American students get an assignment of Olympic proportions

SOCHI, Russia -- Ball State University student Dominique Stewart traveled quite a few miles to determine if she's on the right career path. She joined almost two dozen fellow BSU journalism and public relations students on a trip from their Indiana campus to Sochi to work as reporters covering the Olympic Games.

"When you are in college, you don't really know if you really love [journalism] until you are actually in the field doing it," Stewart said. "I knew I had to come to Russia."

Stewart and her aspiring print, television and multimedia journalism colleagues had no press credentials, no Olympic venue access or VIP connections to Team USA or the Sochi Olympic Organizing Committee. But they did have a leader in Ryan Sparrow, BSU journalism professor, who started up BSU at The Games – an Olympics news website – to inspire students to pursue journalism careers and as an outlet for their work.

Nearly two dozen Ball State University journalism and public relations students traveled to Sochi, Russia, to report on the Winter Olympics.
BSU at The Games

 "Their assignment is to just find stories about the Olympics," said Sparrow, the project's director, as he brought the students and student advisers from Sochi airport. "They're immersed in the culture of the Olympics as well as Russian culture."

Stewart said she would report on the political and cultural differences between Russia and the United States. She published one of the most unique perspectives out of Sochi since the Games started - what it is like to be one of the few blacks at these Winter Olympics.

Other students used social media and old-fashioned interviews to reach out to and report on some Olympic athletes before they arrived in Russia.

"We don't have access to the athletes [in the Olympic Village] unless we've made personal connections. But we have -- we've been tweeting them and networking this entire time," said Kourtney Cooper, a 21-year-old BSU student.

Once on the ground in Sochi, the students filed photo essays, print stories and video features, which were posted to the BSU site. Some reports have been picked up by professional news outlets, including a story exploring reasons why some champion athletes bite their Olympic medals when posing for the international media. They also reported on the security situation in Sochi – militants have threatened attacks during the Winter Games.

"I feel, with all the security presence, really safe," Stewart said. "And it is really beautiful here."

Russian President Vladimir Putin deployed more than 37,000 security forces to the region to form a so-called security "ring of steel," largely to deter terrorism threats. The security crackdown has been criticized for also effectively snuffing out protest against Putin's anti-gay policies and allegations of corruption with the Games.

The students returned to BSU on Feb. 15.

Follow Alphonso Van Marsh on Twitter: @AlphonsoVM