of the people of Bethel encouraged me to treat other people in a similar way.
The people who entered my vicinity were amazing and inspiring. Rose Dominic showed me the power of forgiveness. Cecelia Martz reminded me of the importance of maintaining culture and respecting elders. While Nelson exhibited more ambition and passion than I had ever seen before.
The air, the ideas, and the people I encountered in Bethel have made a permanent impact on my life. Through travel, my perspectives have altered, my opinions have changed, and the person I was four weeks ago no longer exists.
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.
I have been home from Alaska for almost a week now, and I admit it still feels strange to be back in Nebraska. It seems that no time has passed, yet so much happened to me while I was away. I am definitely missing Alaska, from the community of Bethel to the mountains of the Kenai Peninsula.
Fortunately I haven’t had a lot of time to think about the twinge of sadness I feel as we dive head first into creating our documentary. I don’t feel a complete loss of connection to Alaska as I re-watch interviews and look at B-roll. I have enjoyed listening to the stories of people we interviewed early in our trip and finding the best quotes in our many hours of footage. It was a tiring week of transcribing and editing video, but we have made great progress in our project.
As I tell my family and friends about my Backpack Journalism experience, I feel a sense of excitement as I talk about the wonderful people we met in Bethel and the issues of the area that we learned about and witnessed firsthand. There is so much to tell, yet I can’t find the words to tell about everything. All I can do is try to express my love for the beautiful state.
I always seem to fall in love with the places I visit. My numerous trips to Chicago have led me to decide that it is my favorite city. Visiting Oregon and seeing its splendor helped me determine that I want to live there in the future. During my service trip to West Virginia, I was amazed by its beauty during the fall and inspired by its people.
Alaska was no different. I feel fortunate to have spent so much time in a part of the state rarely seen by tourists. I came to admire the Yup’ik culture and subsistence lifestyle. I saw tundra, ocean, glaciers and mountains, all in one place. The people I met and the stories I heard changed my life.
Being a Nebraska native, everywhere else seems to be more beautiful and exciting than the flat plains of the Cornhusker State. No mountains or oceans, just fields and rivers.
Yet being back, I have come to appreciate the beauty of where I grew up and the city I call my second home. On my first night back from Alaska, I looked out toward the sunset from my 10th floor apartment window. I thought about the stunning Alaska sky, but then I realized that Nebraska has pretty amazing sunsets, too.
From the outside looking in, the town of Bethel, Alaska, may not seem like the most exciting place. But for the people living there, it is home, and it is beautiful to them.
Our very last interview was with a woman named Susan, who worked at the Immaculate Conception Church where we stayed during our trip. She was born in Bethel and has lived there her entire life. Her love for the community showed, and there was no place she would rather be.
“Bethel is our paradise,” she eloquently stated.
No matter where I may end up living in my life, for now I will appreciate the beauty and comfort of Nebraska and the people here who have impacted my life. I hope that I have the opportunity to travel to Alaska again soon, but for now I am going to love the place where I am now.