The Beat is a new interview series that offers aspiring Columbia Journalism School students insight into what it’s like to produce deeply reported stories for the Journalism School’s postgraduate fellowship program.
For its launch interview, The Beat highlights the latest story by Ashley Okwuosa, (’18 M.S.) postgraduate fellow and education reporter for The Teacher Project.
Okwuosa’s story examines a new law in New Jersey aimed at providing state financial aid for undocumented students.
“Immigrant organizers, teachers, and students say that while the state should be lauded for getting the application up and running so quickly, the process has been fraught with complications – some of them unavoidable, others less so,” writes Okwuosa. The story “This New Jersey Immigrant's Struggle to Attend College" was published in partnership with WNYC and Chalkbeat Newark.
Here's what she said about the story's development.
What led you to this story?
Okwuosa: I went to college in New Jersey and I'm relatively familiar with the state so when our editor Sarah Carr suggested that I look there for a story for our immigration and education series, I thought it might be interesting to look at how this new law was going to be received. Mike Elsen-Rooney, a colleague at The Teacher Project had just finished writing an incredible story about college access in Indiana, which is a state that doesn't provide any assistance for undocumented students to pursue college. New Jersey was completely different in that regard because it provides both in-state tuition and state financial aid for undocumented students, and I think we were interested in looking at a place that was doing something different and the early challenges that came with implementing this new law.
How did you find the family that was affected by this law?
Okwuosa: At the Teacher Project, we've usually focused on individual students and their individual journeys. But when I came across the Rodriguez family, I thought that the story of their family mirrored New Jersey's journey to pass this law. The family has five children and three of them all wanted to go to college at different times. For their oldest son, Sergio, it wasn't possible because New Jersey had not yet passed in-state tuition laws, which meant that he had to pay out of state tuition rates with no financial aid. His younger sister, Gloria, decided to go to college after New Jersey had passed in-state tuition laws, but she didn't have access to financial aid, which made things difficult for her. Their youngest sibling, Nestor graduated this year and has access to both in-state tuition and financial aid and can go to college if he wants to. There are a lot of families in New Jersey like the Rodriguez family and I think telling their story helps give people context about what this new law means.
How did the partnership with WNYC and Chalkbeat-Newark come about and what was the process like?
Okwuosa: At the Teacher Project, we often partner with local and national publications, but we've found that having our stories run in the publications that serve the communities we write about has been very impactful. So the decision to partner with Chalkbeat Newark, which covers education in Newark, New Jersey's largest city and WNYC, came from that.
What reporting tools and resources did you use and how long did it take you to report the story?
Okwuosa: A lot of it was shoe-leather reporting and going out to New Jersey multiple times and talking to as many people as I could. But what was interesting about this story was the focus on history, New Jersey has been attempting to pass this bill for over a decade, so I went back using Factiva and Lexis Nexis to find earlier versions of the bill that didn't pass and news articles that were written during that time. It took about five months to report the story. The bill passed in May and I started at the Teacher Project in June, so a lot of the time after that was spent watching the law unfold, talking to students as they were applying for the aid and educators as they were helping them do so. I had to wait for the first set of applications to be processed before I could really get a grasp of what the story was.