Sheila Raghavendran

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Testimonial: It wasn’t until Voices that I worked with a minority-majority team

This testimonial for the Asian American Journalists Association’s VOICES program originally appeared on the AAJA VOICES blog.

I’ve lived all my 20 years in America’s Heartland. Because of that, I’ve been in several rooms – classrooms, newsrooms – where I am one of few people of color. It’s afforded me an inevitable toughness.

It wasn’t until Voices that I worked with a minority-majority team.

Over the summer, our class logged onto weekly virtual training sessions with minority professional journalists. One week, we talked with a journalist about how to combat prejudice in newsrooms. We shared challenges we faced as minorities in our newsrooms, and the minority journalist gave us sympathy and advice on how to speak up.

For me, speaking up had often been a lonely responsibility – talking with the group was a realization of solidarity. It was comforting and motivating.

That motivation only gained momentum from my group’s story. Over three months, we tackled an ambitious investigation into America’s newsroom diversity, fueling our adrenaline each time we scored another morsel of information or fiery quote. We talked to minority reporters and editors, inadvertently previewing what could be our future experiences as minority journalists.

Our Voices faculty championed us through the deadline. We posted the story at the end of a 15-hour day, with a memorable burst of excitement and relief.

My favorite moment of the program came when my class sat together and presented our stories in front of AAJA members. We finally had something profound to show for our months of deep reporting on minority issues. I smiled watching my classmates light up talking about their work. They revealed fascinating information and gracefully answered tough questions from the audience.

I was proud to sit next to these minority journalists, proud of the stories we told and proud to have been part of the Voices class of 2017.

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‘black-ish’ characters search for relatable American Girl, and I do too

Moms and daughters buzzed around the doll store in search of the perfect mini-me. There were plenty of white options – the bonneted Cassandra, doctor Winnie, Wilma on Wheels and dozens of others. But for Bow and Diane, on a season three episode of “black-ish”, there were only two black choices: Sassy Sadie, a runaway slave, and Sassy Selma, a civil rights activist.

“With all the black history, you choose to focus on our oppression and struggle, when there are so many role models to choose from,” Bow says to a white employee at the fictional doll store GirlStory, and lists examples of those role models – such as TV producer Shonda Rhimes, ballet dancer Misty Copeland and former first lady Michelle Obama.

Frustrated that she couldn’t give Diane a doll of a black character she could aspire to be, Bow stages a protest outside the store with signs like “Black Toys Matter” and “Shonda Not Slaves”. See a clip from the episode here.

That frustration is a familiar sentiment in my family. When we were kids, my parents gave my sister and me a doll catalogue. It was for decorative dolls – not the kind you play with, but that you keep on display, and for us, to look up to. My sister found the Indian doll first: a beautiful woman in an orange sari with a red bindi on her forehead. There were no other South Asian options, so I went with a white doll. She was gorgeous, too, but it was harder for me to picture myself in her blue ball gown.

A year ago, my sister and I stopped by the American Girl store at the Easton Mall in Columbus, Ohio. We combed over the in-depth documentation of white history – Revolutionary-period Felicity Merriman, 1930’s era Kit Kittredge, the 70’s Julie Albright. We found some dolls of color, like Kaya, a Native American doll, but no one who represented our South Asian heritage. Though American Girl has made deliberate effort to increase its diversity, like with its introduction of Z Yang, a Korean-American doll in April, its choices are poor. The company also discontinued two dolls of color from its historical campaign in 2014.

American Girl released one South Asian doll, Sonali Matthews, in 2009. She was discontinued after one year because she was part of American Girl’s “Girl of the Year” limited edition series. Sonali was not the main character in 2009’s Girl of the Year – it was Chrissa Maxwell, a white doll, and Sonali was released as her “accompanying doll”. (Moreover, American Girl has had few Girls of the Year of color since beginning the campaign in 2001.)

