From Melbourne to Missouri

30 January 2011

Written by: Lawrie Zion

A bustling newsroom with journalists typing away, a police scanner which is humming, and an editor who has just found the breaking news story of the day all help to set the scene in my alternative classroom.

A fatal shooting had taken place in nearby and as the journalist on duty I headed off with one other reporter (a fellow Australian, believe it or not) and a photographer to report on my first murder scene.

In 2009 I made what I felt was quite a big decision to study abroad. Somewhere along the application process I found myself applying to the University of Missouri (MU), primarily for its well-known journalism school.

MU is basically located in the middle of the US, far from the coastal confines that most La Trobe students are accustomed to.  The town of Columbia has a population of just over 100,000 people, 50,000 of which are your typical American students who are identical to what you would have seen in movies. Yes, the town is filled with fraternities, cheerleaders and a football team that students will die for.

The question that I consistently get asked is ‘why would you come to Missouri?’ and it is a fair one. It is essentially in the middle of nowhere, such a long away from the beaches of California or the bright lights of New York.

 What differentiates MU from schools across the US or even the world is its hands-on approach to learning. In my first semester here I chose a class which included working at a local newspaper which is connected with the university.

Do not kid yourself though, this is far from a school newspaper. The Columbia Missourian is one of two major newspapers that service Columbia and the surrounding areas. This daily paper has all the facilities that a real newspaper has, from editors, sub editors, a graphics department and photo department, right down to its very own library.

At any given time this newsroom can be filled with 40 or so individuals all working on tomorrow’s newspaper. All of this brings me back to my general assignment shift which ended with this story.

To be honest I have no trouble in admitting that I was ridiculously stressed and concerned to be heading to be a murder scene in a neighbourhood I knew nothing about with a photographer I met as we dashed to his car.

Upon arrival at the scene I was shocked to see a street filled with dozens of civilians calmly standing by cars and houses, talking like it were just a normal day. This was combined with the two police officers who were, in a true American fashion, eating McDonalds behind crime scene tape.

This was something I never thought I would see for many years to come and yet here I was in my second year of university interviewing police officers and neighbours of the victim trying to discover information and some sort of an angle to the story.

The arrival of the victim’s family caused the small cul-de-sac to turn into an emotional hot spot. Our photographer was told quite explicitly by the family that it would be much safer for him to stop taking photographs.

This is just one experience of many I could list from my time at MU’s journalism school. At times you may find yourself stressed, overwhelmed or even scared but it’s all for the best. In the end you come out with a new sense of confidence, an entire group of new friends and skills which are hard to attain anywhere else in the world.

Deciding to go on exchange is not just about school though. It’s about the experience of mixing with people from other countries and dealing with the challenges of living far away from home.

Believe it or not Americans love Australians. Never in my life have I been asked so many questions about the mythical creature, also known as the kangaroo, or queried on how much Fosters I drink.

Everyone does seem to have a certain perception of American society; however if there is one thing I have learnt from my time at MU it’s that you should never trust these preconceived ideas.

I’m sure when I meet many people it’s expected that I was best friends with Steve Irwin, surf daily and know how to catch my own crocodiles. After living in America for this semester I’ve noticed that we are far more similar than we both care to admit and that our perceptions of one another are far from correct.

The experience at MU is like no other, and if the opportunity arises for any students to go on exchange here, I could not recommend it highly enough.

Matthew Dixon is a final-year Bachelor of Journalism student. He promises to return to Australia in the middle of 2011.