Interview by Emily Hickey, Storytelling Intern at the Student Press Law Center. These interviews were conducted individually but have been edited together for length and clarity.
Student journalists are instrumental in telling important — and often untold — stories for their communities. In SPLC’s series, Behind the Story, we highlight examples of bold journalism done by high school and collegiate student journalists across the country.
SPLC spoke with sophomore Olivia Brunsting and junior Caroline Christensen from The Northern Iowan at the University of Northern Iowa. Brunsting, staff writer, and Christensen, former news editor, shared what it was like writing their story “R(A)eality of Being an RA.”
Their story explored Resident Assistants’ experiences at UNI and uncovered a lack of support systems for these student workers’ mental and physical health.
EH: How did you first learn about this story? What made you decide to pursue it?
OB: I thought it was going to be a two-week project and it turned into two months. The idea was, RAs are really cool; let’s just check up on them, see how they’re doing. I really loved my RAs my freshman year. I’m a picky writer, so I only feel comfortable taking stories I truly think I can do justice, and that I’m passionate about, and this was one of the stories that I thought I could be passionate about.
EH: So it started out as a two-week piece; how and when did you realize it was going to become something much bigger than that?
OB: At first I just wanted to interview a few RAs, but each one of them said, “I have to make sure to talk to my boss.” Some of them had to type in answers, send them to marketing and then marketing would make sure their answers were acceptable.
I tried to email the head of University Housing and Dining (UHD) and they kept sending me to different people. My deadline kept getting pushed back. I finally went to all the editors, and told them what was going on. I didn’t know if this was normal, because when I took the story I was only a freshman.
CC: UHD had a policy in which they wanted us to essentially submit the transcripts from our interviews with the RAs so they could review them.
We [the editors] felt like that was an infringement of the First Amendment. I felt like they would definitely screen things out that they didn’t want to be included. So I got involved after that and we decided to co-write this story together.
We wanted to get the genuine experience of what it was like to be an RA on campus — the good and the bad. So we sent out an anonymous Google survey to all the RAs on our campus, and they could essentially tell us whatever they wanted.
OB: I had to put on my sleuthing cap. I was investigating the dorm Instagram for present and past RAs, and since I’m a student, I could look up their names in the Student Directory and see their emails. In some of the buildings, they would also have names of the RAs listed, so I asked some of my friends to help with that. I compiled the whole list and sent the email to ask people to participate in the anonymous Google form.
Some of the people who I initially reached out to had to pull out of the story because they already sent in their answers to marketing, so marketing would know they were affiliated. That was hard because I feel like we missed a lot of good stories and perspectives.
EH: What did you find through the survey responses?
CC: We got 12 responses from that form and we interviewed five more RAs and past RAs who had been fired for various reasons.
Through that we figured out there was a massive mental health crisis for RAs on our campus. They just simply weren’t getting enough support. There were support systems in place, but a lot of RAs just felt very unsupported in a lot of the traumatic experiences and events that they have to deal with on a daily basis. They were the first line of support for students who were struggling with mental health, who were harming themselves, or were coming to them with very traumatic situations. There wasn’t enough support for RAs in place.
We wanted to share that with our campus community, and recognize that these are students who do need a little bit of extra support with their mental health.
We tried to interview administrators and they did not want an interview in person. I emailed them several times and they only wanted to do an interview over email. I sent them the student responses saying, “I’ve had terrible mental health this entire semester, and there is no support.” I asked [administrators], “How do you respond?” They didn’t really respond.
Journalism can be really tough — especially the idea of interviewing and writing and then putting in all this time — but in the end it’s so worth it. Just work hard and put everything out there and leave nothing less. That’s something you can be so proud of.— Olivia Brunsting
EH: What was UHD’s response to the anonymous survey?
OB: Some of the Residential Life Coordinators (RLC) held meetings about it. That’s when I was like, okay, I feel like what we’re doing is something that really needs to be done. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have meetings about [the survey] and give it so much attention.
