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NU-Q Students Examine Race, Media in Ferguson, Missouri

Timely study abroad course takes students to “ground zero” of national race debate

  • Students from Northwestern University in Qatar study in Ferguson, Missouri
  • Course a “deep dive” into communication ethics and media coverage
  • Sanders: ‘I wanted our students to truly live ‘breaking news’
  • Unparalleled access to notable officials, experts and local residents

EVANSTON, Ill. --- In a rare study abroad opportunity, Northwestern University in Qatar students examined race, class and media ethics in Ferguson, Missouri, the epicenter of the renewed national civil rights debate.

Created and taught by Northwestern University professor Amy Kristin Sanders, a native of the St. Louis area, the intense four-week course focused on media coverage of the civil strife in Ferguson following the story of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man who was fatally shot by a white police officer.

Students had unparalleled access to notable officials and experts, including Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III, local civil rights leaders, law enforcement officials, residents, academics and journalists. The students -- all from Asia and the Middle East -- toured newsrooms, debated with local professors who study racial and class issues and compared international coverage with local reports.

“The Michael Brown shooting and the subsequent civil unrest are the cornerstone to what I believe to be — and what some have called — the coming of the ‘Second Civil Rights Movement’ in the United States,” said Sanders, an associate professor in residence at NU-Q. “I wanted our students to experience the historic significance of that moment in a way that allowed them to truly live ‘breaking news.’” 

Sanders first began following the news reports of the Michael Brown shooting from the the St. Louis International Airport where she was waiting for her flight to Doha, Qatar. Highly critical of the coverage Ferguson received in the national and international press, Sanders planned a deep dive into the community.

Over a two-week period, the students toured media organizations like St. Louis Public Radio and St. Louis Magazine, learned about the regional culture and history at the Old Courthouse and explored the city’s history of racial segregation at the Missouri History Museum. They also experienced uniquely American pursuits, including a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game, an afternoon barbecue in Forest Park and a trip to the top of the Gateway Arch.

“It was a creative idea to use the Ferguson incident to expose some of our Middle Eastern students to a pervasive American social problem in a thoughtful context,” said NU-Q Dean Everette Dennis. “It’s rare for them to see a smaller community, let alone one embroiled in a national crisis. They often think America is perfect or terrible; they don’t have much depth of knowledge about problems like race in the U.S.”

The seven NUQ students represented six different countries, including Lebanon, Jordan, India, Singapore, China and South Korea. Many were first-time visitors to the U.S., and they were surprised by the number of serious social problems in America -- including poverty, homelessness and racial strife, Sanders said.

“The trip helped them see that media coverage around the world paints pictures of various countries that often aren’t completely accurate,” Sanders said. “That allowed them to think critically about the accuracy of media coverage of Qatar and their own home countries.”

The study abroad course was also timely. NU-Q students were in Ferguson when a petition to oust the mayor was rejected for lacking proper signatures and while the city made a controversial decision to hire an interim city manager.

“Although a major U.S. city like Chicago, New York or Los Angeles may have had more glamour appeal to the students, the timeliness of taking them to Ferguson made the course a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Sanders said.

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