The American Girl website boasts a “wide range of dolls—featuring light, medium, and dark skin tones, as well as a variety of face molds, eye colors, hair styles and textures, plus hundreds of accessories and stories”, but in the Chrissa book and movie, the only South Asian character doesn’t address any conflicts of being South Asian-American, and that’s a problem because it disregards our minority experience.

This is one of the pictures American Girl has on its Product Diversity page to prove its expansive choices. Sure, some of these dolls look like me (especially the second from the left on the third row) — but none of the dolls are intentionally South Asian. The doll that looks most like me is from the Truly Me campaign, which is designed to “make her unique to you”. It’s great that girls like me can find dolls that look like them, but since the Truly Me dolls are ethnically ambiguous and don’t have storylines in the American Girl brand, they don’t adequately represent South Asian girls.

As I stood in the American Girl store, unable to really connect with any of the dolls, I felt out of place. The company seemingly side-stepped South Asian-American history, skipping dolls inspired by author Jhumpa Lahiri, congresswoman Pramila Jayapal or actress Mindy Kaling.

The “black-ish” episode ends with Bow giving Diane a set of nunchucks, which she wanted, and apologizing for not being able to give her a doll that proves she can be anything she wants. Diane says she already has that proof from seeing Bow as a successful doctor.

My story is similar. I never got a South Asian doll, but that doesn’t mean I was ever short of South Asian role models. I saw my dad, an engineer; my mom, a fashion designer; my uncle, a university professor; Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent; Aziz Ansari, an actor; Malala Yousafzai, an activist. Though I have yet to find a toy that tells my story, I can see myself in the real people around me, and that has always been enough.

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Double life: The realized purpose of my Indian-American heritage

On June 8, I was suspended in air and time between New Delhi, India and Bangkok, Thailand. I was traveling with IU2U, a program that holds pre-orientation workshops abroad for incoming IU international students. The plane became a transitional vessel, not only physically, but also figuratively. I sat with my seat in its upright position, too wired to sleep, as I acknowledged my confusing, often conflicting identities. The last two cities I had been in were New Delhi and Dubai, where Hindi is a primary language. My brown skin lets me pass on the street without stares, but my English words in an American accent give me away. It’s a discrepancy that locals often can’t help but point out: in Gurgaon, a family scrutinized me for not knowing Hindi, but did a double take when I smoothly said “aunty” instead of “misses”. I was tested on my Indian-ness, just as I’m tested on my American-ness in the States.

In Thailand, I didn’t look or sound like most people, and for the first time, I didn’t have to. As an unarguable foreigner, I had nothing to prove and was relieved to let my guard down. I talked to Ralph, Jan and Jean – some of the students from the Thai Student Association who came to the Bangkok workshop – about things as trivial as pumpkin pie and winter weather. The feeling of being so foreign that there is nothing to lose moved me.

I remember attending elementary school in my mostly-white Ohio suburb. At parent open houses at school, the other Indian mothers would gravitate toward my own, expressing relief that their child could be friends with me. I would be furious – offended that they would want to be my friend solely because the color of my skin matched. I look back at that haunting memory and cringe. I am embarrassed that I tried to reject my heritage, because now I understand what it’s like to be the only person of color in a room and the support that I long for in those situations. In the years since then, I’ve learned to develop a grit, a toughness, though sometimes thin, and feel a similar sense of camaraderie when I see other minorities.

During IU2U’s workshop check-ins, when parents saw me, I saw the same look in their eyes as of Indian parents’ in my elementary school: comfort and relief. This time I was able to redeem my 9-year-old self – I welcomed these families. I did what I could to calm their nerves, understand their concerns and offer my insight.

That’s my goal from now on – to be a champion of minorities in America. I was part of a team through the Asian American Journalists Association’s VOICES college program that produced a story about the lack of newsroom diversity. I have begun crafting a proposal to the Media School to improve its diversity and services. I want to write an investigative report about diversity at IU – a school that touts its legacy “of rich diversity and inclusivity”, but has a high non-minority population of 79%. There are changes I want to see, changes that need to happen, and I am excited to be around to help them to fruition.

