Intern Insights: Elon students help people across the country share their stories

This summer nine School of Communications students are interning virtually at RadicalMedia, working on PBS’s American Portrait project.

Nine storytellers from Elon are turning the tables this summer and learning to help others tell their own stories.

Working virtually, these School of Communications students are interning with RadicalMedia, a media and communications company, and working with the national storytelling project PBS American Portrait. American Portrait encourages people to submit self-made videos addressing prompts such as “My greatest challenge is…” or “The tradition I carry on is….” Through the initiative, PBS is offering anyone the opportunity to be heard and offering an honest glimpse into what life is truly like for residents across the country.

The communications students interning with RadicalMedia are Annabelle Baker, Jazmin Bender, Ashlyn DeLoughy, Anita Hallberg, Sam Porozik, Shekinah Reese, Jasmine Ruffin, Mackenzie Wilkes and Jordan Young.

Young ’22, a cinema and television arts major, uncovered a touching love story involving an unlikely souvenir and a Ford Taurus. As an intern, one part of Young’s job is to find people with interesting stories in specific geographic areas. Researching South Dakota, she found a retired teacher named Kat and convinced her to record and submit her story.

With tears in her eyes, Kat tells the story of a trip she and her late husband took 30 years ago to a remote campsite in Montana. Accessing the spot was rough on their Ford, but the week they spent fishing and swimming and falling in love in the wilderness was perfection. She still has a smooth, crooked stick she found during that trip. She holds it up for the camera, and in a hushed tone shares that the stick is the most valuable thing she owns.

Cinema and television arts major Jordan Young ’22 is an intern with RadicalMedia this summer, working on PBS’s American Portrait project.

“I was so excited and happy that Kat submitted her story,” Young said. “I do video calls with people, and she shared that story when we talked about vacation souvenirs. Once it was published online, my mom and I watched it together, and I was tearing up seeing the look in her eye. She’s still so in love after all this time.”

Helping the participants wrangle the technology and methods to successfully record videos is another part of the work these Elon students are doing this summer. Anita Hallberg ’22, a cinema and television arts major, says that it’s an interesting dilemma to be producing an interview without touching any equipment. She instructs people virtually, helping but also taking care to empower and not intimate potential submitters.

“I give a brief set of essential instructions but spend more time talking about the value of their story and ways to tell it,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s much more important for their voice to be heard and their story to be the way they want it to be. Authenticity is key.”

Communications skills that the interns have sharpened in their Elon classes are proving essential for their RadicalMedia internships. The students must first conduct research and network online to find potential participants. Then they need to build a connection with participants. Hallberg points to her experience in elondocs, Elon’s documentary-making initiative, as incredibly instructive.

Anita Hallberg ’22, a cinema and television arts major, is working on PBS’s American Portrait project this summer as an intern with RadicalMedia.

“People say, ‘I don’t have anything interesting going on in my life.’ But when you talk to them for a minute you find out fantastic things that the rest of the world would think are amazing,” Hallberg said. “elondocs really helped me develop the skillset to discover great stories and ask the right questions.”

The interns use celebrations and holidays like Independence Day or Pride Month as themes to guide them to people as they’re researching locations. Cinema and television arts major Sam Porozok ’22, a musician himself, used Instagram to connect with musicians in Kentucky to help them prepare stories to celebrate World Music Day in June. He discovered Natalie, a violinist in rural Appalachia, and she agreed to share her story, filming herself playing fiddle while standing on a mountaintop.

The students are participating as well, uploading videos of themselves describing themes like what gets them out of bed in the morning, what they’ll do when the COVID-19 pandemic is over and their greatest challenge.

Through the internships, these students are gaining valuable experience that will serve them as they prepare to enter the job market after graduation. The students are enrolled in an Elon course connected with the internship, and they interview professionals they’re working with at RadicalMedia for the class. They’re learning about their colleagues’ career paths while evaluating their own interests. Porozok said he’s now considering being a casting director, and Young said her interest in documentary-style storytelling has been reaffirmed. Hallberg plans to be a documentarian, and the internship aligns perfectly with that goal.

“It’s giving me the experience of working in a professional production studio with knowledgeable team members,” Hallberg said. “Right now, I’m reaching out to people and encouraging them to tell stories. These skills are something I will carry with me forever.”