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.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

This was no ordinary e-mail.

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."

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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.

"I'm definitely not nearly as scared as I thought I was going to be," says Jessica Hoffman, a senior at UAF who is also a recreational sky diver. Earlier that morning, Ms. Hoffman had donned a padded suit and allowed a military dog to attack her on camera as a demonstration for a video story.

Whose idea? The university's president.

The idea for the field trip to Iraq came about after a couple of UAF alumni serving in the US Army in Iraq sent in regular columns to the school newspaper for a year about life as deployed soldiers. Seeing the success of the column, university president Mark Hamilton, a former US Army general, suggested the journalism department try embedding a group of students.

UAF already had a relationship with the Stryker brigade, which is stationed at Fairbanks's Fort Wainwright when it wasn't in Iraq, so they had the necessary contacts to arrange the embed. Additionally, on account of the brigade being an Alaska-based unit, local news outlets said they were interested in whatever the students produced.

O'Donoghue also saw the trip as an opportunity for students to learn to collect information and produce news stories while working in adverse circumstances.

"For school, we would do video stories, but we'd have at least a week to work them," says Ms. Hoffman. In Iraq, she went from producing one story a week to one a day. "We're getting an idea of what it's going to feel like when we're actually working," she says.

The students produced print, broadcast, and radio pieces and distributed their work free of charge via their own makeshift newswire. O'Donoghue says the vast majority of their pieces have been picked up by local news stations in Alaska. Though the students are not paid for published work, they will receive an internship credit. (To read their work, go to http://shorttimers.blogspot.com/ and look for "Publication links" on the right.)

Bonus for military: PR in Alaska

For Hyde, the group's ability to reach Alaskan media outlets was a particular coup. As in newsrooms across the nation, budgets are increasingly tight for Alaska news agencies, so Hyde often has difficulty attracting local media outlets to embed with his unit. The UAF group received $35,000 from the school's private fund to cover travel expenses, insurance, equipment, and other incidental costs.

Based on the success of the UAF trip, at least one other university has contacted US forces in Iraq about conducting a similar embed project. As for Afghanistan, however, Hyde and O'Donoghue say that they doubt anyone would try sending students there given the current level of violence.

For their part, the UAF students all say they hope the university will continue the program or something like it in the future. Tom Hewitt, a UAF senior, acknowledges that, especially with the media industry's current struggles, this trip represents an unparalleled opportunity.

"What I'll probably take away from this more than anything else ... is if you see an opportunity like this one that seems almost unbelievable at first, just to go for it," says Mr. Hewitt, who jokes that his term as editor of the school paper may be his only chance to hold such a position given journalism's woes. "The whole thing has proved so valuable that I can't imagine not doing it now, even though initially it didn't seem like that realistic of an option."

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