By Raji Ramanathan

Medal of Freedom recipient Suzan Shown Harjo with Lakota  journalist Karin Eagle at NAJA.

Medal of Freedom recipient Suzan Shown Harjo with Lakota journalist Karin Eagle at NAJA.

After a 10-hour red-eye flight from San Francisco, I dragged myself out of the airport to the hotel. I knew Washington, D.C. was going to be much hotter than California, but I underestimated the humidity.

By the time I stepped into the hotel lobby in my jeans and T-shirt, I was part scorched and part delusional. And somehow, I had to get myself to NAJA’s student newsroom in time for conference.

Raji Ramanathan, 22, is UNITY’s 2015 Reporting Fellow. She is a University of California – Berkeley graduate. The fellowship was created in 2014 based on feedback from the first annual diversity caucus convened by the UNITY board. It is supported by funding from the Ford Foundation, and it allows college students to develop strong multimedia and cross-cultural reporting skills by attending five diverse journalism conventions this summer.[/author_info] [/author] I was in D.C. to attend the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) conference as a UNITY Fellow. This was my first conference, in the line of four conferences I will be attending this summer and fall as part of the UNITY Fellowship.

It’s easy to write a whole essay on how well this conference went, but I’ll keep it short. Here are three things I learned and gleaned from the Student Newsroom experience at NAJA.

1) Native Americans are extremely friendly. Prior to this conference, I did not have any Native American friends, mainly because the Native population in my hometown is only 0.5% of the city’s overall population, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The moment I stepped into the student newsroom, people greeted me with kindness and laughter. The students were so engaging and enthusiastic that I didn’t even feel any different. You can imagine how awkward it could be to be an Indian with a Bindhi, attending a Native American journalism conference. But the staff and my peers did not make the situation uneasy at all. Everywhere I went, throughout the conference, people showed interest to learn about me, my background and culture, and about UNITY. While I didn’t come in having any Native American friends, I know I walked out with a handful.

2) Native Americans are passionate about their roots and aren’t afraid to show it. Not a lot of cultures or religions in America blatantly display their culture, but some do. For example, I’m Indian and I wear a Bindhi. A lot of Catholics wear bracelets with images of Mary or saints on them. At conference, the first thing people asked one another was, “what Tribe are you?” They take pride in where they come from. Throughout the conference, I heard people singing in their native tongues, whether that was Cherokee or Choctaw, and I saw a traditional hoop dance at the Media Awards Dinner. When talking about the Washington football team’s mascot, their anger and frustration was apparent in their voices. It was powerful to see, hear, and feel such passion among conference attendees.

3) Journalism means speed. From start to end, being part of NAJA’s newsroom was constant writing, calling, interviewing, editing, reviewing, and publishing. Things were always happening and moving. Constant engagement is one of the big advantages of this industry, because journalists are always writing and posting about what’s happening in the now. So it was great being part of such a newsroom, and being mentored by accomplished and passionate professionals was just the cherry on top.

Thank you NAJA for your partnership with UNITY. This is just the first of my many conferences this summer, and NAJA has already set up a fantastic example. I’m grateful to NAJA, Native Voices program, my peers, and my mentors for making my conference experience a great-learning experience and an enjoyable one.

Already looking forward to my next convention with NABJ. Minneapolis, here I come!

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About Raji

Raji Ramanathan, 22, is UNITY’s 2015 Reporting Fellow.

She is a University of California – Berkeley graduate.

The fellowship was created in 2014 based on feedback from the first annual diversity caucus convened by the UNITY board.

It is supported by funding from the Ford Foundation, and it allows college students to develop strong multimedia and cross-cultural reporting skills by attending five diverse journalism conventions this summer.

Learn more about the fellowship here, and watch for the application in the spring in the Opportunities section of this website.

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