Behind-the-Scenes: Student Travel Restrictions

As of January 1, 2017, California law AB 1887 prohibits the use of state funds for travel to states whose laws discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community. What does this mean for Cal Poly students? CSU staff, faculty and students are unable to attend some events and conferences that would otherwise have been paid for by the CSU system.

Our story choice primarily came from our group members being personally affected by these restrictions. One morning, two of our group members who work for Mustang News overheard General Manager Paul Bittick speaking about the organization’s inability to attend the National College Media Convention in Dallas, TX.

“Every state has the right to make laws whether we agree with them or not. At the same time, we need to obey those laws and you can fight to change those laws. I just think it’s not right to create a law that limits some of the learning opportunities for students,” Bittick said.

While Mustang News employees were able to attend this conference in the past, this year the organization will have to pass due to the travel restrictions set forth by the state of California.

Coincidentally, Cal Poly students including ourselves received an email reminding us of revisions to the CSU Travel Policy only one week after beginning our project.

Screen Shot 2017-10-13 at 4.25.30 PM

Nikki, the writer of this story, reached out to Cal Poly’s Queer Student Union, various clubs and organizations affected and the CSU administration to get their perspectives on this topic. She interviewed multiple sources while also taking into account the impact this has on the LGBTQ community.

“I wanted to focus on what’s being done about this currently. We all know the travel policy is in place, but is it working? Is this changing attitudes towards the LGBTQ community? I did not want to forget those voices, or for them to get swept under the rug just because this inconveniences everyone,” Nikki said.


Hannah compiled a list of clubs that had somehow been affected by the restrictions. She created a web-like infographic that shows some branches of clubs as well as each club that we were able to get in contact with.

In addition, she created a short info video that can be posted on social media to inform viewers of the new travel restrictions that were put in place.

“I learned about this story through personal experience and from hearing about other organizations not being able to attend conferences and competitions because of the ban,” Hannah said. “Personally, I was not able to attend one of the biggest journalism conferences of the year so I knew it was only appropriate to cover the story to inform our audience.”


Hayley reached out to Cal Poly students and parents on Facebook to receive input, and got responses from a few clubs that had been affected by AB 1887. These clubs were also implemented into Hannah’s infographic.

“It was really interesting to see how many students have been affected by this law. We only got in contact with a few sources, but the responses would be endless if we had time to reach out to every on-campus organization,” Hayley said.

One was Society of Women Engineers who would have been unable to attend the National SWE Conference in Austin, TX if they hadn’t submitted their paperwork before the new states, including Texas, were added.

Cal Poly’s Triathlon Team found a loophole in the system and plan on flying into Georgia for USA Triathlon Collegiate Club Nationals in Tuscaloosa, AL. They are finding ways around paying for a hotel so that their funding for housing does not pay the state of Alabama by hotel fees.

A student in Cal Poly’s club WISH (Women Involved in Software and Hardware) also reached out, saying she may be unable to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration in Houston, TX next year.

Within our time frame, we reached out to multiple students and faculty who will be directly affected by this law, proving this story to be timely.

Behind the story: How a Cal Poly student coped with tragic injury

Finding the story:

At our first pitch meeting of senior project, we began sharing story ideas tentatively. We bounced around a couple ideas: A 24 hour look at SLO Do Co?  Investigating the “creeping” that’s been going on near campus?  Then, we hit a gold mine story: Ysabel suggested the idea of doing a profile on Jake Javier, a Cal Poly student from her hometown who suffered a life-altering accident his senior year of high school, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.

After doing preliminary research, it became clear that Jake’s story was covered extensively by local and state papers at the time of his accident.  We were all amazed by the tenacity and hopefulness Jake maintained through his long recovery process illustrated in the articles we read. We grew excited to meet him and hear his perspective on the accident first hand.

Meeting Jake:

On Thursday, Ysabel and I were first able to meet up with Jake to discuss his availability and our intentions for the project. We lucked out – Jake was the perfect subject for a story: he was charming, chatty and very willing to explain the details of his injury and how he lives his life. Without hesitation he said he’d be willing to speak on all topics of his accident, and we decided to meet on Sunday at his apartment in Cerro Vista.

