Interview by Emily Hickey, Storytelling Intern at the Student Press Law Center. This interview has been edited 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 Aleksandra Sidorova, Managing and News editor for Cardinal Points at SUNY Plattsburgh, about her story “Platts student-parent count not yet certain.” Her story uncovers the lack of comprehensive information and support available to student-parents at SUNY Plattsburgh in comparison to the student-parent support system available at another institution in the State University of New York system of public and private colleges and universities, Monroe Community College.
Emily Hickey: How did you first learn about this story and what inspired you to pursue it?
Aleksandra Sidorova: I started with the story I did on the mental health of the faculty and staff at SUNY Plattsburgh. Our publication has the practice of sending out accuracy reports, so we reach out to our sources about if they’ve been quoted accurately, in context. One of those questions is, do you have any ideas for future stories? One of my sources pointed me to the Cardinal Caregivers group with a suggested source. So that’s how I ended up writing the first article about caregivers on campus.
As for specifically focusing on student-parents, I had known that we had this study room available for student-parents at our library because of a colleague of mine who was reporting on it. But we never really heard that anyone was using it. So I asked about the use of this room because it was meant for student-parents but it wasn’t getting used.
Then I learned about this link with Monroe Community College because, while working on the first article, I had reached out to Katie Ghidiu, Monroe’s library director, and she hadn’t got back to me until a bit after I published the original story. But I didn’t want to let a connection like that go to waste. It’s not too frequent that I get to talk to people beyond campus. It’s an opportunity I really value, so I worked with it.
EH: Once you had the idea for this article and you decided to pursue it, what did your research and reporting process look like?
AS: So if you look at the story, there are two major leads that I’m following: what’s going on on our campus, and what’s going on at Monroe.
I don’t have the opportunity to go to Monroe myself, but luckily their information is pretty available. The library director connected me with Mary Ann DeMario, institutional research specialist at Monroe. Student-parents are the basis of her work and I thought I hit a goldmine with her. Who knew that Monroe Community College was the first college in the nation to start recording data about students’ marital and parental status? It’s not something all colleges do, and the college that just happened to be most convenient for me to source would turn out to be even more powerful of a source. Without this connection to Monroe, you wouldn’t really place our college in context of what we could be doing in terms of supporting student-parents.
Talking with Mary Ann DeMario about the statistics her research produced showed that student-parents can be anywhere from 18 to 31% of the overall student population at Monroe Community College. I also contrasted it with some national statistics. She was the one who actually suggested I turn to our FAFSA records; I would never have thought that was a way I could gauge even a rough estimate of how many student-parents there could be. I don’t really know anyone who’s a student and has children, so that’s something you kind of feel on campus; that they’re almost invisible. I think the data from Monroe and Mary Ann’s work can be super helpful to any college, but it was especially helpful for us because it’s still within our system of colleges.
A lot of it just came from talking to people on our campus. It’s not like I had to fight for the information, because people wanted the story told.
EH: Why do you think it’s important for student journalists to highlight the experiences of student-parents?
AS: When you’re a student journalist, ideally, you’re working for your entire university community. You’re at the very least working for your campus. If you’re not learning about and talking about all the groups that there are, then that’s not the fullest that your work can be.
EH: Did you run into any particular challenges while reporting this story?
AS: I think the hardest part of the story was finding a student-parent here. I didn’t want to recycle my source from my last article. (The way I found her was because she was looking for a babysitter for her kids and she hung up these ads in the academic buildings and I figured I would call the number.)
My primary student-parent source for the latter article was Kimberly Giron. I found her, once again, through connections with my other sources. Sally Girard, SUNY Plattsburgh Child Care Center Director, is someone I’d worked with multiple times at that point. She found a student-parent who was willing to speak to me and that was Kimberly. She was really open from the get-go, so I didn’t find myself needing to, like, crack walnuts open, if that’s a good metaphor. I found that people were willing to give me the information, I just had to find the people. After all, the whole story is about how there are so few of them.
