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The Observer Editor Reflects on POLITICO Journalism Institute Experience

July 6, 2017 | More People

Sara Varela, editor-in-chief of The Observer, was among 12 college students selected from across the country to participate in the POLITICO Journalism Institute (PJI) summer session. Now in its fourth year, the program offers intensive, hands-on training for students interested in covering government and politics.

Four months ago, she was encouraged to apply for the program by Sergio Bustos, POLITICO Florida senior editor. She submitted a resume, three clips, two letters of recommendation, and completed a writing exercise. Below, Sara looks back on her unforgettable trip to Washington D.C.

I arrived in Washington D.C. and was amused by how pretty the city was. That night, we went out for dinner. The next night, after a full day of workshops, we had a welcome reception at POLITICO’s headquarters in Arlington, Va.  Almost everyone from the newsroom was there, and they were excited to meet us!

We met our mentors that night. I was the first PJI student to be assigned to the video team -and also the first community college student in the history of the program. My mentor was Beatrice Peterson, one of the five members of the video team. Over the next eight days, not she only guide did she me through the process of creating an amazing clip, but she also gave me priceless professional advice.

The next four days we had classes about writing, sourcing, and interviewing. The goal was to prepare us for the following week, when we would be left to fend for ourselves to work on the story we chose. Besides the classes, we did a special, journalist-oriented tour of Capitol Hill, especially the Senate, guided by Seung Min Kim, one of POLITICO’s Senate reporters.

We were in D.C. for two of the busiest weeks in news. First was the Paris Climate Deal and the second was all about former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony. We had the opportunity to see what a really busy newsroom looks like. It was eye-opening.

On Sunday, we went to a taping of ‘Meet the Press’ with Chuck Todd. After the taping, Todd was gracious and kind in giving us time to ask questions. My hand was the first to go up. I was curious to learn how he handles interviewees that zigzag around his questions – that day he had interviewed the EPA’s administrator Scott Pruitt on Donald Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement.

My second week was the most valuable and rewarding learning experience of my life. I had chosen to do my story on the deportation of U.S. veterans. Sure, it was an ambitious topic but almost no other publication was really talking about it. My mentor helped create a list of sources I could contact on both sides of the aisle. Sadly, the seven republicans I reached out to denied to comment. However, the story was coming along – I had four on-camera interviews with democrats, and I had statements from ICE and the VA.

I had four days to work on my story. Due to the craze about Comey’s testimony, my mentor was too busy to go with me for my interviews. I had to go by myself to the offices of the representatives and though I was nervous, it went even better than expected. Being new to D.C., the fact that I could do this by myself felt huge.

I had my story ready about an hour before deadline. I had produced, shot, and edited a two and a half minute video, and wrote a 500-word piece. After 10 days of hard work, I had produced a clip that was published by POLITICO.

Participating in PJI was the most valuable learning experience in my life thus far, and I’m beyond thankful for everyone who made it possible. I’m also thankful to the whole POLITICO team for taking time out to meet with us, mentor us, and allow us to report from their newsroom as peers rather than students.”

Check out her POLITICO story here: http://www.politico.com/story/2017/06/08/lawmakers-fight-for-deported-us-veterans-239334

 

 

 

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