On Sunday, Jake was very comfortable answering all our questions, despite having a four person journalism team crammed into his apartment peering at his things, scribbling notes and taking pictures.


“Jake goofs around a lot and was super outgoing and very easy to talk to. He’s very comfortable in his own skin,” said Jody. This made the interviewing process much easier on our part.

We toured his tiny apartment, checked out some of the equipment he uses for physical therapy, got to see his car and then walked outside to interview him and get some video footage. In between takes, our conversations were light and friendly. Jake had a great sense of humor and an extraverted nature that made us giggle and put everyone at ease. His perspective on being in a wheelchair was very positive. He explained how patience and his stubbornness are keys to his success: “Things take a while and things take a lot of effort, so I have to be ready to push through a lot of challenges,” said Javier.


Jake and Ysabel chatting during our first video interview.
Jake and Ysabel chatting during our first video interview.


Navigating Sensitive Topics:

One obstacle we ran into early on was making sure we were being as sensitive as possible towards Jake’s situation. When speaking with Amy Gode, the Assistant Director of Cal Poly’s DRC, she explained how some individuals don’t use their disability to define themselves, while others consider it a huge part of their identity. After talking with Jake in our interview, we were able to take his lead on the use of specific jargon (disability, quadriplegic, person in a wheelchair) he used. Resources like “Choosing Words for Talking About Disability” were also helpful in navigating these more sensitive topics.

“I was really impressed with how willing Jake was to talk about his injury.  If it were me in his position, I’d probably be upset about the whole thing.  But Jake carries himself really well and is such a nice guy,” said Greg after interviewing Jake on Sunday.

Ysabel also had a similar reaction: “It was awesome being able to work on a story unlike anything I ever had worked on before before. Accidents like these are heartbreaking and touchy subjects, this one changed Jake’s life forever. It was a good experience for us to have to learn how to interview, and go about the story with respect and sensitivity while also making the story become the best it could be.”

Jake showing us his wheelie.
Jake showing us his wheelie.




Behind the Scenes: An Inside Look at the Cal Poly QL+ Lab

At the beginning of this class we originally wanted to do a story about students in wheel chairs at Cal Poly.  We had sources willing to do interviews and it seemed like the perfect topic.

However, we ran into complications with this topic and decided to choose a different route.  We still wanted to discuss disability on campus, but we now were trying to focus on students making a positive impact for those who have a physical disability rather than focusing on their struggle.

The Idea:

The Quality of Life Plus National Program is a program designed to help wounded veterans get prosthetics in oder to improve their quality of life.   The program expanded to form a satellite club at Cal Poly, the QL+ lab, where students help those who are searching for a solution to a physical challenge.

We went to their website and read a small article about a man named Chris Bratcher, a winemaker who lost his arm during a winemaking accident.  The QL+ lab was helping Chris by building him an arm so he could continue his passion of winemaking with ease.

We were immediately drawn to this topic as we all connected with it in our own personal ways.

The Process:

Our team of journalists met with QL+ President Berkeley Davis who told us about the team of students who had been working on Dr. Bratcher’s arm for nearly nine months.   She invited us to their club meeting the next night.

QL+ Lab meeting.
QL+ Lab meeting.

At the meeting, we watched tentatively as a large number of engineers gathered to hear what new projects they will be working on this quarter.

After their announcements, the engineers broke off into groups to do product design and brainstorm.

Lauren Goff, the public relations associate on this story, said how “it is important for our team to capture the essence of the team in order to show our audience what cool stuff these people do.  It’s hard to tell without being there to witness it.”

Jordan Hanna, the videographer, set up her camera as the sun started to set behind Engineering West.  Berkeley Davis agreed to do a preliminary interview before we met with the project team.  The setting sun allowed for optimal light to illuminate Berkeley’s profile.

As the camera beeped, notifying us that it was almost out of battery, we made sure to make every last moment of light count before the sun set.

The following day we met with Chris Bratcher’s project team in the QL+ lab (which is usually off limits to those who aren’t officially in the club).

QL+ Lab
QL+ Lab

Aaliyah Ramos, third year mechanical engineering major, and the rest of her team agreed to meet with us.   “Our goal is to make Chris’s life easier by giving him a hand that actually fits him and that he can actually use.   He will even have a sort-of opposable thumb,” Ramos said.

