Students unite for documentary activism

In 1999, Courtney Spence was a sophomore in Duke University. After doing research and getting involved in a documentary media program at Duke, Courtney was particularly struck by social activism and implementing change through documentary media. In combining the two ideas, she founded Students of the World. The organization, based in Austin, Texas, sends university students around the world to document the work of nonprofit groups and global initiatives making change in developing countries.

Through the online media outlet See Change, students immerse themselves in a community for one month and produce documentary-style media for partnering organizations. This past summer, students from Duke University, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of North Carolina, Columbia University, New York University, the University of Michigan and Brown University kept blogs, shot photos and edited video from countries in Asia, South America and Africa.

Ten years into this endeavor, Courtney and Students of the World are working to make their projects more collaborative between the university students and the communities they document. The organization mostly works in Southeast Asia, Africa and South America, and Courtney would like to expand to the Middle East.

Courtney shared with me a little about how Students of the World has progressed.

Q: What is your mission at Students of the World?

A: The idea came out of wanting to find a new way for young people to engage in the world in meaningful ways, particularly with a focus on developing countries. The goal of Students of the World is to do what students do already and that’s to go out and to learn and to transcribe that learning into something with more impact, more meaning. The way we translate what we learn in the field is through multimedia, which consequently nonprofit organizations are in great need of. We empower young people to partner with innovative problem-solvers around the world to produce and leverage documentary-style media — films, photography, audio documentary pieces, and magazine and journal articles. Then they return to campus and do advocacy events in the community for that organization as well.

Young student in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo | Verneva Ziga, Columbia University

Q: How did Students of the World start?

A: We started off really humble and small. We went to this one orphanage village in Russia, which was designed literally to care for orphans from some of the worst off-state orphanages in Russia at the time, and we lived with families. We didn’t speak Russian and they didn’t really speak English, but it was an amazing experience for me to realize that you didn’t necessarily need to speak the same language to communicate and understand. We did predominantly black and white still photos and written articles. We came home, did a bunch of presentations at Duke, and it was really a successful model in terms of the academic community that came to listen about this, but also the students that were participating. It grew very organically. The next year we went to Cuba, and then we saw an expansion to the University of Texas and University of Michigan. I didn’t really push for this. I told other students about it, but there was definitely an interest that was larger than I thought it would be. In the past couple of years, we’ve really tailored our focus to be a media and marketing provider for organizations and using students to do that.

Young girl at the Sehgal Foundation's model school in Notki, India. Photo | Juan Elizondo, University of Texas at Austin

Patient at an eye clinic in Dar E Salaam, Tanzania - part of Standard Chartered Bank's initiative to combat avoidable blindness "Seeing is Believing" Photo | Shaylene Spaniola, University of Michigan

Q: How do you pick the places that you send the teams?

A: It’s evolved over time. This is our fourth year working with the Clinton Global Initiative to identify our partners. In turn we would provide them with media about what their organizations are doing. The Clinton Global Initiative looks at issues through a different lens — climate change, health, women’s empowerment, and education — and with them we get to look at a broader range of issues. I think there is something inherently different in hiring a production company … versus bringing on six young people to immerse themselves in a community for a month and really have a chance to dive deep into a program and thus creating more powerful and organic storytelling.

Family from Notki village in India. Photo | Megan Peyton, University of Texas at Austin

Q: What power do you believe students have to change what’s out there?

A: Six years ago, there was a sort of discounting students and the kind of work they can produce. In the past couple of years, we’ve been able to see, especially through Facebook, the election, and other ways, that there’s been this newfound respect for youth-generated media and the importance for media literacy among students and the innovative approach they take. In students we see this sense of optimism, and positivity and collaboration, and they really want to contribute to society at large.

Two boys in northern Uganda. Photo | Emily Silverman, Brown University

Students of the World
See Change

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