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Uber CEO Resignation: Is Worldwide Taxi Culture Changing?

I spent the first two weeks in June traveling in South Asia with a group from my university. It was gorgeous, exciting and hot hot hot. While in Bangkok, I took special interest in taxi culture.

During the first part of our trip, we were in Dubai and Delhi, where many people speak Hindi. There were four Indian students on our trip who spoke Hindi, so navigating the area and communicating with taxi drivers wasn’t a problem. In Bangkok, where the official language is Thai, we didn’t have that advantage.

From the inside of a tour van in Bangkok.

Our hotel gave us wallet-sized cards with the hotel address in Thai and English, so that if we got lost we could communicate with locals across the language barrier. We had to trust our instincts when getting into taxis in Bangkok — at night and with unfamiliar destinations. It’s a risk getting into a car with a driver whom you have difficulty communicating, but it’s a risk getting into a taxi anywhere. Stories like that of a woman raped by her Uber driver in New Delhi are haunting.

That scandal and many more, including reports of sexism and workplace harassment within the company, led to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick taking an indefinite leave of absence. After leaving Bangkok and reaching the States last week, my phone lit up with notifications about Kalanick’s announcement. Around 1:30 am ET last night, my phone buzzed again with the news that Kalanick had resigned.

His resignation marks a movement to improve taxi culture around the world. A recognition of the problem. Now it’s a test to see if the steps to improve work.

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Risks to National Security Challenge Thorough Reporting

On May 10, President Trump exposed information about Islamic State operations to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak. Trump did not have permission to discuss this restricted information with Russia, and news organizations are now being asked to withhold reporting certain information that was shared. The journalistic mantra of whole-truth reporting is clashing with the national security commotion.

NBC News reported:

Trump told the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador in the Oval Office that the Islamic State had used stolen airport security equipment to test a bomb that could be hidden in electronic devices and slipped undetected into an airplane cabin, the officials said. And he named the city in ISIS-held Syria in which the intelligence was gathered, the officials added.

U.S. intelligence officials have asked NBC News and other media organizations not to report the type of equipment, where it was stolen, and the name of the city where the intelligence was gathered, because doing so could harm U.S. national security, they say. But Trump told the Russians those things, the U.S. officials said, as he described intelligence that led to the new rules banning electronic devices in the cabins of certain flights.

Denying media access to problems in Washington is an issue. Jennifer Rubin wrote in The Washington Post that Trump is “impairing intelligence-sharing that is critical to our national security.” If safety in this country, safety on airplanes and alliances with other countries are in jeopardy, the people deserve to know. Not only may national security be at risk, but also free press.

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NYT’s Kids Section is the Fuel for Young Minds

I distinctly remember, at 11 years old, making a mental note that 11-year-olds were capable. Someone had just told me that they would explain something to me when I was older — unfairly, I thought. I wanted to make sure that when I became older, I would know that 11-year-olds can take it. I didn’t want to condescend to anyone, because I understood the barrier it created.

The New York Times’ special projects editor Caitlin Roper also understands that barrier. On Sunday, May 14, she unleashed the first-ever Kids’ Section. According to the Times, “For a paper that appeals to young readers, the editors were mindful not to talk down to them.” The section included an opinion page from P.S. 92 fourth graders, blurbs from professionals about how they became what they are, a center spread with tips for drawing on newspaper photos, and more.

The most crucial part of the section is the diversity it encompasses. There are pictures and drawings of people of different colors, hot international vacation spots and explanations of problems that different people face. I grew up in suburban Ohio and wasn’t exposed to this wide of a range in thought and experience. I can imagine that it’s especially insightful to kids growing up like I did.

The “How I Became…” blurbs are interspersed throughout the section. The first is from Senator Kamala Harris, who starts out by explaining school desegregation in one simple and understandable sentence: “(Making) schools more equal so kids who looked different could learn together”. Animator Kira Lehtomaki talks about her love for the movie “Sleeping Beauty” as soon as 3 years old. Wildlife Veterinarian Suzan Murray says she realized what she wanted to be when she was 5 and watching Jane Goodall on TV with her dad.