The group assembling Chris's arm
The group assembling Chris’s arm

It was here that Hanna and Isle Longoria,  the interactive journalist for this story, did the majority of their filming and photography.

As Hanna looked back on our meeting she said, “my goal was to capture how brilliant and inspiring they are with my video and they made it so easy for me.”

They showed us the hand that they had been spending the past 9 months to create.  We all stood in awe as we gazed over this beautiful piece of machinery that students our age had created.

The Result:

We each wanted to put our hearts into this project because the people we met at the QL+ lab are doing such inspiring things that we hoped to emulate their success.

“The most challenging part of this project was grabbing and producing good content in two week,” Longoria said.

Although this project had its ups and downs, we found that it was super rewarding to work with such great people.

Andi DiMatteo, fourth year journalism major and the writer for this story, noted how: “the biggest challenge was the pressure I felt to get everything just right.  The work the QL+ lab does is so amazing and important so I wanted the story to reflect that without editorializing anything.”

After completion of this project we all have a newfound respect and love for the QL+ Lab and all that they do.

Inside the Story: Mustang News takes us behind the scenes of the new dorms being constructed at Cal Poly

Cal Poly students are currently waiting in anticipation for the reveal of the new housing complex, scheduled for completion in Fall 2018. While students wait for the construction fencing to be taken down and for the last touches of paint to be added, there is an exciting story unfolding in the present, not just in the future during the grand opening.

The new dorms currently under construction are to be named after the Northern Chumash tribe. By naming the dorms after the Chumash, the intent is to honor the native lands upon which the dorms are being constructed and instill respect for the historical culture among the new Freshman class.

Although the dorms are scheduled for completion this Fall, there is still important work to be done. Communicating both the importance and meaning of the Chumash language to a Freshman class of 1,475 thousand students is no easy undertaking, and the Cal Poly team involved in the housing project have strategic work.

“With such a huge project, it was really important to us that we got right to the source,” said Reilly Roberts, Public Relations lead. “After meeting with multiple sources, we finally got connected to the Cal Poly team that made management decisions for the housing project.”

Our team of student journalists at Mustang News met with Executive Director of University Housing, Jo Campbell, to learn about her team’s behind-the-scenes efforts being made towards the creation of the new dorms honoring the Chumash.

Nestled in between the South Mountain Residence Halls, sits Campbell’s headquarters at the University Housing office. Upon walking inside, there was an interactive exhibit featuring the yakʔityutyu residential community. A three dimensional model depicts the dorm layout, with sound machines attached to each building that play the pronunciation of each dorm name when pushed.

The visual sound board sparked some inspiration for our Interactive lead, Navid Golemohammadi. “One of the best ways to show how the new housing project is going to affect campus is through visually displaying how the change will shape the future student body’s perception of the native names given to each new dorm,” said Golemohammadi.


This was our first introduction as a team to the efforts being made to educate the Cal Poly community to the Chumash culture. However our lead writer, Erica Hudson, was already well versed in the Chumash cultural history. “For our story, I did my own background research on the history of the Northern Chumash people to help better understand their culture,” Hudson said. “For this, I read news articles already published on the topic, as well as various historical articles on the Chumash people throughout California. I also attended interviews and reached out to involved parties with the project for additional interviews.”

After experimenting with the sound board, we began our interview with Jo Campbell. Our audio/visual lead Mandie Geller set up mic equipment and her tripod, then the camera started rolling. “As the videographer, it was helpful to have planned out the interview questions in advance, so that during the interview I knew whether to make a tighter shot or wide angle shot in anticipation of their response to those questions,” Geller explained.


To Geller’s surprise, her camera flashed a “low battery” symbol halfway through the interview. We listened even more attentively, hanging onto Campbell’s every word in case the camera died.

Mandie Geller focuses the camera on Jo Campbell
Mandie Geller focuses the camera on Jo Campbell


It was at this point that we learned perhaps the most interesting fact of the interview. Campbell revealed that prior to the construction of the new dorms, the Chumash language had never been written down before, it was only passed down orally.

“We are working with a linguist on campus. Because you can’t use some of the symbols on a typical keyboard,” Campbell said. “There are lots of systems on campus that do not support these characters, so how do we figure all that out logistically?”

