Alex Luedtke hadn't heard of the small Eastern European country of Moldova until last fall, but it's now a place he'll never forget.
In January the senior broadcast journalism major, along with two other journalism students and a professor, spent three weeks in the developing country helping young people start a radio news program that will serve their school and community.
"To go into a country where the media is so different from American media was an incredible opportunity," Luedtke said of his time in Moldova, a small nation tucked between the better-known countries of Ukraine and Romania. "It was fantastic to do something so far outside of the world I'm used to living in. To be thrown into something so different was life-changing. I didn't know the language or the culture norms there, yet everyone I met accepted me. And to teach the students something they will use was great."
In the U.S., I have privileges, access and opportunities that they don't have there. Seeing them go for their dreams anyway gives me the confidence to believe that I can do anything I put my mind to here. —Alex Luedtke
Luedtke's experience is why Jan Larson jumped at the chance to get involved when a UW-Eau Claire acquaintance mentioned that her daughter —a Peace Corps volunteer serving in Moldova —was starting a radio project there.
"The Moldova Community Radio project offered my students an international immersion experience while also allowing them to do work that would advance journalism in a developing nation," said Larson, an associate professor of journalism. "It gave them a chance to do something they've not done before. I knew it would be an amazing opportunity and an experience that would change them."
A small country, Moldova is only about 150 miles long and has a population slightly smaller than Wisconsin's. It was established as a Soviet Socialist Republic at the end of World War II. When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Moldova became a free country. It was ruled by the Communist Party, however, from 1991 until the spring elections of 2009.
"That election changed the balance of power, but the country is still struggling to establish itself, and its people are very poor," Larson said.
Larson recruited Luedtke and seniors Scott Morfitt and Elizabeth Dohms because they had the journalism and technical skills needed to help the Moldovan students launch their news site as well as the temperament to handle living in a developing nation for three weeks while working with young people on a project that was likely to have unexpected challenges.
"Basically, I needed talented students who would be good guests in their host country and be good problem-solvers so we could accomplish what we set out to do," Larson said. "The students exceeded my expectations in every way."
Larson, her students and an independent public radio producer who joined them first spent a week in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, learning about the country and interviewing journalists there about journalism in Moldova. After decades of Soviet rule, Moldovan journalists are still working to make the media free and independent, Larson said.
"Journalists there are still harassed and threatened," Larson said. "The public is aware of that, so they are still leery of the media. They know what they want from their media, but they aren't sure how to get it."
The Moldovan journalists were inspiring, Luedtke said.
"They're so committed and determined to make a difference that it was a big confidence boost for me," said Luedtke, whose dream is to someday have his own nationally syndicated radio program. "In the U.S., I have privileges, access and opportunities that they don't have there. Seeing them go for their dreams anyway gives me the confidence to believe that I can do anything I put my mind to here.
A five-hour bus ride took the group from Chisinau to the village of Giurgiulesti in southern Moldova. They spent two weeks in the village teaching journalism skills to students in grades five through 12 and helping them learn to use equipment they'd acquired to create a news website for their school.
Larson's lessons focused on the principles of journalism and journalism techniques, while the students taught the Moldovan students how to record interviews, write and record stories, and post their stories on the news website.
"The students were very receptive and open to our coaching," Morfitt said. "It was fun to see their eyes light up when they'd grasp something I was trying to teach them. They had the equipment but had no idea how to use it. They were surprised at what they could do with the software, so it was interesting to see their reactions."
A trip highlight was taking the young students to the village's weekly open-air market to interview and photograph the workers and shoppers, Luedtke said, adding that they used the interviews and photos to create a story package about the market.
"They saw what they could do when they used the technology and the information we provided them," Luedtke said. "It was exciting for all of us. We take semesters of journalism classes, and we're still learning. We were wondering if we could teach them enough to make a difference in just two weeks. Seeing them use what we taught them to do real journalism showed us that we could work hard and make a difference in a short amount of time. That was a fantastic feeling."
Morfitt, a military veteran who served in Iraq, was grateful for the chance to work directly with the Moldovans.
"I wanted to physically help people," Morfitt said of his interest in having an international experience in college. "I was in administration when stationed in Iraq, so I didn't integrate with the locals, but helping people of an emerging nation is something that I've always wanted to do. This gave me a chance to do that while also using my radio skills."
The students were very receptive and open to our coaching. It was fun to see their eyes light up when they'd grasp something I was trying to teach them. —Scott Morfitt
The UW-Eau Claire team's involvement transformed what started as a simple project intended to help the students share information at their school to something far more meaningful, said Monika Hartsel, the Eau Claire native and Peace Corps volunteer who is leading the project.
"Without the help of the UW-Eau Claire students and Jan Larson, the project would really just have been students doing announcements over a school PA system," Hartsel said. "My Moldovan partners and I knew little about journalism and radio technology before they came, so there is no way we could have created such a professional operation without them."
The radio project was important to the villagers because there is no local media outlet in the village and media coverage in the region is sparse, Hartsel said, noting that even the national television news programs in Moldova don't reach many households in remote locations.
