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Journalism Students Use Capstone Course to Showcase Cultural Exchange, From Food to TikTok

Journalism capstone course

Jocelyn CruzA grocery-store samosa can be a gateway to another culture or cultural appropriation. Forget the British Invasion, Asian fan culture is sweeping the U.S. and changing how young people follow their pop icons. TikTok offers ways to begin to explore — or maybe co-opt — different spiritual practices.

These are just a few of the stories about intersecting cultures that students in the School of Communication and Journalism told for their senior capstone projects. Other students chose to use the semester-long reporting project to highlight inequities in education, covering disparities in English Language Learning programs in Rockland County, NY, and imposter syndrome in first-generation college students.

“We’ve all been taking classes together for a long time and we’re a very diverse group,” said Katherine Heredia, a senior from Spanish Harlem. “I think we gathered our interest in each other’s cultures organically. We’ve gained a responsibility to spread what we’ve learned, and to share that diversity is a good thing.”

The reporting capstone is a chance for upper-division journalism students to showcase their technical and storytelling skills in one project. The projects always cover a wide range of issues, including diversity in children’s books, vegetarian options in school lunches and parental incarceration. But after witnessing a global racial reckoning in Summer 2020, many students chose to work on stories about what can happen when cultures collide.

“Students were exposed to the fault lines developing in our society. Their capstones tell the stories of people at the epicenter of that collision. Instead of solely focusing on the systemic conflict that drives a wedge between communities, students sought to engage with the solutions,” said journalism instructor J.D. Allen. “These concepts help people make informed decisions about their lives and communities.”

Senior Lilly Parnell, of Tarpon Springs, FL, worked at a spice shop in Port Jefferson, NY, before the pandemic and has always been interested in cuisine from different countries and cultures. Her four-part story, “To better appreciate food, appropriation is a dish that must be sent back to the kitchen,” explores how chefs and even some grocery stores navigate cooking with diverse flavors and methods, and how difficult it is to blend cultures without slipping into cultural appropriation.

“Last year, I discovered soup dumplings at Trader Joe’s and became obsessed with them. I discovered they are a hugely popular meal in certain Asian countries,” Parnell said. “Is discovering these kinds of foods in the frozen-food section a good thing because it’s opening up people — especially white people — to new foods and cultures? Or is it a bad thing because you lose the community feeling of preparing them and the history and what that food represents?”

Heredia, who is Puerto Rican and Dominican, also examined cultural appropriation, looking at Spirituality TikTok, also known as WitchTok. On the platform, Heredia found that yoga videos are often sexualized by commenters and smudging practices lose their deep connection and significance to indigenous cultures. Her story also explores ways individuals can combat their own ignorance in the story, “WitchTok: Is it a whitewashing spirituality?

“I’m interested in different spiritualities and learning more about different cultures, so these videos come up on my ‘For You’ page,” she said. “Anything that gets people interested [in other cultures] is good, but they can’t get all their information from something like TikTok. A lot of these very short videos explain things completely wrong.”

In contrast, Danyi Ji, a senior from China, found that the fan cultures of Asia, particularly South Korea and China, are influencing how Americans experience pop culture. “Asia’s fan economy sweeps NYC” looks at how young adults engage with the latest trends from Asia, from K-Pop to the hit Netflix show Squid Game.

Seniors Amaya McDonald, of Spring Valley, NY, and Jocelyn Cruz, of Central Islip, NY, both chose to explore disparities in education. 

In “‘I don’t understand them:’ English Language Learners need a more equitable education,” McDonald drew from her grade-school experiences in Rockland County. She compared the experiences of students learning English in two of the county’s districts, one more affluent and one disadvantaged, examining individual experiences and state education data.

“This story is something I’ve always noticed; even as a high school senior I knew I wanted to do a story about the disparities in education between these two districts,” McDonald said. “The class was a great opportunity to do it. I don’t think I would have had the time to develop this kind of story otherwise.”

Cruz’s story, “Are underrepresented, anxious college students suffering from imposter syndrome?,” looks closely at Stony Brook students from underrepresented communities and how they navigate higher education — a world that they have less understanding of than many of their peers. Inspired by 60 Minutes, Cruz was the only student this semester to include a broadcast-style interview in her story.

“I wanted to do something with imposter syndrome because I know there’s tons of people at Stony Brook and around the world who deal with it,” said Cruz, who plans to work in broadcast journalism. “It eventually became more of a personal story because imposter syndrome happens to everyone, not just first-generation college students. It happened to me when I was playing sports and saw someone better than me on the team, and as a student at Stony Brook.”

Increasingly, at Stony Brook and at journalism programs around the country, students are eager to tell stories that wrestle with difficult cultural conversations, and to engage people and ideas that have traditionally been hidden from the mainstream media.

“Especially as journalism students, we know there’s a world out there we can learn about, even if we can’t see it or travel to it,” Parnell said. “Especially over the last couple of years, we’ve been able to better understand how drastically life can be different for people in our country. We’re really aware of it, and we can point it out and write about it and show these different perspectives.”

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