From linguists to education outreach, there is so much more depth to preparing the new residence halls than only construction. After the team’s interview process, we felt even more passionate about the project and amazed by the richness of the Chumash culture.


Behind the Scenes: Cal Poly Student runs marijuana delivery service

Our story idea started out with the recent news of Grover Beach approving marijuana businesses to open.

Here are some links to articles with more information about the approval: Get ready, Grover Beach: Marijuana businesses will likely open by 2018, Grover Beach approves commercial cannabis ordinances, Grover should ignore ‘whore’ comment and become Pot Capital of Central Coast

After I posted about the topic on the Cal Poly SLO Class of 2017 Facebook page, I received a comment from Nicolas Pitchon, a Cal Poly student who runs his own marijuana delivery business.

Pitchon's comment on my post on the Cal Poly SLO Class 2017 page on Facebook.
Pitchon’s comment on my post on the Cal Poly SLO Class 2017 page on Facebook.

“I plan on applying for one of the Grover licenses and am happy to talk about the current laws being drafted for Grover, SLO county, and some of the other cities/municipalities in our county for Recreational Cannabis,” Pitchon wrote.

Pitchon in his backyard of his home in Avila Beach.
Pitchon in his backyard of his home in Avila Beach.

So I scheduled a interview with Pitchon at his home in Avila Beach, where he also uses as his workplace for his marijuana delivery business, Slo Dro Co. Along with his delivery business, Pitchon also operates two farms and is the secretary for the SLO NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), which is a non-profit organization whose aim is to move public opinion sufficiently to achieve the legalization of non-medical marijuana so that the responsible use of cannabis by adults is no longer subject to penalty.

Jar of marijuana with the business lable, Slo Dro Co.
Jar of marijuana with the business lable, Slo Dro Co.

I am not very familiar with marijuana, but right when I stepped into his home, I was hit with a very strong smell of marijuana. There were also a ton of actual marijuana all over his home.

Pitchon told us how he is planning to apply to one of the two Grover Beach marijuana business license, and even let us film him smoking.

Hannah Landry, broadcast, filming Pitchon smoking.
Hannah Landry, broadcast, filming Pitchon smoking.

It was great that we got to see the behind the scenes on how he ran his delivery service and since his home is also the office for the business, there was so much material for us to film and take photos. That was when we decided to change our story to a feature story about Pitchon, and tying in the story of Grover Beach’s approval of marijuana businesses. I think I was really lucky to find Pitchon and interview him since it definitely made our story much more exciting than just talking about Grover Beach.

Bowl of marijuana in Pitchons home.
Bowl of marijuana in Pitchons home.

“It’s interesting to see how the community handles such a difference in their town compared to others in the area with regard to having marijuana businesses. The area seems a little bit older, more retirement age, and the acceptance of this by City Council and the Planning Commission as well as citizens of the city show that they are a progressive area open to change. It’ll be interesting to see in the coming months what happens when businesses can apply for permits to be one of the two stores selling marijuana in Grover.” -Ayrton Ostly, multimedia.

Our group setting up the equipment to shoot the interview.
Our group setting up the equipment to shoot the interview.

“The story was fun to write because we went into it knowing very little details about the subject, and after just one interview we had already learned so much! I think this was our best story of the quarter, so I had a great time writing it.” -Kameren Mikkelsen, Print.

Behind the scenes: Dr. Jenell Navarro, mother, mentor and professor

I’ve never been more excited about a class than I was about my ethnic studies course, Beyonce: Feminism, Race and Politics.
The more and more I bragged about it to my friends I quickly realized that the majority of people either had no idea this class existed or, didn’t understand the relevance of the coursework. Being in senior project we’re supposed to pitch newsworthy topics and I thought how perfect this would be for a story.

Initially I pitched the idea of writing about “Bey Day”,  this was my ethnic studies class final, which was a day dedicated to performances celebrating Beyonce and student/faculty panel discussions of black feminist authors.  Brady was all for it, then quickly realized that Mustang News would be covering this event as it needed a more timely coverage.

As I continued to try to fight for covering this story, bragging about my professor, Dr. Navarro, listing off her accomplishments and trying to prove that she was unique enough for this story, Brady stopped me and said, “why don’t you do a feature on her instead?” I was surprised because I honestly assumed that Mustang News had written about her before, but after checking the archives I was delighted to move forward on shedding the spotlight on one of my favorite professors.

