UArizona bilingual journalism program is preparing students for a new era of global media
Jessica Retis, director of the School of Journalism, talks in this Q&A about the creation of the program and how the University of Arizona is uniquely positioned to train bilingual journalists in a quickly evolving media industry.
When Jessica Retis, a journalism scholar from Peru, first arrived in the United States in 2008 to teach bilingual journalism at California State University, Northridge, she noticed her students moved freely between English and Spanish.
Even though she was bilingual herself, Retis, a veteran journalist who has worked in Peru, Mexico and Spain, struggled to keep up with the conversations as they shifted between languages. She asked her students if they could please let her know when they would speak Spanish and when they would speak English so she could best accommodate.
"They respectfully – very respectfully – laughed and said, 'Professor, you're going to be like us in a year,'" she said. "I didn't have to wait a year. I think in a month I was just like them, absolutely engaging in bilingualism, going back and forth, using both languages almost at the same time."
Retis came to the University of Arizona School of Journalism in 2019 as an associate professor, bringing with her three decades of teaching experience at universities in the U.S., Spain and Mexico. She launched the school's Master of Arts in Bilingual Journalism in 2020. The program prepares journalists to cover complex issues affecting Latinx people in the U.S. and abroad. Latinx is a gender-neutral term for people of Latin American descent.
Retis is also a distinguished fellow in the UArizona Center for University Education Scholarship, where she is studying the development, implementation and assessment of bilingual journalism education in the U.S.
The bilingual journalism master's program is offered in collaboration with the Center for Latin American Studies, the Department of Mexican American Studies and the Department of Spanish and Portuguese; its courses also overlap with the journalism school's Master of Arts in Studies of Global Media.
The bilingual program is designed for students who have a journalism background, as well as those who have no previous journalism experience but hold a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution in the U.S. or abroad. Students are expected to be proficient in both English and Spanish, and classes are taught in both languages. The program also accepts Portuguese-speaking students and will include more languages in the future.
Retis, who was named the School of Journalism's director in May – becoming the first person of color to direct the school in its 72-year history – spoke about the creation of the bilingual journalism program and how UArizona is uniquely positioned to train bilingual journalists in a quickly evolving media industry.
Q: Why did you want to start the Master of Arts in Bilingual Journalism?
A: The University of Arizona recruited me because they wanted to start this program given that the university was recognized as a Hispanic Serving Institution. When I arrived at the university, I assessed our course offerings, our student body and our journalism school, and I designed a new program that is not a Spanish-language concentration of journalism or a Spanish-language graduate studies program – it is a program for bilingual journalism studies.
In the classrooms, we teach in both languages and students are capable of going back and forth with their language skills. We also train students in the understanding of the diversity within the Hispanic community in every sense, but also in the linguistic sense. So, when you produce your story in Spanish, you are talking to this group of Latinx communities, and when you're producing your stories in English, your audience is different.
We are now advancing a research project on the pedagogies of bilingual journalism education in the U.S., thanks to the support from the Center for University Education Scholarship.
Q: Who is this master's degree program for, and what types of projects do students produce?
A: This bilingual program is offered to every student that is interested in understanding diverse audiences. In fact, our very first graduate from the program is a non-Latinx student who produced a very interesting final project on detention centers on the U.S.-Mexico border that is entirely bilingual, in English and Spanish. The program is open to any student – students in journalism and other majors as well – who might want to get a more in-depth understanding of other communities.
Right now, we have students who are interested in certain geographical areas. I just met with a student who is working on a final project about the shared culture within a particular area of the border near San Luis, Arizona. Another student is interested in mental health within Latinx communities. Another is interested in a project that would help communities get information about their family members who have disappeared in the desert. So, it's a very wide range of topics that they're interested in.
Q: How does UArizona's proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border enhance the opportunities for the program's students, and what else makes the program unique?
A: The university is about an hour away from the border. We have many students who cross the border or have been crossing the border throughout their high school years or during their time in community college. This program is part of how the School of Journalism is evolving into a pedagogical model that better serves our diverse student body.
Nationally speaking, the uniqueness of this school is precisely that – the geographical location. Because being so close to the border means being part of the border and the borderlands culture. We are in a university where we have outstanding scholars who are nationally and internationally recognized in conducting research about the borderlands. So, we're basically embracing the richness of our faculty expertise in understanding the borderlands.
We've also developed very fruitful connections with, for example, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and other Mexican universities, as well as Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas in Peru. We have several projects that promote international exchange of faculty and students.
Q: How are changes in the media industry making bilingualism important for journalists?
A: We are living in a post-digital era and transnational era where various English-language media are producing stories in Spanish – and some Spanish-language media in Latin America and Europe are producing in English. We see this with (the publications) El Faro in El Salvador or El Pais in Spain, for example. These are Spanish-language newspapers that are now producing stories in English. The Los Angeles Times is also producing stories in Spanish, and the Miami Herald also has been doing so for many years, with El Nuevo Herald, the Spanish-language paper.
I see bilingualism from a bilingual lens, not from a monolingual lens, which is critical. You can be fluent in English and then have limited skill in Spanish, or fluent in Spanish and have limited skill in English. But some students, especially those who live on the border, are perfectly bilingual in Spanish and English. And that's the case of many students we have in the program.
Our innovative pedagogical model is about recognizing the value in being able to understand sources that communicate in different languages. That's what we're trying to help students embrace. We are training our students to be journalists in this new era.
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