The Society of Environmental Journalists conference helps students make the grade

Knight Center crew at SEJ conference in Pittsburgh, from left: graduate students Gloria Nzeka, Apporva Joshi, Carol Terracina, Research Director Bruno Takahashi, Director Eric Freedman, graduate student Tony Van Witsen, Associate Director David Poulson, graduate student Jack Nissen

By David Poulson

Rubbing shoulders with the world’s top environmental journalists is a great opportunity for students each fall at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conferences, like the one coming up this Oct. 9-13 in Fort Collins, Colo.

It’s educational, inspiring and exciting for them. And the rest of the membership benefits from the buzz and hustle that the students bring. It’s an investment in the future of the organization and in environmental journalism.

Can we get more of them there?

Brian Bienkowski went to his first SEJ conference as a Michigan State University graduate student in 2010 when it was in Missoula, Montana. Today he’s the editor of Environmental Health News and has twice won recognition as a professional in the SEJ annual awards contest. Last year he co-chaired the SEJ conference in Flint, Michigan.

“Attending that first conference gave me access to people I considered role models,” said Bienkowski, a former reporter for the Knight Center’s Great Lakes Echo. “I had only written a handful of stories and here I was on tours and in panel sessions — on equal ground — with reporters from National Geographic and The New York Times. … That first conference was a huge step for me professionally. People I looked up to were now peers and many became friends.”

This year, the winners of the new student category of SEJ’s reporting contest will come to Fort Collins, Colo. courtesy of the Ray Reece “Excellence in Environmental Journalism” Student Award.

That’s wonderful new support and incentive for students. We hope it continues in the years ahead.

The challenge: How do we get more students there? Here are a few ideas of sources of funding faculty can pursue for their students:

Your own institution. Your university, college or department may have a line item designated for student conference attendance. These aren’t always well-publicized, so ask. Sometimes they are restricted to student researchers. But you can make the case that an SEJ conference is vital for improving student research skills. Here at Michigan State such support is restricted to students making presentations at a conference. If that’s the case for you, next year pitch SEJ conference organizers on a presentation by your students. Or work with colleagues to organize a session with representatives of several schools. There may be other funding for graduate students who use the conference as a resource for thesis or dissertation work.

Non-journalism funders. Many science and environmental research institutions have a public outreach mandate. Sending students to an environmental journalism conference may meet that requirement of their funders. Last year, the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research, a consortium of regional universities, sent five students from member institutions to the SEJ conference in Flint. Groups like that don’t know of this opportunity unless you invite their support.

Small environmental and other local funders. If the conference is local, solicit support from foundations that may be interested in supporting the cheap student daily registrations, tour costs and membership fees. They may be unable to contribute to overall conference costs, but delighted to help get students there. I made a call last year to a small local family foundation and got support for my environmental journalism class to attend one day of the nearby conference and to become SEJ members.

Legacy funders. If the annual conference had once been in your community, ask some of the funders of that effort if they’d send some of your students to the conference elsewhere. SEJ leaves a favorable impression with our conference supporters. But once we take our show to another venue hundreds or even thousands of miles away, local and regional funders may have little motivation to contribute again. Tell them that by sending your students to another conference, your community benefits when those students return better prepared to cover the local environment.

Training grants. Build attendance at an SEJ conference into the programming costs of the training grants you develop. Michigan State University had a U.S. State Department grant to train Chilean journalists and journalism students about environmental issues last year. Part of the program brought them to the SEJ conference.

The University of Colorado has funding for its Ted Scripps fellowship to bring five fellows, two faculty and two graduate students to SEJ, says Tom Yulsman, the director of the university’s Center for Environmental Journalism. Other center grants provide similar support.

Think creatively when you go after those grants. An SEJ conference is a convenient way of providing diverse and intensive programming fast.

Research grants. You can’t beat an SEJ conference for finding journalists to interview or survey about environmental journalism. Build SEJ conference attendance by your research assistants into your next journalism research grant.

Have other ideas for getting students to SEJ’s annual conference? Send them to me at I’ll get them distributed. Heck, I’ll steal them and use them myself.

David Poulson is the senior associate director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism and the academic representative on SEJ’s board of directors. This article first appeared in the SEJournal.

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