Dr. Navarro, and her hype woman Bey in Navarro's office. 
Dr. Navarro, and her hype woman Bey in Navarro’s office.

I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t her only number one fan, and asked former students about her and got nothing but positivity and even when I was checking out her Poly Ratings,

“Dr. Navarro was amazing!”
“Navarro is such a chill teacher.”
“Dr. Navarro is the BOMB. She is such a good lecturer and easily engages you in the topic that is covered that day.”
“Dr. Navarro is A-M-A-Z-I-N-G. Simply put, she is extremely kind hearted, understanding, patient and overall a brilliant woman. Her class was one of the most interesting ones I have ever had in my life and I loved every minute of it”

I wasn’t disappointed, so I wanted the readers to understand where this sentiment was coming from.


Nicole Peterson was writing the story, so I set up an appointment for her to meet Dr. Navarro; Dr. Isom, the head of the ethnic studies department; two of Dr. Navarro’s students;  as well as her partner Dr. Navarro. I accompanied Nicole (and Annie and Lauren) to Dr. Navarro’s office where she had made the small space her home. She had 3 bookcases overflowing with texts of Chicano studies, the history of hip hop, and indigenous studies. Her glass award was tucked away in the corner of the desk, almost invisible to the eye. (She didn’t even mention the awards until I probed about it)


Displaying officebooks.jpg

After Nicole finished her portion, I followed up with a few questions of my own:
What kind of struggles did you face bringing the Beyonce course on campus?
What is your favorite course to teach and why?
What are some of your professional, academic and personal goals?
What are some of your proudest moments as a professor?
Tell me about the ‘colonial bros and navahoes’ incident
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
What did you want to be when you were younger?


Annie Vainshtein, was handling multimedia this project. I suggested that her Thinglink hotspots should include interviews with: former students, her partner and fellow colleague Dr. Navarro, and her department chair Dr. Isom. That way readers could get a glimpse of Dr. Navarro through different perspectives.

For her second component, I suggested a Storify, so that we could compile all of her published works and publicized events so that the reader could learn more about her credibility and some background to her academic and professional carer.

“It was really wonderful to work on this piece about Professor Jenell Navarro,” Vainshtein said, ” I haven’t worked on a profile piece in a while, but they’re some of my favorite interviews to watched and pieces to read. I loved the way multimedia was incorporated into the project and I think it served well to illuminate just how significant Dr. Navarro is for many students on campus.”

Lauren Roberge’s  portion was broadcast, so she joined, Annie and Nicole and I for Dr. Navarro’s interview to film her video, “I really enjoyed getting to know Dr. Navarro and what she stands for. It’s inspiring to see someone work as hard as she does to make a difference in the issues surrounding racial injustice on campus and at home” she said.

Annie, Nicole and Lauren watching Navarro take out her small  wooden chest of beads. 
Annie, Nicole and Lauren watching Navarro take out her small  wooden chest of beads.

We wrapped up the interview with a few portrait shots and then Dr. Navarro finally went. Nicole and I stayed after chatting about the incredible quotes she gave us brainstorming what we should lead with when Peterson said, “just from meeting Dr. Navarro I can tell what a great person she is, I really wish I had met her sooner in my Cal Poly career”.

This project was so much fun to work on because the other stories we’ve done are little more reporting based and though this was still a feature, I still believe it will force the reader to think critically about ethnic studies courses and the struggles that marginalized individuals face. Dr. Navarro is more than qualified to be teaching a course on black feminism and it is clear that her success isn’t measured by the awards she has received but by the bond created by her and her students, I asked the students around the table, ‘what is a relevant education to you?’. ‘What makes ethnic studies a relevant education,’ one of my Chicana students said, ‘is an education that makes me relevant’ and I’ve always remembered that she just stated it so poetically and beautifully that the demand for ethnic studies is a demand to make a way for us to be here and not lose our sense of self. So that was a very proud moment for me to hear her express herself in that way…..”

-Mariam Alamshahi

Behind the Scenes: Why Cultural Commencement is important for Cal Poly

As previously mentioned in this blog post written by my fellow teammate Lexy Solomon, working on this story was a challenging for a few reasons— a lot of the conversations were sensitive and we had to be mindful in our approach, and organizing over 20 interviews with students and faculty is tedious work.

