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.
Every other 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 across the United States. 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 scheduled for the summer of 2020 and will focus on deforestation in Eastern Africa.
Like many others who decided to step out of their comfort zone and join Creighton Backpack Journalism, Claudia Brock didn’t know what kind of experience awaited her.
A proud member of the Creighton community, Claudia Brock prides herself in her ability to stay involved in multiple ways on campus. However, her view on Creighton was not always as upbeat.
“Being from Omaha, I knew that there was for sure one place I did not want to go, Creighton. I always thought that I would end up somewhere else, so I initially came to school kicking and screaming”.
Now for Claudia it is a totally different story, she has embraced her time at Creighton and she is now involved in various activities. She embraced the Journalism major and joined the Creightonian paper as a staff writer and held that position for her entire freshman year, she later became assistant news editor, a scene editor and more recently a news editor.
She first became interested in writing and Journalism from writing essays and her involvement with her speech team in high school.
“I enjoy researching and staying on top of news, and at Admitted Students Day, I got inspired to do Creighton news.” Claudia explained.
Claudia was raised Catholic, and from a young age always seemed to possess a drive to be involved in some way where she can help those in need around her. She has interned for the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands, helped organize and lead retreats, and will be minoring in Social Justice and Peace study. So when she first heard of what Backpack Journalism had to offer, she couldn’t refuse.
“To have a trip that combined my two loves, social justice, and journalism was a dream come true!”
So after a long week of Creighton Backpack Journalism bootcamp, Claudia packed her bags and with the rest of the CBJ team, headed out to Alaska.
While in Alaska, Claudia seemed to be as involved as she possibly could, taking on a variety of different roles. She acted as an interviewer, a writer/note taker, was the official legal consultant for the trip, and was a proud member of the “C Team” all while developing and improving her skills with a camera and as an overall journalist.
“It has been challenging (the trip), because of the chaotic size of the group. Despite that, I loved hearing people’s stories, they are all so fascinating, and I loved trying new things like cleaning fish and eating seal.”
Claudia always seems to have a smile on her face, and can easily bring light through laughter in any situation seemingly without hassle. She is always ready to brighten the team’s mood, and is always ready to try something new or just help out.
She is truly a joy to have on the team, and the best damn legal consultant in the Creighton Backpack Journalism program.
Sitting in the Church lobby of the Catholic Church in Bethel, Alaska, Madeline Zukowski is dressed in a yellow quarter zip, rolled blue jeans, and matching blue hiking shoes. She settles into a swiveling desk chair that has a ripped cushion and squeaks rather alarmingly as it turns. I take a seat next to her in an equally suspicious folding chair, and as the light streams in a window from behind a hanging crucifix, i flip out my standard issue notepad and hit the record button on my iPad– ready to fire away and find out everything I can about her.
Madeline is one of those people who is approximately three parts shyness and one part sass. She has intelligent eyes and the corners of her mouth are quick to turn up in an eye-crinkling smile. Legs crossed and fingers interlaced, the first piece of information that I get from her is about her major. Madeline is a news and PR double major. When I asked her how she became interested in journalism, I knew I had struck gold. Madeline proceeded to describe a day in seventh grade:
“ It was rainy, and a Saturday, and I was really bored.”
Her hands became animated as she went back in her memory to pulling out an American Girl magazine.
“It had a list of ten things to do when you’re bored and one of them was to make your own magazine/newspaper.”
Fixated on that idea, she threw together a five page magazine of her own and gave it to some of her sister’s friends. It was a hit. The only hitch was that she had used all of the printer ink in the printing. The savvy 12-year-old that she was, Madeline began to sell the magazines for 25 cents a piece in order to pay back her dad for the ink and continue to print future issues of what she had dubbed “Kids Klub.”
As the questions continued, the picture began to come together of who exactly Madeline Zukowski was. This quiet and determined figure knew what she wanted and went after it.
“I have always been a very quiet person, so for me to go up to someone I don’t know and say, ‘Can I interview you?’ and then proceed to interview them, has been a challenge.”
However, she does not let that challenge stop her. Madeline has always loved the idea of working at the New York Times. She knows that getting a job as a writer for a newspaper or online publication will be hard, but she has ambitions that would see her working as a well-known writer at a well-known publication in the future. She has continued to hone her interviewing skills, and to learn as much as she can about multi-media, video, PR, and news. This woman, with her blonde hair and open smile, may not seem intimidating, but I would argue that she is a force to be reckoned with.