CC: I actually got a lawyer involved from FIRE Network, and they helped us navigate this legal process because UHD was essentially violating the First Amendment.
From what we’ve been told, there was a meeting that was held by some of the RLCs and administrators, and they essentially told students they could submit a response to the form, but you still should go through administrators and tell them what you’re submitting.
Our main goal was to try to make RAs feel as comfortable as possible. They felt like their jobs were on the line. Some of them chose not to speak with us, or decided to have their names not be included at all, because they didn’t feel comfortable having your names stated.
EH: How did you overcome these challenges and continue reporting on this story?
CC: It was definitely a process. I think we did rely on our advisers. They were helpful in guiding us in the right direction, making sure we were still doing things legally, because we didn’t want to cross any boundaries or lines.
We really had to make sure we were reporting all sides of the story, so we really tried to make sure that we had this down solid. We definitely tried to make sure there was a balance in the story, with all perspectives represented, and also making sure that the RAs are getting their voices heard, that their concerns are being relayed.
We really took every paragraph, every sentence, very seriously, and thought it out so the University wouldn’t be able to come down on us and condemn us. Instead it would be focused on, how can we make this situation better for RAs?
EH: What impact have you seen, if any?
CC: We’re considering doing a follow-up article because this was written about a year ago. Kind of do a follow-up a year later — what’s going on, what are you working on, what are some ways in which you’re getting more mental health resources? I do know that there are really good people in UHD who are trying their best with the resources they have to make sure that RAs are having the best experience they can.
The policy of reviewing our interviews before publication was dropped, so that was good.
EH: What did you learn while you were working on this story, either about the topic in general or about your work as a student journalist?
OB: I think one of the biggest things I took from this experience has been that it’s okay to ask for help. I was nervous that if I asked for help that meant I was failing, that I’m admitting I can’t do it. But that’s why we have a team. The newspaper can work as a team because we help each other. Caroline was so awesome and she helped me so much with the process and she took on a lot of the stress for me.
CC: Collaborating with Olivia on this story was really a privilege. She is very intentional with her writing, and she’s very intentional with how she portrays people and stories. Between the both of us, I think we were able to create a story that was able to advocate for students in the best, most effective way possible.
And along those lines I feel like as a student journalist, often you feel like the articles you write are not really being heard. Like my voice isn’t really being heard out in the community. But this story was definitely heard. It was shared a lot on social media. It had a lot of comments on our website, on all the social media posts. People were saying, “Yes, I experienced this when I was there as an RA; I’m so happy that you are talking about this, and hopefully, this is going to be addressed by the University.” We had alumni who were saying, “We are not donating to the University until this is changed.”
It was really nice to see that as a student journalist. Even though oftentimes we feel like our voices may not be getting heard in the way that we want them to, we can create change and we can advocate for people, and your voice can be heard.— Caroline Christensen
EH: What advice would you give to other student journalists who are looking to report on an important story like yours?
OB: Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
It’s also not bad if you have to keep reading it over and over, to get exactly the message across what you want to communicate. I had to do a ton of drafts. I’d be changing tiny things and then scrapping big sections.
CC: Definitely do your research. It’s so important, making sure you have all perspectives, making sure that those higher institutions and structures can’t come down on you and condemn your article for any reason, and making sure that you’re within the legal limits of what you can do, making sure you’re respecting your interviewees — and if they want to remain anonymous, respecting that.
EH: Do you have anything else to add about this story or student journalism in general?
CC: It is just been such a privilege being able to advocate for these students. One of the things that gets me going in the morning is being able to advocate for those who maybe don’t have the opportunity to advocate for themselves.
OB: I am so happy that I told this story. It’s probably one of the things I have the most pride in. I’m glad I was able to put everyone’s perspective out there.
Journalism can be really tough — especially the idea of interviewing and writing and then putting in all this time — but in the end it’s so worth it. Just work hard and put everything out there and leave nothing less. That’s something you can be so proud of.
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