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AAJA SDSU empowers students to be fearless

For The Daily Aztec Opinion Section

AAJA Officers Hannah Ly, Petrina Tran, Sumaia Wegner and Brittany Cruz-Fejeran pose for a photo. Photo by Christie Yeung

At 10 p.m. on Oct. 5, I texted the group chat for the Asian American Journalists Association at San Diego State University’s (AAJA SDSU). I had a crazy idea.

After a conversation with our San Diego Chapter president JoAnn Fields, I wanted us to go to Lahaina, Maui, to write about residents affected by the August wildfires. 

Hannah Ly immediately responded, “We are crazy!”

Petrina Tran sent a gif from the movie “Frozen” that said, “I love crazy!”

Sumaia Wegner said, “Oh snap, crackle pop rice krispies!” in all caps, which we took as a sign of approval.

We later named this initiative the Lahaina Project. 

This year’s leadership – consisting of myself, Ly, Tran, Wegner and Kennedy Prado – challenges every student journalist to be bold in their pursuit of field experience. 

Through the Lahaina Project, we proved that we can do whatever we set our minds to. 

My biggest fear was leading the team into something that might be a complete waste of time. But if I had given in to those thoughts, we never would’ve learned all that we did.

In just two months, we planned a week-long trip to Maui during finals season — a feat that usually takes several months of preparation. We did it through sheer determination and support from everyone around us.

In preparation for the trip, we studied trauma-informed reporting, Lahaina’s history and its current events. We also informed ourselves of the historical misconceptions of Hawaiians and their culture to ensure we didn’t make those mistakes. 

During our stay, we conducted interviews with indigenous locals, tourists, activists and politicians. We photographed and filmed as much of Lahaina as we could including the “burn zone.” We learned how to collaborate and follow our instincts when our plans change.   

“Never before had I been challenged in so many ways,” Ly said. “Jumping at opportunities and adapting to plans on short notice became second nature.”

There were many challenges we overcame – a sudden invite to visit the “burn zone,” a historical tour we planned to attend that wasn’t happening anymore, a good source decided against being one out of the safety of their family and some very hot sand. 

Tran said that the experience gave her confidence in her own abilities as a journalist.  

“I learned so much just shadowing my peers and teammates, the way they work, the way they think or plan or interview or formulate questions,” she said. “One of my favorite parts of the trip was when we’d come back to the apartment in the evening, make dinner, sit and debrief about the day, talk about journalism ethics and how to navigate things, or ask professors and mentors for help.”

We made sure to challenge ourselves by diving into new skills. For Wegner, that challenge was creating a news feature out of what we learned. The project emboldened her to explore more branches of journalism.

“As someone who isn't as experienced with covering news, my appreciation for its coverage grew. I stick to sports because it is light-hearted,” she said. “However after this trip, I learned that reporting on hard-hitting news, the things that make you question and wonder why things are the way they are, is needed to make any kind of change.”

Ly, Wegner, Tran and I will make our own paths to being better journalists. Our new program, Students Traveling Across Regions to Empower, Represent and Serve (STARTERS), embodies that. As student journalists, we not only gained confidence in ourselves but we learned how to cover a narrative so different from our own.

Since starting AAJA with my peers in 2022, I wanted to do something more than go to a convention and listen to lectures. We get enough of that at school. 

Never did I think I would lead us to a trip across the ocean, let alone working with a team that helped me carry the burden of getting us there. 

As students witnessing the industry scramble for a sustainable business plan, we can’t help but wonder how to find more meaningful work in journalism. 

According to a report published by Northwestern Local News Initiative, in 2023 newspapers vanished at an average rate of more than two a week. Locally, we saw esteemed San Diego Union-Tribune journalists leave a job they’ve had for decades after it was sold to hedge fund Alden Global Capital. 

These existential questions are even stronger for graduating seniors entering the workforce. 

We love the power journalism has to make change. As the industry evolves in ways we cannot predict, it is essential to be bold in how we find our stories. 

AAJA didn’t go there to “save” anyone. We acknowledged that our stay was for our own benefit regardless of the volunteer work we did. Trips into indigenous lands should be handled with respect and sensitivity. Informed consent was at the forefront of every conversation and our sources tended to open up even more, knowing we respected their choice.

Thank you to our mentors and advisors for guiding us. Our biggest thanks goes to the people of Lahaina who shared their lives with us, told us their stories and treated us strangers like we were family. This trip taught us to be fearless and crazy ideas can become a life-changing adventure.

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