Let me set the scene. We’re out on a hill in the middle of the Alaskan tundra. The sun is just setting at 11:30 pm, and there are monstrous mosquitos flying around our huddled group. Suddenly, a Syrian man stands up, smiles, opens his arms wide as if embracing the annoying insects, and makes us all roll with laughter. This is Tony Homsy S.J.
For two weeks, Tony was in Bethel, Alaska using his photography skills to help create a documentary. Not only was he in Alaska, but he was also just about as far away from his home country of Syria as he could be. He was literally on the other side of the world.
“Funny story,” he said when I asked him why he chose to come on this trip. How Tony ended up in Alaska actually happens to be the fulfilment of a joke he made with a friend a year before. While Tony was still studying in Lebanon, his friend was studying in Paris.
“Okay, I’m going to Alaska,” Tony said when his friend started teasing him. He never thought it would actually happen. What was once a silly exaggeration became a reality when he signed up for the Backpack Journalism course about six months later.
Originally, Tony is from the largest city in Syria, known as Halab to locals and Aleppo to the rest of us. It’s been awhile since he’s seen his family in person. In fact, it was May of 2013 when he last saw is brother and July of 2012 was when he last saw his sister. Despite all of this, Tony still manages to be the most joyful person I’ve met.
“Wherever you are, live with joy.” This is what Tony told me he learned while he was in Bethel. At first, he said he was skeptical about how people could spend a part or all of their lives in Bethel. Then, he spent a day with a man named Arvin. Tony could see that, even though Arvin was living in the middle of nowhere, he was still filled with joy.
“Not because he was wealthy…just because he embraced his life.”
For the past year, Tony has been a student (more specifically, a special student as he makes sure to tell us) at Creighton studying photojournalism. Photography and journalism are not new interests for Tony. He’s been practicing for years now. For him, it’s become much more than a hobby.
“I feel like photography and digital journalism is not just service, but it’s more of like a vocation,” he said. “This is the special gift that God give to Tony, and Tony, if he is Ignatian person, he needs to go more.”
And what a gift it is. Anyone who has seen Tony’s photos knows that he has a very special talent. Photography holds a special meaning for him, which he effortlessly conveys in each snapshot. For his daily Instagram photos, he tries to select a photo and a single word that embodies what the day meant to him or the most meaningful part of his day. You can visit Tony’s Instagram here.
We all like to joke about Tony being a Jesuit. He loves to give it right back to us too. One of my favorite moments on the trip was when I had just borrowed Tony’s bug spray.
“Thanks Tony,” I said. “I really appreciate it.”
“Ah, that is the Jesuit way,” he replied. “We share. You want bug spray, I give it to you. You want to use my Macbook…”
“And you give it to me?”
“Ahhh no!” he shouted. “Are you crazy?”
But in all seriousness, Tony exemplifies Ignatian spirituality. He is constantly searching for God in all things. As Tony sees it, nothing, not even the mosquitoes or a town in the middle of nowhere is out of God’s reach.
“We embrace everything that leads us to God,” he shared. He embraced Bethel, and he will embrace Syria when he returns in August. Embracing life and joy is something that Tony seems to do better than anyone. Through his talent in photography and his wonderful sense of humor, it’s easy to see that Tony will continue to help people live their lives with joy.
This week has felt long but now that its over, it feels like it flew by. We continue to work on editing the film, cutting clips, saving good shots, and moving on to whatever the next task happens to be. Its a lot of busy work but I don’t really mind. Its cool to see progress being made.
I’ll say that it does feel weird to be back, the world definitely does not stop turning for you because you leave for 2 weeks and have no cell phone service. I suppose it’s just odd to jump right back into the routine again. It’s also weird to find myself being conscious of things like how much water I am using (even though one of the first things I did after getting back was enjoy a 20 minute shower), what I am eating and just things like that.
I can also say that one of the things I miss is not having cell phone service. Yes, I enjoy communicating with the people I choose to, but I have realized that over half the time it’s calls, e-mails, and things I could really go without. Speaking of things I could go without, another thing I miss about Alaska is that there was no McDonald’s for miles. I am ashamed to say that I have been there three times since being back. So while I am ecstatic about being home, I have to say I could go with one less phone call from the Red Cross, and one less tempting McDonald’s around the block.
Being in Alaska (I think at least) has helped to shape me a little more spiritually. It was truly a gift to be taken out of this culture we are all in and shown beliefs from a different perspective. The Yup’ik people have something special up there, and by listening to them I have learned a lot. They seem to have this deep connection to the earth, while also having a connection with the universe. They see people as people, past the walls of religion or beliefs, and for the most part are the most welcoming and accepting people I could ever imagine. They have this amazing gift, their perception that doesn’t seem present here in the lower 48. It has been quite interesting to see the difference.