“It has been a challenge getting in contact with sources from all cultural commencements,” said Victoria Howland. “As journalists, my team and I are working very hard gather accurate information regarding each culture to avoid misrepresentation.”

However, this story allowed our team to take part in conversations about extremely important topics on this campus.

“This story holds so much value to me,” said Sophie Kelly. “I feel like we have a large duty as a group to respectfully and accurately cover each individual cultural commencement ceremony, attendees and the traditions involved within each.”

Representation of marginalized groups

Through our interviews and interactions with staff and faculty, we very quickly learned how important this story was for Cal Poly’s campus. Nearly every person we reached out to was grateful that we were covering their individual cultural ceremonies since that hasn’t been done before.

At the Chicano and Latino Commencement meeting, Lexy and I gathered stories from students about how their culture has impacted their Cal Poly experience, and the responses were heartwarming.

Psychology Senior Yvette Solano comes from a small, predominantly Hispanic town in San Diego, and coming to Cal Poly her Freshman year was a major shock.

“Coming to Cal Poly which is not too diverse is definitely shocking at the beginning,” said Solano. “But it only helped me embrace my culture even more.”

Many students including Solano told stories about how their families supported them through their time at Cal Poly, and how much the cultural ceremony means to them.

“I’m proud of where I’m from — not only where I was born, but where my parents are from,” said Solano. “I’m proud of the sacrifices they’ve made to allow me to be here, so it’s all for them.”

Financial support from the university

During my interview with Ethnic Studies Assistant Professor Jenell Navarro, the topic of funding came up. She said that although the university supplies a certain amount of money for the event, the budget isn’t big enough to include every aspect of the ceremony.

“There’s a portion of the budget that comes from the president’s office for each of the commencements, and that did increase this year,” said Navarro. “But it still didn’t pay for the whole ceremony.”

According to Navarro, the American Indian and Indigenous Commencement ceremony received additional funding from the American Indian Faculty Staff Association and Career Services. In addition, University Housing paid for the graduates’ blankets for the ceremony to represent the students and their families, as well as commemorate the Chumash naming of the new Student Housing South.

“It’s always kind of a hustle to come up with the funding for the event,” said Navarro. “I would be great if we could write out our budget and give it to the University Cultural Commencement committee.”

Hope for the future

This was the first year that Student Affairs sent an email about the Cultural Commencement ceremonies to every student. This makes us hopeful that the campus will continue to pursue equal representation for marginalized groups on campus.Screen Shot 2017-06-12 at 2.56.07 PM

After working on this project for weeks and getting to hear stories from students and commencement coordinators, we hope that this inspired student media to cover different cultural groups more often.

“I think this story has opened the door for a lot of discussion about the different cultural groups on campus,” said Lexy Solomon. “It has been a pleasure getting to speak to a wider variety of people and learn how their cultures have shaped their college experience.”

Behind the Story: ROTC

Before starting this story, I knew next to nothing about the ROTC program. Over the last four years, I’d seen some students in uniform walking around campus but was honestly too intimidated by the outfits to look for very long much less ask them any questions. I now realize how foolish I’ve been.

At the start of this quarter, one of my other group members pitched the idea of doing a story on Cal Poly’s ROTC program or maybe profiling a specific student. There hadn’t been any major stories on the program in the last few years. As our luck would have it, a Mustang News writer had been working on a profile piece around the same time we were looking to do our story. My group is short a member so we always have one element of the usual senior project missing. This time around, we were able to use Emma Kumagawa’s story and add in our multimedia elements. For me, having Emma was extremely because she had already made some contacts with members of ROTC. Her story was focused on ROTC Senior Cadet and biological sciences senior Katherine Holst, who’s headed to the 82nd Airborne to serve as a field artillery officer for at least the next five years.

When I first starting talking to Katherine, I was intimidated. I didn’t know much, but I could tell she was a person of great importance. When other students and even higher ups passed by us, their behavior suggested she was certainly a woman with authority. While she maintained this general vibe during our entire time together, I soon realized that she’s really no different than me. She’s just a student trying to make it through. I certainly don’t mean that as a negative, but I was under the impression that everyone is ROTC cadet was some gym rat with an aggression problem. Again, I quickly realized I was wrong. My group members agreed.

