Growing ThreeSixty Program Leverages Journalism For College, Life Prep

Even in hypothetical form, it’s a brutal situation for a young journalist: “An anonymous tip alerts you that someone is mailing gunpowder in letters to the president of a local college and threatening to attack students on Halloween. When you contact the president of the college, he urges you to not print anything about the threats, for fear of creating a panic on campus. Local law enforcement officials insist that publicity would jeopardize their investigation. Halloween is two days away. Do you have a duty to warn the community of potential harm? Should you respect the authorities’ wishes and hold the story? Or set your own deadline?”

It's a warm, sunny day in July, and 24 high school students sit in groups of four in a third-floor classroom of the O’Shaughnessy Educational Center, discussing this – and two other – intense ethical dilemmas. Almost every student is wearing a neon green shirt, “ThreeSixty Journalism” across the front: They’re here for ThreeSixty’s Rookie Journalist camp, a two-week-long summer camp split between a journalism crash course and crafting a college entrance essay.

“If you want to be a journalist you have to be ethical, period,” says ThreeSixty program director Miles Trump from the front of the room. “This is a really tough one with a lot of things going on.”

Trump plays devil’s advocate to many of the students' points as they work through potential stakeholders, what their most important duties are as journalists and what they might do if faced with this situation in real life. One of ThreeSixty’s goals is that students in these camps will face not just hypothetical, but real-life journalistic scenarios: As a nonprofit program of the College of Arts and Sciences at St. Thomas, ThreeSixty aims to help diverse Minnesota students make their way into journalism, where they are vastly underrepresented. Even more than that, ThreeSixty is a place where high school students develop skills, relationships and confidence for life.

“We’re working with these kids who sometimes have the chips stacked against them in a lot of ways, who don’t have all the resources available to them. We’re looking to impact their lives and hopefully open up a new world of opportunity for them that they didn’t even know existed,” Trump said. “I love that we get to teach them journalism and that’s near and dear to my heart, but the journalism really helps open up a whole broader world for these students.”

Building on a storied foundation

ThreeSixty dates back to 1971 when it was housed at the University of Minnesota and known as the Urban Journalism Workshop. It moved to St. Thomas in 2001 and transitioned to year-round programming under the direction of former executive director Lynda McDonnell, who led ThreeSixty from 2002-14.

Throughout that time, McDonnell and countless other staff and volunteers helped build a program with a fantastic track record for educating students and helping them get to college and beyond. In June 2014 current executive director Chad Caruthers took over, and in early 2015 Trump and engagement coordinator Bao Vang also came on as full-time staff.

“This program had such a strong foundation in local media support, volunteer support, which made it super easy to come in. I could go up to someone and say, ‘I’m the new guy at ThreeSixty and we’re trying to put this summer camp together. Are you interested in volunteering?’ And it was, ‘Yeah, we love ThreeSixty, no problem,’” Trump said. “As opposed to trying to build this from the ground up, just having that foundation from Lynda McDonnell and everyone else who worked here was huge.”

Under its new leadership ThreeSixty has increased its focus on college readiness, making entrance essay writing a required aspect for every journalism camper and offering weeklong College Essay Boot Camps; grown the size and scope of its programs, which include summer camps and a News Team that meets throughout the year (ThreeSixty more than tripled participant numbers from 2014 and hosted a Youth Social Media Summit for the first time this year); and intensified its focus on offering resources into college and beyond for students of increasing racial and socioeconomic diversity (90 percent of 2016 campers were students of color and 70 percent students were on free and reduced lunch).

“Everything we’re talking about is in developing a long track: They come to ThreeSixty and gain skills that are transferable, hopefully used for journalism, but if not hopefully to get into college,” Trump said. “When they go to college hopefully they can succeed in many ways, journalism included. We want to stay with them, too, track them and give them opportunities in college, be part of an alumni group. So, ThreeSixty can play a role in their development not just as high school students, but as college students and in their careers.”

Deep impact

ThreeSixty students learn how to be a reporter and write stories for ThreeSixty’s magazine (published three times a year) and for the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press, where 24 student stories ran last year. Beyond the volume of work, the students’ quality was reflected by the organization’s seven Minnesota Newspaper Association Better Newspaper Contest awards last year – a regular occurrence for the program’s students.

Beyond those tangible products, ThreeSixty staffers and volunteers consistently see and hear what students get out of their experiences: personal growth.

“Day to day we see these kids transform,” Vang said. “It is so incredible to see how more confident they are: Their shoulders are resting higher, they feel they can take on the world and smile a little brighter because they’ve learned some new skills. That’s so wonderful. There’s no better feeling than to help a student know they’re worth someone else’s time.”

Time is a crucial element for ThreeSixty: In the 2016 programming year from June 2015-May 2016 there were nearly 10,000 programming hours for 125 participants, and much of that was supported by 150 volunteers from 80 organizations. In addition to that kind of support, donations and grants show the level of buy-in people have for ThreeSixty: They made possible more than $180,000 in scholarships last year to financially qualified students.

“When you get that kind of buy-in, not only does it mean they’re buying into ThreeSixty, but they realize the value it adds to the community. And take your pick on the community: [St. Thomas’] Communication [and] Journalism [Department], St. Thomas, the greater Twin Cities community,” Caruthers said. “When I looked at this role and the university’s mission, the common good element stuck out to me because I believe in that wholeheartedly. I hope, and believe, that what we do contributes to the common good of society.”

“I know our work is sustainable by the people who believe in our program, which makes me want to work even harder to ensure our program is successful for students and is something that’s relevant to our community,” Vang added. “It’s really a circle that keeps on going.”

Students on the street

Back at camp, ethical discussions give way to one of the week’s most challenging assignments: man-on-the-street interviews. A staple duty for reporters, it involves walking up to random people for interviews, in this case to write about what those people did during the summer. So, two dozen neon-clad students cruised the St. Thomas campus for interviews, dropping one by one into conversations with strangers to gather story material.

For students such as Eagan sophomore Zahra Mustafa, learning such a range of skills helped make a ThreeSixty experience that she said empowered her future plans.

“Especially for first-generation immigrant kids like me, we don’t have parents who went to college and know a lot of these things. I live in Eagan … and there’s not much diversity there. Some of these kids have parents who are journalists, doctors, lawyers, and my parents came from a refugee camp [in Kenya in 2010],” she said. “I’ve got to go figure things out for myself and [ThreeSixty] helps. I would encourage other kids to come here, absolutely.”

For thousands of students like Mustafa, who plans to pursue journalism or nursing into college, ThreeSixty has been a huge step for them toward the future they want.

“I came to the U.S. for one reason: to be somebody,” Mustafa said.