Overall, I am glad to be back home. While I thoroughly enjoyed my time up there, I also missed things like driving, cooking, and people of course. I am sure that my home will always be down here, but I know that a little piece of me was left up in the mountains.
Coming home from that long two weeks in Alaska was quite a strange experience. You seem to get used to a routine, and it is weird to not wake up early everyday and eat breakfast with everyone in the social hall. At first on the trip, I felt like I had a lot to do because we were kept pretty busy in Bethel. We are still busy with editing here at home, but that is a different type of busy.
A big thing I continue to carry with me from Alaska would be how much I will miss not being able to use my cellphone. Don’t get me wrong, I am a frequent user of my cell phone, and love the benefits of being able to talk to my friends on it, but sometimes it is just easier without it. When I didn’t have a cellphone on me, it was pretty great because without a constant screen flashing in my face, I was able to appreciate the moment I was in more, because at the time, that was the only thing that I had to focus on.
I also continue to carry with me from the trip, a deep appreciation and thankfulness for what I have been so blessed to have, a place to stay, food and shelter and people who love me. Along with that thankfulness however is a layer of gut-twisting guilt that I feel. When I got home, I opened the cupboard to find it overflowing with junk food and snacks (now usually this would be a beautiful sight to me), but I felt horrible to have all this food that I didn’t think I deserved.
Overall, coming back has been a challenge with jet lag and the struggles of travel, but I am sure glad to be home.
We are home. After two weeks of being in the most northerly state in America, the CU backpack journalism team is back in Nebraska.
It feels strange to be back. I know that’s probably weird to say, given that I was only gone for two weeks, but everything is just so normal now. My laundry is done, I went to class for a few hours today, the sun is already setting. All of these things are what normally happens on any given day of the year. Still though, it feels strange. Isn’t there any more B-roll to get? Shouldn’t I be filleting a salmon? Aren’t we going to take a walk on the tundra?
Maybe what has happened is that I’ve realized normal is relative. For the people of Bethel, it is normal to drive on the frozen river during the winter. It’s normal for their water to be trucked in. It’s normal to live a subsistence lifestyle. Some things even became normal for me. For example, I didn’t think twice when I looked in the bed of our truck to see two giant salmon staring back at me.
Here in Omaha, I think it will take me a little while to straighten out my own version of normal. It’s as if the two types of normal that I’ve grown used to have blended together. I did my laundry today (normal) and in the back of my mind I thought, “I shouldn’t do this because the water tank might be low,” (also normal). I wore shorts today (normal), and at first I was surprised that I wasn’t cold or attacked by monster mosquitoes (also normal).
Where you are and where you’ve been dictates what is normal. We’ll see if my sense of normality ever shifts back to the way it was before I experienced Alaska. I’m willing to bet that it doesn’t. I hope it doesn’t.
On our last day in Alaska, our touristy group made a trip up to Exit Glacier. I was in an average mood; I was a bit tired, but excited for a scenic hike. I was excited for the thrill of reaching our destination and simply looking at everything around us, and enjoying our last true piece of our time in Alaska.
On the way up the trail, my thoughts just wandered. Each little break in the trees, we’d see the beautiful mountains and sky surrounding us, and each time I’d have to do a little spin around and smile with admiration for the beauty that is Alaska. It was hotter than I had expected, so after each little break, I’d rush myself just a bit to get up to the crisp glacier air a bit quicker.
As I got closer to the Glacier, I came to this point:
On that sign, it was noted as the location of Exit Glacier in about 1996. After reading, I began to feel slightly off, something I wasn’t expecting, as I finally began to feel the chilled wind from the face of the glacier. I was still a little far from the edge itself, but I began to look around and I slowly realized the true impact of me being there.
I watched people walk up to the edge, smile or make a silly pose and get a picture. I watched people take a long look, and then just walk away. In the most recent exposed rock from the receding glacier, scrapes and scratches painfully dug into the rock were being ran over and overlooked. I suddenly felt disgusted with myself for being excited to be there. I was no longer a happy tourist; I was a mourning visitor.
This glacier, this change, had happened and is still happening in my lifetime. I looked at the clawed rock and I saw suffering. I looked at those smiling and taking goofy pictures as ignorant (even though I did get pictures in front of it). This once massive, beautiful structure stood with pride, yet now it is literally melting, receding, and cracking, losing its place on earth.
