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Potential reporters navigate ThreeSixty crash course — and undergo a transformation

If they are the future, the Fourth Estate and the critical inquiry and public discourse it is supposed to facilitate are in slammin’ good shape.

Camp participant Nico Machlitt interviews one of his sources for his story.

You might not have been aware of it, but at 1 p.m. Friday in a conference room in St. Paul, over strawberry shortcake and lemonade, democracy experienced a renewal.

After enjoying a last lunch with their parents and other invited guests, the 10 participants in ThreeSixty Journalism’s intermediate camp took turns attending to the podium at the front of the room to describe the two weeks they had just spent becoming political reporters.

If they are the future, the Fourth Estate and the critical inquiry and public discourse it is supposed to facilitate are in slammin’ good shape.

The 41-year-old effort to tempt high-school students, particularly low-income teens and students of color, to consider a career in journalism serves some 200 kids annually in classes, workshops and other activities that take place throughout the year.

A star-studded crash course

The two-week summer camp, which takes place on the campus of the program’s parent institution, the University of St. Thomas, is the most intense of its training programs. Participants get crash courses in everything from the First Amendment to story structure from a star-studded roster of speakers and volunteer editors.

Sen. Dave DurenbergerPhoto by Andrea SalazarDave Durenberger

This year former Sen. Dave Durenberger delivered a talk on what’s at stake in the election and why young people should care. Gov. Mark Dayton’s press secretary talked about the difference between political communications and journalism. St. Thomas Associate Dean Kris Bunton talked about the First Amendment and accompanying rights and responsibilities.

Every year, a ThreeSixty alum is awarded a full, four-year scholarship to St. Thomas. Dozens more have gone on to study journalism in college. Seven are working in newsrooms around the country. Like the 2012 cohort, many joined the program not suspecting the public-policy bug would bite them.

A 30-year newsroom veteran and the St. Paul Pioneer Press’ former political editor, Executive Director Lynda McDonnell had news to break on the first day of camp: Their beats were all going to be political.

‘Oh, no! Get me out of here!’

“When they arrived and I said, ‘This camp is all about the election,’ I did not expect cheers,” McDonnell recalled at the closing banquet. “One young woman wrote on her blog, ‘Oh no! Get me out of here!’”

“I am that blogger,” participant Ikran Ali Abdisalam admitted when her turn came. But that was in another lifetime, before she was assigned to profile a family that supports the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota.

Ikran Ali Abdisalam conducts an interview with a supporter of the amendment to ban gay marriagePhoto by Victoria TurciosIkran Ali Abdisalam conducts an interview with a supporter of the amendment to ban gay marriage.

The process of finding and interviewing a Roman Catholic couple with five kids and translating their beliefs, motives and internal disagreements over the topic to the page lit a wee fire in the belly of the Como Park High School senior. “I’ve registered to vote for the first time,” she said.

The profile she produced is slated to appear Thursday in the Pioneer Press and the Star Tribune, as well as the September edition of the quarterly magazine ThreeSixty participants produce and distribute to area high schools. (Can’t wait? You can enjoy their reportage online; intermediate camp stories should soon join the March issue of the magazine.)

Abdisalan’s story will appear along with a profile of a couple on the other side of the issue, lesbians with 20-year-old twin sons, penned by Selin Kurtoglu, a senior at Mounds View High School.

Multilingual and fierce

Media recruiters, pay attention: Not only can these reporters navigate a ballot question — how many members of this body politic can correctly say what that is? — they are multilingual and fierce.

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Kurtoglu speaks English and Turkish; her heart is set on being a magazine editor. A native of Cairo, Egypt, Abdisalam speaks English, Somali and Arabic. Her dream interview would be asking Chris Brown “why he beats on women.”

An 11th-grader at Cristo Rey High School in Minneapolis, Jailine Marin-Torres (Spanish and English) was one of two students who went with McDonnell to interview Secretary of State Mark Richie about the proposed voter ID amendment. Her opening question elicited a 30-minute answer.

“I was really confused about voter ID at first,” she conceded. “But by the end I know what it is and why they want to do it.”

An 11th-grader at Nova Classical Academy in St. Paul and a returning ThreeSixty camp participant, Amolak Singh (English, Punjabi and some Hindi — and wants to combine science and journalism) interviewed a young Romney supporter.

“It was a fun and exciting and brain-destroying experience,” he said. “Condensing a 30-minute interview into a 30-second video is a task.”

Forced to adapt

His across-the-aisle beat-mate also endured the brain destroying: The Obama supporter she was dispatched to interview was so painfully quiet spontaneous video was out of the question, so she punted, reading a script over still shots and “B-roll.”

For Edina High School senior Diana Lu (English, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, French, German and Russian), the hardest part of the experience was “keeping my opinions to myself.” If Lu can be persuaded to stick with journalism, she has a bright future in any specialty that allows her to flex that muscle.

“Yesterday was a moderately eventful day, which I shall try to summarize as accurately as possible,” she wrote on the group’s blog. “The first half was spent in the classroom, reviewing multiple drafts of our articles as Lynda insisted on turning them into the journalistic equivalent of Michelangelo’s David.” Which McDonnell no doubt got, to the immense benefit of the rest of us.

Some of these students may find the scouring of their prose too painful (or tedious). Some just won’t be knocked from another dream career path. But every last one is likely to participate in civic life in a different way.

“Watching Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert is about as political as I get,” Maya Shelton-Davis (English and some French), a 10th-grader at River Falls High School in Wisconsin, confided.

“When I heard we were going to be doing political stories I was like, ‘Are you kidding?’ But I’m really thankful I got to do this. I know now why it’s important.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article attributed the final quote to the wrong student; this version also corrects the date one student’s work will appear in the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press.