Reporter’s notebook: Connecting through differences

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This story pairs with “Recovery through connection and education: A look at the opioid epidemic in Utah

Roughly 128 people in the United States died from an opioid overdose each day in 2018. The misuse of opioids was something that I had no knowledge of. I knew that sometimes people took too many prescription pills, but I had no idea of the severity of the situation. And I had no idea how close to home it was.

At the beginning of 2019, BYU invited me to collaborate with two East Coast schools: Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, and West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia. Our goal was to investigate and document how the opioid epidemic affected our three areas.

Utah County, Baltimore and Morgantown are different in many ways like demographic, religious affiliation, economic status, population and culture. I knew going into this project we would discover differences in opioid misuse, treatment, recovery and criminalization. But I had no idea that I would also be able to discover and experience firsthand the differences between our universities and newsrooms. 

I traveled to Baltimore, Maryland, with a faculty advisor and broadcast student Mary Wall. I had flown to Baltimore in the past but never stayed long. The drive to Morgan State was one I never thought I’d encounter. We went through the city, passing skyscrapers and stadiums, but we also went through the neighborhoods, seeing the dilapidated and crowded apartments. Arriving at Morgan State, I was impressed with their communications building. I had never been to a university campus outside of Utah. They had a grand conference room and a large newsroom. I found myself observing how the students interacted with the teachers and the roles they were given in this project. 

One of the first things we did when we arrived at Morgan State was eat a big lasagna meal. This gave us the perfect opportunity to get to know each other. Something that the other students immediately noticed was Mary’s wedding ring. They were shocked. A 21-year old college student who had been married for nearly a year? Unheard of. They talked at length about how crazy that was and were equally shocked to hear that young married couples were normal at BYU. We told them about how competitive married housing is in Provo and how many couples date for less than six months before getting married. At this point, one Morgan State student said he thought six years of dating wasn’t long enough. Mary and I were experiencing a culture shock, having to explain something that was so normal to us. 

For the project, we traveled around Baltimore interviewing rehabilitation center owners, community leaders, religious leaders, lawyers, politicians and professors of psychology and medicine. I learned so much from not only those we interviewed but also from those who were working alongside me. We were all basically the same: university students studying communications. But there were still significant differences. We shared stories about our homes, our culture and our beliefs. At times, I felt like I had traveled to a foreign country. I thought I would spend the entire trip working and writing, but I found myself spending a lot of time learning from other people and forming relationships. 

A few weeks later, we returned to the East Coast to visit West Virginia University. Leaving the airport, all I could see were rolling hills and trees; not a single towering mountain in sight. WVU was a beautiful campus full of old brick buildings and history. We walked through the campus and couldn’t help comparing their student center to the Wilkinson Center and their fine arts building to the Harris Fine Arts Center. It was nice to see familiar faces and reconnect with those we had met in Baltimore. 

Mary Wall and I outside the communications building on West Virginia University’s campus. This was our last day in West Virginia. The photo was taken after we had said our goodbyes and had our closing meeting to reflect on the trip’s reporting and the project’s overall progress. (Lauren Lethbridge)

We traveled around West Virginia. We experienced the culture both on and off campus. We saw things BYU definitely lacked, like party culture and frat houses. A sweet moment came when we encountered some missionaries and chased them down, most likely scaring them. 

The same night we ran into the missionaries, the West Virginia University students were excited to show us all the bars that they frequented and what they did on weekends. They led us down the bustling main street. We got shakes at a local burger joint and the WVU students asked us what we did for fun and how we relaxed from the craze of school. I think we shocked them when we said we didn’t go drinking or clubbing during our time outside of classes. We told them we would have game nights and went to places like The Soap Factory. We promised to show them what Provo kids did for fun when they came to Utah.

After our dinner, we heard a loud commotion coming from the street. We had walked past some dark alleys and at first I was a little alarmed. Then I realized that the school’s jazz band was parading down the street. One of the students working on the project was performing on her clarinet. The door to the restaurant opened and in came the band. We cleared the way and stood, sipping our shakes, enjoying our personal performance. Phones were out filming, but Mary and I stood just enjoying the music and celebrating a school we didn’t attend but couldn’t help cheering for.

During the reporting process, it was exciting to pool together our knowledge, resources and skills to create a multimedia project. We had print, digital, broadcast and radio students and instructors all working together. It didn’t always run well, but I learned a lot about working as a team and how even communication majors struggle with communicating. 

We were able to host students from both universities in May of 2019. They spoke to the county commissioner and a representative from the county’s drug and alcohol department. We took them to a rehabilitation center in Salt Lake County and also introduced them to a senior missionary couple for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who work specifically with addiction. We didn’t just give them a picture of the opioid epidemic in Utah; we also gave them a view of our culture. Utah is unique in many ways, and we were able to show that to them. We led them down Provo’s Center Street, through Temple Square in Salt Lake City and around the BYU campus. It was exciting to show people the things that made me appreciate and love Utah and BYU.

A year later, I’ve developed a greater knowledge of the opioid epidemic and how it looks in Utah, West Virginia, Maryland and the United States as a whole. I’ve been able to spend time in three different newsrooms with their staffs. Observing the differences in these places, at these universities and in these newsrooms really made me reflect on and appreciate the things I love most about BYU and its newsroom. I learned it’s important to leave your home sometimes, even if you really love it. We can all learn a lot from others, and maybe they’ll learn a thing or two from us. 

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