In a way I could compare it to the Yup’ik culture we experienced in Bethel. The old ways and traditions were being pushed back, forced, by a new western outlook. The children didn’t want a part of the Yup’ik ways, they want the modern ways, and therefore don’t make room for the culture. Just as the glacier had clung to rocks, trying desperately to pull itself back, those who believe in the Yup’ik culture are trying to bring it back to the people of Bethel.
In our times as humans, we lose things. From friends, toys, or games, to memories, material goods, or history, things disappear from our lives and this world all the time. But something made this different for me. It’s happening now. When I was 5 years old, that glacier was bigger; now it’s not. That one moment, standing on the edge of Exit Glacier made me realize the harsh truth of the matter; if people don’t see the importance of things such as culture and climate change, they are just going to keep disappearing.
Though I was in no way expecting something from that hike, it taught me something. It showed me the importance of staying aware, and being on the side of seeing importance and value in my history, my traditions and culture, and those of others as well.
I’ve learned a lot from my time in Alaska. From all the people and stories and lessons shared, it was all an incredible experience. Yet I got my final push of remembrance and inspiration from that hike frozen in my mind; and it’s one thing that will never melt.
It is now our last day in Bethel, and like I have said before, I am ready to go home, but at the same time, sad to be leaving. I will miss a lot about this place, and it sounds about right that it is supposed to start getting sunny and nice just as we are about to leave.
I will miss a lot of people that I have met here, people like Sarah and Suzan (shout out!). But we have to leave sometime, and our plane leaves for Anchorage tomorrow and then it is off to Seward.
This trip has been full of so many wonderful experiences and people, and I feel bad that I will never be able to fully express what I have been a part of here to anyone back home.
Yesterday, will be one of my favorite experiences that I have had in Alaska. In addition to the documentary, we are also doing our little side projects. Claire and I chose to do ours on the K300 dog race. Thanks to Sarah , yesterday morning we had the privilege to travel to Myron Angstman’s place. He is the individual who started the K300 and continues to race.
We got to visit his home where he keeps and trains his race dogs. Being a dog person myself this was a real treat for me. We got there and got to view where the dogs and puppies stayed. The dogs all had little box houses and would occasionally jump and stand on top of them (pretty sure this is where they got the idea for Snoopy always hanging out on top of his dog house). We had the privilege to see them harness up the dogs to a four wheeler, and take them out for a practice run. Claire and Morgan rode on the back filming while the rest of us hopped into Sarah’s car while she drove behind and up on the side of them as we attempted to film the dogs in training.
After following them around, we got a short interview with Myron and learned how he started the K300 and what it is like to compete in a dog race. He was a very nice person and we were thankful he could take time out of his day for us. I know I will always remember the time I went to Bethel and got to watch the person who started the K300 train.
Today, I woke up and had a slow morning, and after our group reflection, volunteered to be the interviewer for the last interview we would be conducting in Bethel, which took place after a bountiful lunch of king salmon provided by the generous native people here. Even though we stayed in the church to interview Suzan (a wonderful lady I might add), I was still really nervous, since this was my first time interviewing. It might not sound like the biggest deal, but really I just wanted to do good, and I think that I did to the best of my knowledge. I am just glad that I got the opportunity to ask questions for an interview.
I am currently just trying to savor this last day I will be here in Bethel, I don’t know if I’ll ever be back here in my lifetime. I will miss this church/main hall that has become like a second home to me. I will miss the people of Bethel, their open hearts, minds, and complete generosity to everyone they come in contact here. I will miss everyone on this team once we go our separate ways after the class is actually done, they are all really great people.
Mostly, I am just thankful. I am thankful to have had this experience here. Thankful for my parents who have allowed me to have this experience. Thankful to the people here, and everyone we interviewed for showing me a new side of culture. I am thankful to Sla. And I am thankful to everyone that made this possible. I am also thankful for the advice that Matt Dorwart gave us before we left, to live in the moment, because I have certainly tried my best to do just that. We have a good few days left here in Alaska, and I will be continuing to try to live in the moment.
The last few days have all sort of blurred together. One thing that has stood out though has been the overall sense of adventure and spontaneity that we have all taken on.
At the beginning of the trip, most of the group was tentative to do things they hadn’t done before. (At least when it came to working the equipment) however, as the days passed, the welcoming spirit of the community in Bethel helped us to open up.
Speaking for myself, I never imagined eating fish eggs, moose, caribou, seal, or Eskimo ice cream, but now I have eaten all of them. I also didn’t know I would get the chance to ride on the back of a 4-wheeler being pulled by a team of sled dogs. It was an amazing experience and I can only look forward to more adventures as the last few days wind down.