EH: As you reflect on your reporting, what do you hope the people reading this article will take from it?
AS: I think a lot depends on the reader because ultimately the ideal change you’d see is that the college will start recording this data –– just like Monroe Community College does –– and that would start a series of events to strengthen the support and work because you have to know who you’re trying to serve. We don’t know who the student-parents are, how many of them, et cetera.
But another point sticks out to me: there has to be a reason that student-parents don’t choose SUNY Plattsburgh as their school. There have been instances where students call in asking about placements for their child in our childcare center, and then they eventually back out, so I’m assuming that they chose a different educational institution, typically. To me, there has to be something that’s not inviting student-parents to our campus in the first place, even though that’s not what the article is about.
You could also take away that we have quite a compassionate teaching staff. Because, how did I find these professors as sources? These weren’t professors I already knew; I was literally just walking around buildings, seeing who had open doors and being like, “hey, are you free right now?” I explained to them the gist of the story and I asked them a couple of questions.
I think all of these are important. They provide a variety of angles to look at the story from.
EH: I want to go back to the first angle that you mentioned. In terms of institutional change, have you seen a greater push for this kind of change since the publishing of the article? Have you been involved in any of these conversations?
AS: I wouldn’t say I have. Our library director was kind of teasing about bringing me to a conference about student-parents, but that never happened for one reason or another.
I haven’t seen any surveys that ask a student’s marital or parental status yet, but I think it really is too soon to tell. It takes a long time to develop surveys.
EH: As you reflect on this experience, specifically on researching and reporting on this story and and the wider series of stories that led to this one, what did you learn while you were working on this story about student journalism?
AS: Usually, I write articles for Cardinal Points within a week. We have a really small staff so usually we just take it one week at a time. But in this case, I gave it a good few weeks, from the time that the caregivers article came out and up until the last issue of the semester. At the time I was working on it, I was also balancing all other things, so it was definitely a story I wanted to tell. If I didn’t care about it, I wouldn’t take it upon myself to spend weeks on this story, so this kind of work shows passion and caring about your community, just going above and beyond.
Focusing back on the question, the importance of the work as student journalists is that you need to care about your community instead of just focusing on getting a story out. I found that people are willing to talk, and it was quite valuable to me that people were willing to point me to other sources and suggest ways I could gather information.
A big theme in our classes is that trust in journalists is fading and you basically have to be prepared that people won’t want to speak to you. But here I really felt like I was taken seriously. My work was taken seriously. I felt I had trust from all of my sources and learned to not be careless in my reporting. All of my sources, I think they’re a result of rapport I’ve built with some of them, connections I’ve made where I can just name-drop someone, and then they’re willing to talk to me.
EH: For student journalists who are in a similar position of reporting an important, longer-form story such as yours, what advice would you give?
AS: Well, if they have the luxury of time, definitely take it. Try talking to as many people as possible, going above and beyond. Not being lazy with not just the type of sources but also, where did you get them from? How many of them did you speak to? How do you establish contacts? For me, it was just walking down the halls and seeing who would talk to me.
And of course, if they have the opportunity to talk to people outside of their campus, that is definitely something I recommend and suggest to anyone, but I think it’s especially important in long-form stories. If it’s a big issue on your campus, it’s probably a big issue in a broader scale too.
EH: Do you have anything else that you want to add about this story about student journalism in general that we haven’t touched upon yet?
AS: I think the part of telling the story that is the most special to me is cultivating the sources. I feel strongly about it because, for example, the first time I spoke to my Child Care Center source Sally Girard, it was on the phone and she did not want our conversation recorded. The next time I spoke to her, I got the opportunity to speak to her in her office and she basically said, “OK, start recording.” For this article, it was not only in her office, but I emailed her asking if there was a time we could meet and she’s like, come in at 9:00 a.m. the next day and I’m going to bring a guest for you. It means a lot that people that I’ve worked with put so much trust in me and they’re willing to help me, not just by pointing me to a source, but actually bringing a source to me. That was really special to me.