Students in Princeton University’s Summer Journalism Program (SJP) stepped into the role of news reporters for 11 days this August, preparing themselves for the rigors of a career in journalism, as well as an important first step — the college application process.
The intensive program, held Aug. 3-13, introduces high school students from underrepresented communities to the professional world of news reporting and connects them with writers, editors and producers who are active in the field. At the end of their stay, each participant is assigned a counselor who oversees their college application all the way through acceptance and the financial aid process with their chosen school.
Now in its 17th year, SJP welcomed 40 high school seniors from 17 states to Princeton this summer — its largest class.
“It’s half journalism education and half college admissions program,” said Richard Just, SJP’s executive director. “We’re trying to diversify the field of journalism.”
Just, a 2001 Princeton alumnus and editor of The Washington Post Magazine, founded the program with three classmates — Gregory Mancini, Michael Koike and Rich Tucker — who worked with him as editors at The Daily Princetonian while undergraduates. The four were concerned about the lack of diversity both at “The Prince,” as the student newspaper is known on campus, and throughout the industry.
SJP participants receive intensive training in the classroom and out in the field, holding to a packed schedule from their early wake-up in the mornings to lights out.
Each day they attend mini courses with current journalists, who introduce them to a wide range of newsgathering techniques and different types of journalism, including food writing and sports reporting. The students then put their newly acquired skills into practice, conducting man-on-the-street interviews, interviewing politicians and profiling local businesses.
“Before this I had never met an actual journalist,” said Mauricio Vasquez of Dallas, who plans to major in journalism and screenwriting. “Talking to them about their first experiences and jobs was amazing. … You can have a million lessons about journalism but I don’t think anything compares with being able to interact with someone who is pursuing this career.”
Jayda Jones of Brownsville, Pennsylvania, said the experience of attending SJP was especially invaluable because her high school does not have a newspaper or journalism courses.
“We learned what feature writing is, opinion, investigative reporting,” she said. “I’ve become a better writer and learned to produce quality writing within a timeframe.”
The students’ newsgathering was interspersed with talks by Princeton faculty and administrators, who gave them a taste of academic discourse and encouraged them to pursue undergraduate studies.
Most of the participants attend under-resourced high schools, where students typically don’t go on to elite colleges, Just said.
“They are all top students at their high schools, but most of their schools aren’t used to having students apply to Ivy League schools,” he said. “The idea is to get them to these elite schools, have them join the school newspaper, take journalism classes and eventually go on to work at top publications.”
During the last days of the program, the students worked on deadline preparing a special edition newspaper, The Princeton Summer Journal, for publication. But they also took breaks to learn about the college application process and meet with college recruiters.
“It made a difference for me getting into college,” said Jeannie Regidor, a 2015 SJP alumna who attends Harvard University. “The college counseling these kids get is great.”
Over the years, 21 SJP graduates have attended Princeton. Dozens of others have gone on to Ivy League and other elite institutions including Harvard, Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, Barnard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Those who have chosen to pursue journalism careers after graduation form a growing network, landing in newsrooms at NPR, CNBC, Newsweek, MLB.com and Mother Jones, Just said.
Some former participants return to SJP, acting as counselors for the program. Regidor attended this year along with seven other SJP alumni.
Earlier this year, Princeton University hired a program associate, Tieisha Tift, to work on both SJP and another summer program, the Princeton University Preparatory Program (PUPP). SJP receives additional program assistance from two undergraduate interns from Princeton Internships in Civic Service (PICS).
“Working with younger students who were in similar positions that I once was, I was reminded of the amazing support that I received from SJP,” said Franklin Sooho Lee, a 2010 participant, who also returned as a 2018 counselor.
Lee earned a B.A. at Harvard and an M.A. at Georgetown University and last year published a book, “The Art of Napping: The Sleeping Samurai and the Dormant Dragon,” which addresses the growing problem of sleep deprivation in major cities throughout the world. He works as a paralegal for Lutheran Social Services of New York.
“The plethora of workshops and speakers — booked not only throughout the long, summer day but also for breakfast, lunch and dinner — equipped me with incredible knowledge and skills to better navigate college and the broader world,” he said.
Spending time on Princeton’s campus and seeing how other low-income and first-generation college students like Regidor and Lee have succeeded has helped this year’s cohort of students envision themselves in a similar place a few years down the road.
Prettystar Lopez of the Bronx, New York, said although she excels academically at her high school, attending a school like Princeton didn’t seem attainable for her. “Now that I’m here, the dream of coming to an Ivy league school doesn’t seem so far away,” she said. “I’m getting comfortable here.”