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Communications

AU as an All-Access Pass

By Shaun Conway Courtney

Journalism graduate student Shaun Conway Courtney stands at a podium in the State Department.

Four American University graduate journalism students walked confidently into the State Department and took a seat in the press briefing where State Dept. deputy spokesperson Mark Toner defended the administration's decision to pay Iran in palettes of cash.

Elsewhere other graduate students might have read the coverage of these interactions later that day or the next. But we got to see it in action and then produce our own news stories about it on deadline.

American University (AU) prides itself on having Washington as its classroom, having faculty with real world expertise and connections, and giving students hands-on training to set them apart from the competition when they apply for jobs.The School of Communication's (SOC) graduate journalism program sets a high bar for the AU experience.

Faculty member Professor Jill Olmsted worked as Washington, D.C. correspondent for nationally syndicated programs, covering the White House and federal agencies and has maintained those ties to the benefit of her current students. What's more, her past students have gone on to interesting roles that create new opportunities for access. 

"Everything in Washington is about relationships," Olmsted says. "That's the beauty of our program."

Olmsted works with a longtime connection at the State Department to get a group of students into the press briefing once a week for the entire fall semester. Students can't ask questions during the briefing but they learn from hearing working journalists ply their craft. What questions did they ask, how did they ask it and how do they follow up--students can and do read about the practice of journalism, but then at AU they get to see practitioners at the highest level actually do it. 

"This is our town," Olmsted says. 

Aaron Lerner, one of the students who attended the briefing, says he appreciates the unique access AU offers its students. 

"You can't be at Columbia, Syracuse, Stanford, and just go to briefings at State or on the Hill.  The location is so important," he says. 

One of his biggest take-aways from the briefing was the interesting balance journalists and administration officials have between being friendly and collegial and doing their jobs, which sometimes require hard questions and stonewalling.

"Seeing that dynamic firsthand for the first time was fascinating," Lerner says.

SOC graduate journalism students cover congressional hearings, Supreme Court decisions and State Department briefings during their Reporting for Public Affairs class each fall.