A unique study abroad – in Iraq
A plucky professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks arranged an embed with the US military for three aspiring journalists, who returned home safely this week.
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A school-sponsored reporting trip in Iraq? Alaska may be a fertile place for wild ideas, but Jennifer Canfield still couldn't believe it. The University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) journalism department was organizing an embed with the US military, and she was invited to apply.
"I thought it might have been a mistake," says Ms. Canfield, a senior at UAF. Even after her professor confirmed that the trip was a real possibility and she applied, she says she did so thinking, "There's no way they're going to get this approved."
But the university overcame a number of logistical, financial, and legal hurdles to make the trip happen. Canfield and two other students, along with their journalism professor, spent August embedded here in Iraq's Diyala Province reporting on everything from life on remote outposts to patrols in search of militants who launch rocket attacks on US bases.
In the age of helicopter parents and increasingly risk-adverse school administrators, a university creating an opportunity for students to travel to a war zone with its official support might seem improbable. But given decreased violence in Iraq and a plucky professor whose colleagues organize similarly exciting adventures in the Last Frontier, the UAF group succeeded in becoming the first school-sponsored group of its number to embed with US troops in Iraq.
"I started asking around to see if anybody else had done it, and I got the deer-in-the-headlights look from half-a-dozen different public affairs officers," says Maj. Chris Hyde, a public affairs officer who explored the idea of his 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, hosting the students. The unit, which is based in Fairbanks when its not in Iraq, agreed.
A taste of danger
Though fighting continues across the country, US troop causalities are at their lowest since the invasion. In July and August, there were only 15 American fatalities; last year's figures were nearly triple that. While there is still a very real threat for US service members, now is the safest it's ever been for US troops in Iraq.
Brian O'Donoghue, a journalism professor at UAF who helped organize the trip and accompanied students, says that while the dangers in Iraq are of course different from those in his home state, students who do field work in Alaska are not unfamiliar with taking big risks. For example, a UAF student was conducting research on Mount Redoubt, a volcano in the southern part of the state, the day before it erupted last spring.
"My students know me, and I drive people to some pretty crazy things," says Mr. O'Donoghue, who has taken students into prisons and on Yukon expeditions when it's minus 50 degrees F. "Field research is something that occurs at nearly every university and probably involves more real-life risk than the general public is aware of."
While the Iraq trip produced little in the way of close calls, there was enough to remind students of the hazards. During a trip to Baghdad's Green Zone, the students' armored bus was delayed due to a roadside bomb that detonated on their route shortly before they left. Two of the students were also on a US base during a rocket attack, but they were too far from the impact site to hear the blast.