Underscore News/Report for America Corps Member

If I’m being honest, I was a bit nervous about serving as a mentor. I mean, the High School Journalism Institute has been around for nearly three decades and is run by top reporters from some of the leading media outlets in Oregon. It was intimidating. As someone who is not only new to the area but also a recent college graduate, I felt like I might have bitten off more than I could chew.

But as I drove to Corvallis, where the 2022 institute was held July 30-Aug. 6, I thought about my time during undergrad when I worked as a tutor for K-12 students on the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, and the four years I spent as a fellow of the Native American Journalists Association. I realized I’ve been working toward this moment for years.

After giving myself a pep talk, I was ready to take on this new challenge.

As an Indigenous affairs reporter, I wanted my team and I to focus on Native issues. I pitched an ambitious story about the new Indigenous Studies program at Oregon State University. I wanted to shed light on all of the hard work it took to get there, and how this type of program is creating change on campus for Indigenous representation.

Sophia Piatti interviews Susan Bernardin, director of the School of Language, Culture, and Society, who talks about her key role as an ally for the creation of the Indigenous Studies program at Oregon State University. Photo by Jarrette Werk/Underscore News

While we were on campus, OSU announced the Native American tuition assistance initiative for members of all 574 federally recognized tribes across the United States to receive in-state tuition. In addition, enrolled members of the nine tribes of Oregon may be eligible to enroll in the Oregon Tribal Student Grant Program, which covers the cost of attendance at Oregon public and private nonprofit colleges and universities.

When I shared the news, my mentees were excited and already trying to figure out how we could include it in our article. It was so good to see that they were already thinking like journalists.

I was lucky to be paired with two talented storytellers, Ava Rapport and Sophia Piatti.

Ava is a rising sophomore at Forest Grove High School, and a fantasy and short story writer for her school newspaper. Sophia, a member of the Yurok Nation, is a recent graduate from the rigorous alternative school CAM Academy, in Battle Ground, Wash. Sophia is headed to the University of Oregon this fall to pursue a dual major in English and neuroscience.

Ava Rapport takes photos during an interview with Susan Bernardin, director of the School of Language, Culture, and Society and her key role as an ally for the creation of the Indigenous Studies program at Oregon State University. Photo by Jarrette Werk/Underscore News

For only being 15 years old, Ava’s sense of humor is well beyond her years. She had me and Sophia cracking up all week with her quips, one-liners and inside jokes. I was impressed by not only her intellect and wit, but her willingness to try new things. She had never picked up a camera before attending HSJI, and to my surprise, she took a real interest in photography and quickly grasped concepts.

While reviewing some of her photos, Ava used terminology that even I was unfamiliar with. As a photographer, witnessing her enthusiasm for one of my favorite forms of storytelling was rewarding. She even mentioned she might take the photos for the cover art of the novel she's been working on for the past five years. I do not doubt that one day Ava will be on the best-seller’s list for young adult fantasy.

Sophia’s ability to soak up information, go off to do background research and come back prepared to lead interviews on her own is admirable. As someone who jumped into journalism later on in my life, I can't imagine doing what she did, here at this camp, at her age. She said she always has three backup plans, which came in handy when we got a last-second interview with one of the key players in our story. She had little time to prepare but was thoughtful with her questions and follow-ups, and she wasn’t afraid to ask those hard-hitting questions either.

Students attended various lectures throughout the week to learn interview basics, profile writing, photojournalism, and more. Photo by Jarrette Werk/Underscore News

Sophia will make it far in whatever she sets her mind to. As Ava put it, she’s a “girl boss, boss babe, queen, and she is the moment.”

One of my highlights was having the opportunity to be paired with a Native mentee. It meant the world to me! I felt like I could be my authentic self and never once felt the need to do “Indian 101” with Sophia. We just got each other. She reminded me of my little cousins back home. We laughed and teased each other so much that my stomach was sore. I felt like I did an intense ab workout every night for a week straight. It was also refreshing to not be the only Native in the room. Even though she was my mentee, I took comfort in knowing that we were in this together.

Reflecting on my own time as a Native American Journalism Fellow, I recalled how cool I thought it was to have an Indigenous person as my mentor. And now, I get to be that person for the next generation. It’s honestly so rewarding and full circle. Now I see why my mentors were so invested in me: When one of us succeeds, we all succeed.

Ava Rapport listens during a Zoom interview as Cristina Eisenberg discusses her new role as Associate Dean for Inclusive Excellence and Director of Tribal Initiatives for the College of Forestry at OSU. Photo by Jarrette Werk/Underscore News

I am so incredibly proud of the work my team did. Ava called us “ragtag,” and if I’m being honest, it felt like that at times. But we came together in the end and created an awesome article. We approached it in a good way, connected with some of the amazing Indigenous women and allies who are playing a crucial role in decolonizing Western education at OSU, and put together a piece any journalist would be proud of.

Now that I am back at my desk in Underscore’s office, and I’ve had time to process everything from the past week, I can’t help but smile. I’m so happy I took the leap and dove in to help out with this important and needed program. Seeing the outcome of the 12-hour days, the stress of deadlines, photo critiques, and lack of sleep was all worth it.

Working with an energetic, bright, fun, and diverse group of people all interested in journalism has been a real treat. I was finally able to combine two of my passions: journalism and working with youth.

Sophia Piatti and Sophie Cadran take photos of each other during the photography workshop held by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Kristyna Wentz-Graff. Photo by Jarrette Werk/Underscore News

A big thank you to Elliot Njus and the rest of the team of reporters for being so welcoming and supportive. This was the most diverse newsroom I have ever been in, and the end product shows the power of representation in the media. To read more of the students’ work, visit oregonlive.com/hsji or pick up a copy of The Pride, a newspaper produced entirely by the students.

Watch out world: There’s a new wave of journalists coming your way. With their talent, passion, inclusion and thoughtfulness, I can wholeheartedly say we are in good hands.

Lead photo: Ava Rapport and Sophia Piatti (with Jarrette Werk in the middle holding his camera) interview Cristina Eisenberg via Zoom to discuss her new role as Associate Dean for Inclusive Excellence and Director of Tribal Initiatives for the College of Forestry at OSU and her plans to increase Indigenous representation on campus.

Editor's Note: Underscore News was one of four media outlets who sent journalists to serve as mentors at the 2022 High School Journalism Institute, alongside The Oregonian, Statesman Journal and Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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Jarrette is a multimedia journalist with experience in digital news, audio reporting and photojournalism. He joined Underscore in June 2022 in partnership with the national Report for America program....