Ottawa·Point of View

The unexpected costs of journalism school for a black student

Her experience in journalism school made her feel that as a black student, she didn't belong. But she's starting to see changes that give her hope for the people of colour enrolling after her.

Atong Ater was surprised to feel a lack of belonging, and struggled to find her voice

Atong Ater says she was surprised to feel a lack of belonging at journalism school, but is hopeful about changes she's seeing among newer students. (Achai Ater)

Going to journalism school, like most schools, comes with certain costs. There are the expected ones like tuition and the general stress of student life. Then, there are the unexpected costs.

Almost two months into my master of journalism studies, I was confronted with one.

I remember the moment vividly. It was the first class after fall reading week. We had covered the courts as part of a court reporting assignment and were discussing our experiences. Mostly the conversation revolved around interactions with law clerks and other officials, and the finer points of what journalists can or can't do in a courtroom.

A white student then raised her hand to get the attention of the professor so she could share her experience with the class. Without prompting or warning, she repeated what she heard on a wiretap that was played when she was in court.

Did that just happen? Does she care how that word can hurt people?- Atong Ater

"Yo, yo, yo. My n--ger."

She said it three times, each utterance knocking the breath out of me and begging more questions.

Did that just happen? Does she care how that word can hurt people? Why was that word so easy for her to say?

I'm certain that moment lasted only a few seconds, but it's stretched in my memory. I wanted to say something. I felt like I should say something, but I said nothing.

Partly, I was shocked. Partly, I was too angry to speak. But I think on some level I was also weighing what saying something would cost me in the long run. I had to spend two years with the people in this class. Could I afford to rock the boat?

Ater hosts a TV news program for her journalism program. (Supplied)

This is a profession that says it values diversity, yet as I watched my professor sidestep the hurt and offensiveness of the comment, and instead attempt to turn it into a teachable moment by telling us how newsrooms navigated the N-word in their reporting of the Somalia affair in the early 1990s, I began to wonder if that really is the case. Would a more diverse faculty have reacted differently to that moment?

You may think this was an isolated incident or that the woman in class was just repeating something she heard in court (three times). But I came away feeling like this was not an environment that I could get comfortable in. My guard would always need to be up.

And there were other moments — subtler, but just as jarring. Like the offhand comment a professor made about an accent not being as bad for broadcast as originally thought. Or the Asian student who was constantly asked if he was the international student (he was not). Or the realization that in certain workshops, the students of colour were on camera, giving the illusion of diversity, but rarely in producer roles of power.

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For me, getting through journalism school was possible because of an ad-hoc support system made up of other students of colour. We found each other and held on for our sanity. Having a group of people that I could turn to for discussions about these moments, or even just a nod of recognition that we were experiencing something similar, helped tremendously.

When I shared my experience with the N-word in class that day, one of my friends was shocked but lamented that most students of colour can point to a moment like that that made them feel like they didn't belong.

Belonging. To feel like you are a part of something is a universal human need. In educational settings, studies have shown that a sense of belonging positively impacts engagement, success and mental health. 

But for me, belonging at school did not feel like an option. So within one semester, I struck a Faustian-like bargain. I decided to exchange my desire to belong for knowledge. With this bargain struck, I continued in the program and had many amazing experiences, but at times it felt bittersweet.

Signs of change

Now, after three years, and as I'm about to graduate, I am starting to see signs of hope.

In one instance, a professor asked for my opinion about a new course he was teaching. He listened to my honest feedback that the guests he featured in his class did not look like me and would likely not face the same challenges I would. His next speaker was a woman of colour.

I've also noticed more conversations, especially with the newer students, about diversity. These are conversations that seemed impossible to have two years ago. They are happening without the awkward silences and averted eye glances I remember from that day, and instead with a genuine desire to understand.

Seeing this change and looking back at that moment two years ago, I'm hopeful that incoming black students and other students of colour won't have to make the same bargain I did.

Maybe they won't have to weigh the cost of speaking up.

Maybe they won't need to trade their sense of belonging for knowledge.

And maybe new black students can take that sense of belonging into newsrooms where they will cover stories from their perspective without hesitation, and with a strong voice beyond the classroom.

Atong Ater graduates this spring from the master of journalism program at Carleton University. She loves basketball and food and has been known to tear up for both.