“I really liked working on this story because through all of the tough workouts and time commitments, these students are just like any other students but they happen to play a part in the bigger picture of life. It’s awesome to see they are not all that different,” said Jessi Armstrong.


Katherine understood that this was a common misconception for people who aren’t familiar with the program and that she gets more than her fair share of flack simply for being a woman within the unit.

“There is nothing magical about being an ROTC cadet. We aren’t a bunch of geniuses of fitness freaks or anything else out of the ordinary. We are simply a group of students who have decided to join something a little bigger. So don’t feel like ROTC is reserved for a select or tiny elite subset of the population. Feel free to come to Dexter and check us out, come chat with us or come do PT with us if you feel like it. I think you’ll find it’s not as different or as scary as it first seems,” said Holst.


My group and I actually ended up joining Katherine at 6:30 am one Wednesday morning as she headed out to Camp SLO, a local military base. There were some juniors taking their physical fitness test and we were able to see how the whole thing went down. And for a third time, I saw how my own preconceived notions had dictated my perception of these people. There were students of all shapes and sizes, each with their own unique story of why they joined ROTC. No two were alike other than that they were all extremely friendly and welcoming to us. They were focused when they needed to be but during breaks, they laughed and joked around like any other typical college student.


“I found that the people in ROTC are really motivated and dedicated. Waking up at 6 am to go workout three times a week is brutal and I admire them so much for putting so much time and effort into something they are passionate about,” said Marie Leleu.

Behind the Story: Inside Cal Poly’s Cultural Commencement Ceremonies

In just one short week, soon-to-be Cal Poly graduates will be lined up along the edge of Spanos Stadium with their fellow peers, proudly sporting green caps and gowns, receiving diplomas, and officially becoming Cal Poly alumni.  However, this won’t be the first celebratory ceremony some students will be participating in.  Several students will have already participated in an intimate cultural commencement ceremony amongst their families, that aims to honor and recognize the accomplishments and hard work of each student.

Last month, Harvard’s first black commencement ceremony made headlines as students banded together to create their own ceremony to celebrate the achievements of black students and faculty, which they believe are overlooked.  As this story began to spread across the nation, my group and I set out to learn more about the six different cultural commencement ceremonies Cal Poly offers.


A closer look at the set-up of the Middle Eastern student commencement ceremony. Photo courtesy of Raha Haghnia.

We set out to interview most of the coordinators of the cultural commencement ceremonies, as well as some of the students who will be participating in the ceremonies.  Over the course of the past few weeks, my group members and I have had the opportunity to speak to first-generation college students, students who have overcome many obstacles at a predominantly white university, and faculty who are extremely passionate about acknowledging the dedication and hard work of underrepresented students on campus.   Group member Sophie Kelley said, “It was so heartwarming to hear advisors share why these ceremonies mean so much to not only graduates, but their entire families as well.  I think every school should work to include cultural commencement ceremonies.”

2016 Middle Eastern Student

Middle Eastern Commencement Ceremony stoles for the class of 2016. Photo courtesy of Raha Haghnia.

Before beginning this story, we asked students, non-Cal Poly students, faculty, community and non-community members about their opinion on cultural commencement ceremonies.  Since there’s been some controversy over this topic, we wanted to know if Cal Poly students thought that having additional culture-specific graduation ceremonies increased inclusivity on campus, or created more of a divide within the student body.  Shelby Funk, junior business student said, “I think the fact that there are different ceremonies is very inclusive, but also the fact that I didn’t know they existed kind of makes it feel less beneficial towards an overall inclusive effort.”

My team and I definitely encountered some obstacles along the way.  Reporting on this topic was not smooth sailing as we anticipated.  While we went into this story with nothing but good intentions, one of the cultural groups did not appreciate us attempting to better understand their culture, but rather, they were highly offended and were not receptive to working with journalists or other students.  Although we tried to make amends and continue the relationship, they were firm on their decision to not contribute to our story.  It is unfortunate because we wanted to include them in our story and highlight the students’ accomplishments, but were unable to do so.  “This has been a very challenging story to work on, but focusing on underrepresented groups on campus is extremely important.  We had to organize so many interviews and meetings, and might have rubbed a certain group the wrong way, but this has been a learning experience and I have enjoyed hearing all the different stories and experiences” Cameron Bones said.

