Northeastern journalism students win nine student Emmy Awards for stories on Cuba, METCO, and reinventing TV news

Former Northeastern graduate student and Emmy Award winner Tiffany Montagne (left) interviews local Cuban artist Nicolas Alayo with the help of Cuban-based translator Emily Moran (center). Photo by Irvin Zhang/Northeastern University

They knew reporting in Cuba was going to be tricky; the country has some of the most restrictive laws on free speech and press freedom in the Americas.

Throw in a few tropical storms dumping torrential rains, limited internet, and no access to phones, and the 18 Northeastern students who set out to tell the story of Cuba last year faced a true challenge.

Despite those odds, they successfully uncovered stories no other reporters were writing about as part of a Dialogue of Civilizations program last year that was led by Carlene Hempel, a teaching professor in the School of Journalism.

In May, they were among nine journalism students from Northeastern that won Boston/New England Emmy Awards from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in recognition of their work. The awards showcase outstanding achievements in production by undergraduate college and high school students who are studying media and journalism.

Northeastern student Jonathan Mejia interviews a Cuban tourism official with the help of program teaching assistant and former Northeastern student Danny Mortimer. Mejia won an Emmy Award for his piece, “Cuba Tourism Under Trump.” Photo courtesy of Carlene Hempel

“These students showed incredible video storytelling skills by finding compelling stories in a foreign country while navigating the language barrier and cultural differences,” said Mike Beaudet, a professor of the practice in the School of Journalism. “They told stories most reporters who go to Cuba aren’t telling because they took the time to talk with locals and gain their trust.”

Hempel recalled many 3 a.m. visits at the home where the students were living in Havana and finding them sitting around a table, working into the early hours of the morning.

“It was that sort of environment there,” she said. “They were an incredibly committed, collaborative group of students, and they just did extraordinary work. The Emmys are just one more validation that they were just at the top of their game in Cuba.”

Fourth-year student Jonathan Mejia earned an award for a piece in which he examined the impact that President Donald Trump’s presidency has had on sectors of Cuba’s economy that are dependent on tourism.

“I came to Northeastern knowing that I wanted to be a TV journalist,” Mejia said. “And like any other student, you go through doubts; you ask if it’s for me. But every time I was on assignment, there was no more better satisfaction than being able to go out and tell stories. Informing the community about what’s going on, and holding those in power accountable gave me great satisfaction.”

Kaitlyn Budion, a third-year journalism student, produced an award-winning piece with Paxtyn Merten titled “The Magical Mechanics of Cuba.” The video chronicles the people who work on dilapidated classic American sedans often found in the streets of Cuba as a hobby as well as those who do it out of necessity.

“I am happy to have the chance to show more people this side of Cuba,” Budion said. “The old cars are such an iconic part of the country, but as outsiders I don’t think Americans consider the work that goes on behind the scenes, and that is what we wanted to show people.”

Fifth-year student Danae Bucci’s short documentary for Beaudet’s experimental video storytelling class won an Emmy Award in the non-fiction short-form video category. The video, titled “METCO: The Strengths and Struggles Of Diversity,” was produced with fellow Northeastern students William Bryan and Sophia Fox-Sowell and chronicles a high school student’s hour-long commute by bus to school one morning.

“Literally my heart, my sweat, and tears went into it,” Bucci said of the piece. “There were times I was crying in the booth.”

The assignment required Bucci to return to her alma mater, Bedford High School, a suburban Boston public school in that uses a system called METCO, which stands for the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity. Initiated in the mid-1960s, the program was intended to desegregate public schools by allowing students from Boston’s under-performing school districts to attend a high-performing school and boost their academic opportunities. The program was also meant to benefit the schools, because it helped them to diversify. But METCO hasn’t been without its drawbacks.

Bucci became aware of one of those pitfalls shortly after she started school there. Some students were getting up as early as 4 a.m. every day in order to get to school on time, sacrificing their sleep for a better education.

“I moved here when I was a sophomore in high school,” said Bucci. “I came from the South; I had never seen a school system like this.”

Bryan, a graduate who now works in Berlin, Germany, filmed and edited the piece during his final semester at Northeastern. He said he was surprised and grateful to learn that the video had been submitted by Beaudet.

“He taught an awesome class on experimental storytelling and to see that the work he helped us create is getting recognized around Boston is truly an awesome reward for all of the hard work we put in,” he said.

Daniel Bruzzese, a third year student who is studying media arts, won an award for his animation work for a project called “Reinventing Local TV News.” He created a variety of animations and motion graphics to supplement a news story package.

“My work on the project varied stylistically depending on the context and mood of the story, and included both 2D and 3D animation,” he said. “For some stories my contributions were only seconds long. And for others, I animated nearly the entire story, like in our video about Facebook privacy breaches.”

After graduating from Northeastern, Bruzzese said he’d like to work for a large animation studio, “and maybe someday also win an Oscar to keep the Emmy company.”

The winners will be recognized at the 42nd Boston/New England Emmy Awards Ceremony on June 15. A complete list of winners can be found here.

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