When I was in kindergarten, I had to write down what I wanted to be when I grew up. I came home in tears of frustration. I didn’t want to be an engineer like my dad, or a fashion designer like my mom or a teacher like my teacher — and since those were the 3 main adults in my life, I was stumped. It’s cool of the New York Times to introduce kid readers to careers that they otherwise might not know about in a way that’s understandable but not demeaning.

The section’s center spread encourages kids to pick up a marker and doodle on the newspaper’s pictures. It’s really genius — not only can kids practice on the pictures in the kids’ section, but they can explore the rest of the paper, and slowly expose themselves to more news.

There are also several “How To” articles, such as “How to Win an Argument Against Your Parents” and “How to Speak Your Mind”. Both encourage kids to say what they think and take action. Throughout the section, there are messages to kids to start topic-specific groups at school, call local legislators and write opinion pieces for local papers. I think it would be empowering for kids to see adults believe in them, and for kids to believe in themselves. As Hilde Kate Lysiak, a 10-year-old who created a newspaper in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania says in the article “How to Read (and Write) the News”, “If kids take themselves seriously, then adults will take them seriously, too.”

As a young journalist, I’m inspired to see a large, established newspaper experiment with new ideas. I’m a fan of breaking templates, reaching unreached audiences and going big — which is exactly what the Times did with this section. Although Roper, the Times’ special projects editor, said the section wasn’t trying to create a calculated influence, which I think makes it even better. She said, “I would love to say that it was part of some bigger strategy, but truly the idea was just to do something really fun.”

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Asma Khalid

The first time I read Asma Khalid’s reporter’s notebook from the 2016 election, I was struck by the authenticity. My sister had sent it to me over Facebook the day it was published. My sister and I, like Khalid, are brown girls from the Midwest. Khalid, a Muslim, wrote candidly — in the first paragraph, she says that she cried multiple times during the campaign season because of the derogatory comments she received.

I felt for Khalid while reading her essay, and came away from it with a new perception of journalism. We’re often taught objectivity — separating our personal identity from our reporter identity. But rarely is it mentioned that identities cannot be separated; they can, however, enhance each other. We can’t ignore inherent biases — but we can keep them in check in order to tell fair stories. Khalid exemplified this on the campaign trail. She used her Indiana upbringing to relate to small-town, working-class, white voters who looked at her, and her hijab, and struggled to trust.

I was curious to know more about the relationship between person and journalist that every reporter has to balance. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting Khalid a few weeks ago, and I asked her about it. Listen to our conversation below:



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Meeting “Serial” creators Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder

Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder are podcast geniuses, and a couple days ago they looked me in the eye.

They have both worked at WBEZ’s This American Life for over a decade and created Serial a few years ago. It was revolutionary — it broke download records and introduced millions of people to audio storytelling.

Koenig and Snyder visited IU on Friday to give a talk about how Serial was created and meet with some podcast junkies (like me!). They told us that Serial was created on accident, after a weaker idea fell through. Koenig had already been reporting on the case of Adnan Syed, which is the story explained in Serial‘s season one. She said she felt drawn to the story, characters and setting, and wanted to keep exploring. She advised the people in the room to “do what you like.” Snyder added that “a good idea can be easy because it’s obvious. The most work can go into saving a weak idea.” These women were inspiring and insightful.

A bunch of podcast lovers with Sarah Koenig (middle).

I am drawn to audio stories because they are more conversational and personal. When listening, I can envision myself in the room with the narrator, experiencing the story as they guide me through it. I’ve wondered if the creativity and innovation in audio storytelling distanced it from journalism or serious reporting — an invalidation. Snyder answered that question: “Artistry is OK in reporting as long as you can stick to the truth.”

I’m so glad to have soaked up some of their wisdom. Listen to Serial and S-Town!

