Timothy Kenny

U.S. Fulbright Specialist, 2005,
U.S. Fulbright Scholar, 1991-1992

The effect of democracy on journalists

BUCHAREST, Romania – The black and white photograph has frayed a bit over 13 years. It shows eight Romanian students and me smiling, glasses of champagne raised in celebration at the end of our month-long odyssey to produce the first student newspaper at the University of Bucharest's Faculty of Journalism.

The year was 1992. Those students, now in their early 30, are no longer "emerging adults," as I often call students. Now they're accomplished professionals in a variety of fields, from journalism to marketing and advertising; one is a member of the Romanian Parliament. I keep that picture of my early days in Romania in my office at the University of Connecticut and look at it often. It is a snapshot, in both the literal and figurative sense, of lives impacted by democracy and the value of engaging the world.

I returned to the Faculty of Journalism in June of 2005 as a short-term Fulbright scholar, invited by the school's dean, Mihai Coman, a long-time friend, to teach a 10-day seminar to current students. Best of all, I would help celebrate a reunion with that first class of some 50 students. Since my arrival in Romania in the fall of 1991 I have returned a half dozen or more times as a reporter, teacher and journalism foundation executive.

I have kept in touch over the years with many of my former Romanian students as they made their way to American grad schools, were awarded Fulbright fellowships, found jobs in Western Europe and worked their way up the ladder in Romanian journalism and public life. Antonia Oprita is a reporter for Reuters in Bucharest; Alex Ulmanu is an editor at Evenimentul Zilei, a leading newspaper; Andy Savalescu is a PhD candidate in Canada, contemplating a return to Bucharest; Irene Buhanita teaches at the journalism faculty; Vlad Schuster is president of his own media company and Alexandra Caracoti works for the World Bank.

But it was clear at our reunion -- held at an expensive restaurant that could not have existed when I first arrived in Bucharest -- that my former students' lives were now filled with the worries of adulthood: wives and husbands, babies, buying and repairing homes and cars and, of course, finding better jobs.

Their success was what I imagined hard work would bring. Many of them, as I recall, were less optimistic about the future in 1991. We had no textbook or computers at school. Temperatures in our unheated classroom in an unheated building often hovered around 40 degrees in winter. We wore coats and soldiered on.

At our reunion, my former students recalled a journalistic lesson they learned about reporting. When a gasoline price hike was about to take effect in Bucharest the streets surrounding nearby Cotroceni Palace were filled with long lines of impatient drivers, hoping to buy "benzina" for their cars before prices skyrocketed the next day. I ordered my students out of the classroom to interview drivers about the problem.

The students complained long and loud about the assignment. They worried that no one would talk to them, that people would laugh at them because they were only students and not real reporters; besides, many said, that was not how journalism was done in Romania. "I know" I replied. "That's the point. Go report." So they went out and got quotes and wrote stories and remembered at our reunion 13 years later the value of what they too now call "legwork."

Much is different in today's cleaner, more prosperous Romania, heading toward European Union membership in 2007. Today's students are as much like Americans as they are like students from my first Bucharest class. More of today's Romanian students speak English, and speak it better, than in 1991. In my 2005 Bucharest summer school class, all 16 students carried cell phones and used computers in the classroom; most seemed more sophisticated about using computer programs than many American journalism students.

Four of the Romanians in last summer's class owned digital cameras. All had cable or satellite TV at home and watched a wide range of programs from Europe and the U.S. They used the Internet to e-mail friends in Romania and around the world. Because of the worldwide student dress code – rigidly enforced by American cultural standards via MTV and other video programs – today's Romanian students often looked like Americans.

And while students from that first class have carved out successful lives in a variety of careers, the summer class of 19-year-olds has barely begun that process. Today's Romanian students have easier lives in many ways than those in my first class, who I taught not long after Romania's 1989 Christmas revolution. The life views of today's students reflect the optimism of a Romania that boasts of progressive political leadership and an improving economy. They are upbeat about the future, seeing the glass half-full, not half-empty as their 1991 counterparts more often did.

I expect to return to Romania, perhaps as soon as this summer. That first class no longer needs a mentor, but the second one might. There are bright possibilities ahead; I'd like to see what that second group of students will do with their lives. Their accomplishments and values -- built on the hard work of the students from the class of 1991 -- will make an important difference in what Romania becomes over the next 20 years.

My fulbright experience

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Students at the advising center

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