"A lot of villagers feel they have no voice in society, that no one cares about the opinions of simple people from the countryside," Hartsel said. "Even though this is a small student-run operation, people are excited to have a public forum where they can express their opinions. Also, it's a great opportunity for students to explore a career in journalism. The kids feel like they are a part of something important and special. Unlike many American teenagers who are so accustomed to participating in extracurricular activities that they come to take it for granted, Moldovan teenagers are not usually given this sort of opportunity."
By the time the UW-Eau Claire team returned to the United States, the students had created six news packages, which they posted to their website, Morfitt said. They included stories, photos and audio files, he said, noting there also is an option to stream live video.
"The students went from not being able to share news in their own village to being able to communicate about issues with a global community," Morfitt said. "It was fun to see their reaction when they realized what they were able to do with the technology. I'm excited to see where they go with the radio project from here."
Hartsel and Larson worried initially that language would be a barrier because only about half the Moldovan students speak some English and no one from the UW-Eau Claire team spoke Romanian.
"I discovered that a good teacher can transcend linguistic obstacles," Hartsel said. "Jan did a great job teaching journalism skills. Scott, Liz and Alex were patient as they taught audio editing, website management and photo editing in a hectic environment and with my limited translation skills. Through hard work, miming and visual aids, they helped the kids understand the technical aspects of radio. I was impressed with how they were able to jump into the classroom with confidence and enthusiasm despite the fact that they had no idea what to expect. It takes a lot of courage to do something like that, and I think it shows how knowledgeable they really are that they were able to maneuver in such difficult circumstances."
Just how much the UW-Eau Claire team accomplished was obvious to Hartsel during the students' final presentation.
"The energy in the room was tangible, and the students were wearing their Radio Giurgiu T-shirts with obvious pride," Hartsel said. "The UW-Eau Claire team made a slideshow, and when a screenshot from the news website came into view, my students erupted into a huge round of applause. It was great seeing their faces light up when they realized how far they had come."
In addition to working with the Moldovan youth, the UW-Eau Claire team also interviewed 15 village residents of varying ages and profes-sions about their perceptions of the media, Larson said. The information they gathered from those interviews, along with the interviews they conducted with journalists in Chisinau, will be part of an ongoing research project about the public's perceptions of media during transitional times, she said.
While in Moldova, Larson and the students lived with host families in the village, an experience that allowed them to participate in the daily life of the Moldovan people, Luedtke said. While Chisinau had all the amenities one might expect in an urban area, Moldova's rural areas were dramatically different, he said.
In the village, the roads were mud, the people grew their own food, and they made their own bread, cheese and wine, Luedtke said. He was impressed by how self-sufficient they were as well as by how generous they were toward their American visitors.
Giving students the opportunity to form close ties with Moldovans was an important part of the immersion experience, said Larson, who also stayed with a host family.
"We lived as the families lived," Larson said. "These families opened their homes and hearts to our students, and our students responded with equal amounts of love and kindness. I wanted the students to connect with people there in a deeper way, and that happened with the host families."
Luedtke said being part of his host family's nightly rituals was a wonderful experience even though he didn't speak their language. They spent their evenings playing chess, visiting with family and watching television, he said, adding that his host family threw him a surprise birthday party, an experience he'll always treasure.
The radio project has become so important to Hartsel that she is hoping to extend her Peace Corps service in Moldova for another year so she can support Larson and a new team of students who plan to travel back to Moldova during the summers of 2011 and 2012.
During those visits, Larson will continue the research she started as well as assess the impact the radio project is having on the school and village. She wants to bring more UW-Eau Claire students to Moldova to help the students there build their journalistic and technical skills.
In the meantime, Larson said she is confident that the young Moldovans she and her students trained will continue their efforts to enhance journalism in their country.
"During a farewell party at the end of our stay, the students promised us that they would work hard to do good journalism," Larson said with a smile. "They're getting ready to cover their mayoral election, and we will coach them from a distance. They'll do good journalism."
Project supported by Blugold Commitment funds
The Moldova Community Radio project was part of the UW-Eau Claire Center for International Education's International Fellows Program, which is funded through the university's Blugold Commitment initiative.
The International Fellows Program is dedicated to supporting international student-faculty collaborative research/creative activity and research service-learning.
The Blugold Commitment, approved in early 2010 by UW-Eau Claire students and the UW System Board of Regents, is a differential tuition increase of $1,200, phased in over four years, to preserve and enhance the distinctive UW-Eau Claire educational experience. Providing high-impact learning experiences —like the project in Moldova —for all UW-Eau Claire students is one of the goals of the Blugold Commitment.
Image one- Alex Luedtke coached Moldovan students on recording a broadcast script and editing photos for Radio Giurgiu's website.
Image two- Elizabeth Dohms taught students how to manage the online radio station and designed the station's website.
Image three- Scott Morfitt (in brown jacket) taught students how to capture, download and edit audio.
Image four- www.radiogiurgiu.com