x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Youths learn to tell Qatar's stories

The Qatari campus of Northwestern University has introduced a two-week course to help aspiring writers and filmmakers discuss change.

DOHA //It's summer-school season in Education City. For the past two weeks, the American universities of the Qatar Foundation's super campus have been hosting outreach programmes for local secondary school student. Most of the institutions, including the branches of Georgetown University and Carnegie Mellon University, run both college preparatory courses and training workshops.

But a new programme at Northwestern University-Qatar incorporates reporting, screenwriting and film-making into an intensive two-week course that has a strong sense of place. "We wanted to do a joint journalism-communications project for our summer programme and we came up with this," said Emily Wilson, the school's outreach co-ordinator. She helped create the programme, called Northwestern Connect-Journeys, which requires each student to do a final project that profiles a Qatari subject or cultural marker that has experienced recent change.

"We want them to tell a local story of change - a person, a building, a place," she added. "We're hoping they'll be creative with it." The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, has been running a five-week summer programme for top high school journalists, known as Cherub, at its campus for some 75 years. The new programme is an abridged version of Cherub, customised for Qatar.

Aspiring writers and filmmakers applied for the programme with a short written essay answering the question: "How has media affected your life?" The 25 students chosen for the inaugural course represent 17 secondary schools and their reasons for applying vary even more widely. "I'm interested in how journalism changes society and brings out the truth," said Alanna Alexander, 16, a senior at Ideal Indian School. She has written for her school magazine for two years.

Ghada Tayseer, 17, a senior at Al Ieman Independent School for Girls, plans to study communications at Northwestern-Qatar next year. "I love this place," said the Qatari, "from the way they deal with us to the communication to all the facilities and equipment we get to use." James Robertson-Malt, 18, who graduated in June from secondary school in Canberra, Australia, is interested in writing but ineligible to attend Northwestern-Qatar. "I'm just here for the ride," he said.

Students are issued a laptop to use during the programme and a digital video camera and voice recorder that are theirs to keep. The instruction, which began day-long sessions last month, is taught by professors from Northwestern-Qatar's two majors: journalism and communications. In one class last week, Brian Cagle, a lecturer in radio, television and film, explained the concept of rack focus - when a stationary camera shifts focus between objects in the foreground and background.

"You'll see this not just in movies," he said, "but I see it also today on Al Jazeera and CNN and other news stations." Earlier that day, Professor Ibrahim Abu Sharif advised the students about their upcoming mock press conference. "Journalism all comes down to asking questions," he said. After the class, Prof Sharif acknowledged the programme's time constraints but said he hoped to improve his students' media literacy and give them a taste of the industry. "There's only so much you can do in two weeks," he said. "What we're giving them is a firm grasp of what it means to study journalism."

Northwestern University-Qatar will have 120 students this autumn after a jump of 50 per cent in the number of applications for new students. Dean John Margolis hopes some of the summer students will continue at the school, but the programme has a broader goal. "We hope to challenge them to master new skills and to apply those skills to stretch themselves intellectually," he said. The students have plenty of choice for their final project. It can be a Qatari who has seen the changes in his country or an expatriate who has witnessed its dramatic growth. It can also be the story, in film or prose, of a building or area of town, such as Souq Waqif.

Mr Robertson-Malt is profiling George Valkuchak, a retired American Special Forces training personnel who lives in Doha. His story will focus on the way foreigners settle down in Qatar. "George will be able to demonstrate what it is to make a life for oneself in this country," Mr Robertson-Malt said. "I'm just interested to see how someone finds their niche here." Ms Tayseer is profiling Mohammed Faisal, a Sri Lankan optics technician who has been in Qatar for three years. She recently visited his shop and found him so helpful, friendly and skilled - he cut the lenses for her glasses himself - that she wanted to learn more about him.

Mr Faisal, who was 10 years old when his father died, is the primary breadwinner for his family back home. He also provides an important service for the residents of Doha. "We don't have any Qatari who can work in this position," said Ms Tayseer, as she prepared to show her project along with those of her classmates at the programme's closing ceremony last night. "So he is helping Qatar to develop."

dlepeska@thenational.ae