Chicano/Latino students and coordinators group photo

Group of students who are participating in the upcoming Chicano/Latino commencement ceremony gather to take a photo with advisors who helped plan the ceremony.  Photo courtesy of Cameron Bones.

Although there were more bumps than anticipated with this story, it is the last story of our journalism career at Cal Poly, and despite the frustration, countless hours spent seeking out sources, and weeks of dedication poured into this story, I think we successfully captured what we aimed to do.  “It was a pleasure to speak to the cultural commencement coordinators and students who are participating.  Speaking for myself and my teammates, we appreciate each and every person who has shared their stories with us” Victoria Howland said.

Behind the scenes: a student-run escape room

Throughout the quarter, my group worked to find and report on stories that we felt would matter to the Cal Poly community. At the beginning of each two week cycle, we came ready with story ideas, pitched them, and talked them through before deciding on a direction to take. Our last story was a little different- instead of seeking it out, it sought us out. Having previously taken a VR class with Liberal Arts and Engineering (LAES) students and knowing how passionate they are about what they do, I was excited to have the chance to tell the story of their student-run escape room. My group members were not aware of escape rooms, but were intrigued by the concept and were eager to learn more. It immediately felt like the right fit.

Amanda Newell and Laura Hoover prepare to interview Ciera Dixon in the student-run escape room.
Amanda Newell and Laura Hoover prepare to interview Ciera Dixon in the student-run escape room.

We all agreed that the concept of an escape room was interesting, and wondered about the deeper implications of the project. We began by asking ourselves questions such as- why was this project important to the students behind it? How was this project related to the interdisciplinary LAES major? What is important to tell the Cal Poly community about LAES? Through my public relations outreach I gauged that most people did not know what an escape room was. It was clear we had a story to tell.

Compared to our previous projects, reporting on the escape room went smoothly. Laura and Amanda set out to interview LAES seniors Jack Goyette and Ciera Dixon, who were running the escape room. Jack and Ciera proved to be great sources- they were both very willing to be interviewed, and were quick to convey their passion for the project.

“The most rewarding part of engaging with LAES students was watching them talk about something they are so passionate about and seeing them light up when they got to answer questions about their accomplishments and this project,” print reporter Laura said. “Hearing Jack and Ciera explain the positive impacts this project had on their academic and professional lives was inspiring and is one of the reasons why I love journalism.”

A puzzle inside of the escape room.
A puzzle inside of the escape room.

Escape room puzzle

Though the story proved straightforward overall, there were still some challenges, particularly in finding a diversity of sources for James’ multimedia components.

“For my multimedia portion, all my sources were students,” multimedia reporter James said. “I’m used to balancing sources and information, but this story didn’t really require that so I had to let that instinct go.”

All of us came away from the project feeling like we each had learned a lot. Through working on the story, we learned about the escape room and how important it is to the students running it. We also learned about the unique opportunity LAES provides for interdisciplinary learn by doing work. This especially shone through in our interview with Ciera.

“It uses so many different skills that you don’t usually get to utilize,” said Dixon. “I’ve done script writing, I’ve done video editing, I’ve sawed things, I actually broke my foot- I’ve done so many things for the escape room that I wouldn’t have gotten to do in any other environment.”

Individually, we each had the opportunity to add to our ever-expanding journalism toolboxes. James had the opportunity to learn how to use a Matterport camera to create a virtual tour of the room. Laura’s experience reaffirmed her love of journalism. Amanda had the chance to build on skills she had not previously felt strong in.

Laura Hoover asks Ciera Dixon about her involvement in the escape room as Amanda Newell handles the camera.
Laura Hoover asks Ciera Dixon about her involvement in the escape room as Amanda Newell handles the camera.

“I did not have a lot of experience with broadcast before this project,” broadcast reporter Amanda said. “I learned so much in just two weeks about broadcast, from learning how to mic a source to capturing the perfect b-roll.”

Getting to work on this story is an experience we will all cherish as our last journalism project at Cal Poly. It was the perfect ending to a quarter full of growth and positive group collaboration.