um-students_web.jpgCORAL GABLES – Seven reporters will head to Washington, D.C., next week to bring the historic events of President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration to South Florida Times readers.

The journalists, all graduate students at the University of Miami, will file exclusive reports that will give readers a local perspective of the inauguration of the nation’s first African-American president.

Coverage has already begun, with a story by Virginia Gil that details the many events – from the swearing-in ceremony to the parade and balls – that are taking place in the nation’s capital.

Whitney Sessa has interviewed some of the South Florida residents who will be among the anticipated four million people on Inauguration Day.  She also offers a profile of Bradford and Mable Brown, two South Dade residents who have long been in the civil rights movement. The couple worked tirelessly throughout the Obama campaign, going to key primary states to help get out the vote. Now, they will be in Washington to celebrate the victory.

Aiyana Baida plans to cover African-American entrepreneur Earl Stafford, who is sponsoring the “Peoples Inauguration,” a gift to the underprivileged who did not have the means to attend the inauguration. People from homeless shelters, women’s battered shelters, churches and other nonprofits have been selected nationwide to come to Washington and join the festivities.

Rebecca Rodriguez will detail what people are wearing at the inauguration.

Some of the student reporters will also take photos of the inauguration. And there will be more coverage, so stay tuned.

The student reporters, who plan to arrive in Washington on Jan. 19, the day before the big event, will track South Floridians as they participate in the various inauguration activities. On Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, the reporters will write about the day’s speeches and festivities, including local reactions. 

Wanting to ensure that readers get a closer look at the inauguration from a younger and  local perspective, Bradley C. Bennett, executive editor of the South Florida Times, contacted the university’s U/Miami News Service, an outlet of the School of Communication’s graduate journalism program.

Tsitsi D. Wakhisi, the news service’s managing editor, informed Bennett that a group of her students was planning to attend.

“It was a mutual coming together of the minds,” Bennett said. “I had already envisioned the idea of sending someone up to cover the inauguration, and Tsitsi was looking for a paper to run her students' stories. We both needed each other.’’

Bennett continued, “Sending young people up to Washington, D.C., makes sense to cover such an historical event, along with giving the journalists themselves valuable experience in the field. Young people have a lot to say, especially in this election. They have a lot of power. The Obama campaign reached out to young people through the Internet, Facebook, Myspace, videogames, texting. His campaign preached “change’’ and doing things differently in order to reach and relate to young people.”

Wakhisi said the assignment will be tough and rewarding at the same time.

“Covering an inauguration is a heady opportunity, even for seasoned journalists,” Wakhisi said. “Our students, thanks to the South Florida Times, are getting a chance to chronicle one of the most historic events in this nation’s history. Students and readers will benefit from this unprecedented endeavor.”

Although Wakhisi and Bennett worked on fine-tuning assignments the students would cover, the inauguration trip itself was the result of some brainstorming by graduate student Aiyana Baida and her boyfriend, Juan Gomez.

“At first, we wanted to cover the event on our own as my boyfriend is a photographer, but then I thought it would be perfect for a class trip,” said Baida, who brought the idea to her graduate colleagues.

All said they wanted to go.

After students told School of Communication professors about their plans, the school agreed to pay for the students’ travel expenses.

“Education is a process of giving and getting,” said Sam Grogg, dean of the School of Communication, who applauded the students’ initiative. “The institution gives all kinds of learning experiences, but the students who reach out and grab their own opportunities to learn will benefit the most.”

U-M adjunct journalism professor Chris Delboni worked with the United Press International news service in Washington to give students an office base. And Alfred Echerri, a UPI accountant who will be in South Florida during the inauguration, is letting the students stay at his D.C. apartment.

“UPI could not have been more accommodating and helpful,” said Delboni, who also is the new media coordinator at the university’s Knight Center.

Students will return to campus on Jan. 21, and will offer follow-up stories on what they, the nation and the world experienced.

The overall experience, said Ross Holberg, features page editor at UPI, will be invaluable to the students.

“I’m hoping these students leave with a real understanding of the impact their words and pictures can have on our basic institutions,” he said. “So much of this election, from the House to the presidency, was decided on news stories by journalists just like them.”

Editor’s Note: University of Miami graduate journalism students participating in the inauguration coverage are: Deborah Acosta, Aiyana Baida, Jenna Farmer, Virginia Gil, Michael North, Rebecca Rodriguez and Whitney Sessa.