In 2006, when Brittany Garguilo of Middle Island was in sixth grade, her cousin, Kristin Wenz, was murdered. Trying desperately to make sense of the tragedy she combed the media and wasn’t satisfied with the conflicting reports she read and heard. “All of the stories would say different things,” said Garguilo. “I just wanted the truth.”
Garguilo’s highly personal experience fueled her interest to become a journalist, and in 2011 she enrolled in the Robert W. Greene Summer Institute for High School Journalism at Stony Brook University.
What happened next sounds like a Hollywood script. When Garguilo arrived at the weeklong journalism “boot camp,” one of her Stony Brook professors, Zachary Dowdy, turned out to be the Newsday crime reporter who covered the story of her cousin’s homicide.
Robert Greene, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist at Newsday, would have applauded her motivation for enrolling in the program that would eventually bear his name. Greene died in 2008 at the age of 78, but according to Howie Schneider, the Dean of the Stony Brook School of Journalism, the founders of the camp wanted the program to adhere to Greene’s journalistic principles.
“Bob was a monumental figure in American investigative journalism,” said Schneider. “His work resulted in many corrupt public officials going to jail. He was working on planning this kind of a student program at Stony Brook when he died. The camp is a way to continue his work.”
While not every one of the approximately 100 students who has enrolled at the Institute cites as compelling a personal reason for pursuing journalism as Garguilo did, they all complete the program equipped with the basic tools to create a print, video or broadcast news story.
Hicksville native Jessica Suarez ’15, acquired a taste for broadcast journalism at Our Lady of Mercy Academy in Syosset when she anchored the Mercy Morning News. She also assisted in assembling a video yearbook to document senior year memories. Her experience at the Institute solidified her desire to become a broadcast journalist. Both she and Jaclyn Lattanza ’15 of Port Jefferson Station, are now enrolled as journalism majors at Stony Brook. Lattanza said she thoroughly enjoyed the program when she was among the first class to attend in 2009, especially working in the school’s state-of-the-art newsroom.
Professor Dowdy, Stony Brook alumnus and an adjunct professor at Stony Brook’s journalism program since 2003, is a criminal justice reporter and United Nations correspondent for Newsday. For the program’s five-year span, Dowdy has coordinated the camp with Cathrine Duffy, an alumna and former Newsday editor, who also teaches writing at the Greene Institute. She is executive assistant to the associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students. Both Duffy and Dowdy were students of Bob Greene.
Wasim Ahmad, an assistant professor at the School of Journalism who also teaches at the Institute, has been a reporter, copy editor, page designer and Web editor at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York before arriving at the program in 2010.
When the students arrive for the Summer Institute a “boot camp” week that starts each day at 7:30 am and ends at 10:30 pm, Ahmad outfits them with Canon Rebel cameras, which complements their iPhones in most cases. They are taught basic shooting techniques including composition and exposure, how to use the Instagram feature on their cell phones and how to upload their photos to a website, the Greene Gazette, they have built by week’s end. Students also learn how to shoot and edit a video as well as tweet and blog. “The kids are running around covering three to four stories a day,” said Schneider. “There is little time for reflection.”
In spite of its intensity, the students can’t seem to get enough of the program. “We hand out feedback forms at the end and they always tell us to make it longer,” said Duffy.
“We want to make this a defining moment in their lives,” said Ahmad.
Occasionally, Ahmad will use a student mistake to drive home a bigger point. When a stunning photo appeared on the The Greene Gazette website without a name attached, it led to an exhaustive search through the entire Psychology Building where the person in the photo was last sighted. Luckily he hadn’t strayed too far from the interview site and identification was made so that the photo could remain on the web. But it was a close call and a lesson the students would never forget.
Although no two years have been alike since the camp’s inception, some events have become fixtures, such as a trip to a Long Island Ducks baseball game and interviewing Staller Center Director Alan Inkles about the Stony Brook Film Festival, including a preview of Inkles’ selections, a review of one of the films and documenting reactions from viewers.
Who is eligible for the program and how affordable is it? The selection committee primarily admits students with high school journalism experience. “We ask the applicants to include clips if they have them and write a 500-word essay on why they want to be part of the next generation of Stony Brook journalists,” said Duffy. “We take students who have promise and a passion for journalism or its related fields and would definitely like to give this a shot,” said Dowdy.
Chosen students are asked to pay a $100 fee to cover administrative costs. All of their other expenses, such as room and board are covered by donations. “We stay in touch with people who contribute and send letters to the donors,” said Schneider. “Bob’s family, his colleagues at Newsday and his friends on Long Island are all involved.”
Although not all of the Institute’s students end up enrolling at Stony Brook’s School of Journalism, several have, including Garguilo, Suarez and Lattanza.
“We want them to leave with the feeling that journalism is something they could devote the rest of their lives to,” said Ahmad. “What we do is ignite the spark in the students who can be ignited. And when they leave at the end of the program we stay in touch with them. Some will wind up coming to Stony Brook.”
Other students return to their high schools armed with valuable new skills. “One student went back to his high school and used Ahmad’s step-by-step lessons to create his own online news site and won a Long Island Scholastic Press Association Award,” said Duffy. “You get these kids interested early. It’s what Bob would have wanted.”
— Glenn Jochum
Photos courtesy of Stony Brook University School of Journalism