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“Fences” and Radiolab on interpersonal relations

I recently viewed and listened to two works that have me thinking about how to live, interact and relate. I watched the Academy Award-nominated movie Fences directed by Denzel Washington and listened to Radiolab‘s “Lu vs. Soo”.

In Fences, Washington, nominated for Best Actor, played Troy Maxson. Troy was a troubled man who tried to shield his son Cory from a life like his, but in doing so he instilled Cory with fear and created an unreachable distance between them. Rose Maxson, played by Academy Award winner Viola Davis, was a fierce woman. She kept the family together, verifiable by the ending scene, even as it relentlessly pulled apart.

I was captivated by this family, this story. Troy misstepped in many ways, and they came back to him in the end.

In “Lu vs. Soo”, Lulu explains that she approaches everyone with kindness, while Soo challenges others. Soo urges people to do better, be better, while Lulu prefers not to throw any punches. Radiolab ended the episode with Lulu saying that she was proud to know Soo — someone who was unafraid to stand up when she sees something wrong — and Soo admitting that her assertiveness is an insecurity, something that sometimes pushes her away from people.

Both Fences and “Lu vs. Soo” asked about the balance between kindness and assertiveness. They suggested that assertiveness was the key to progressiveness. In both stories, however, exclusive assertiveness dealt a lonely and painful outcome. Perhaps it’s a given that the ideal lifestyle mixes inherent kindness with tasteful questioning, but perfecting that balance is difficult, as these characters (both real and fictional) have proven.

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“Love recognizes no barriers…”

I recently watched the movie Loving directed by Jeff Nichols. The plot surrounds Richard and Mildred Loving, plaintiffs in the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia that legalized interracial marriage. In the film, the white man and black woman marry in Washington, D.C. and face legal issues in Caroline County, Virginia, where they reside. They are snatched from their bed, thrown in jail and prohibited from entering the county as a couple for 25 years. As I mentioned, the Supreme Court ruled in the Loving’s favor, but much of the movie concerns the injustices they endured.

The day after I saw Loving, I watched the play The Duchess of Malfi at IU Theater directed by Katie Horwitz. The play told the story of the Duchess who secretly marries a man of lower social status. Their affair is considered wrong, and while this clashing of classes is characteristic of a comedy, The Duchess of Malfi quickly turns tragic. The Duchess and her husband Antonio face grave punishments for their union. The themes of the play, though much darker, resemble those of Loving — two people reprimanded for loving each other because of identity differences.

Seeing both of these productions, especially in succession, was unsettling but emboldening. I find it ironic that love is traditionally celebrated and encouraged, but has often been strictly regulated. The controversial marriages in these productions reminded me of stories in my family’s recent history. The Duchess of Malfi is set in the early 1500s, Loving in the mid-1960s — but the stories are still relevant today. Hearing these stories makes me wonder how and if marriage will be redefined in the years to come.

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Bloomington PRIDE Film Festival

My friend Vicki and I went to the Bloomington PRIDE Film Festival yesterday and watched three shorts and one feature-length film. The film festival is a yearly event that started in Bloomington in 2003 and explores LGBTQ+ issues and themes. Bloomington has a thriving LGBTQ community and we were excited to check out the films for the first time — and were not disappointed.

These films did an astounding job of sharing very personal, intimate stories without adhering to stereotypes or disrespecting the characters. We saw the short films “Nasser” directed by Melissa Martens, “100 Crushes: They” directed by Elisha Lim and “Veracity” directed by Seith Mann and the feature-length film “Real Boy” directed by Shaleece Haas. Vicki and I walked away from the theater realizing something profound: unlike many stories of LGBTQ characters in mainstream popular television and film, none of these queer characters died.

I think it’s unfortunate that queer characters are often portrayed stereotypically or negatively. The good parts of the story are missed, and therefore the depiction isn’t accurate. I am really glad that the directors of these films focused on the people, not the expectations, and think it made for exceptionally honest, real stories.


“We the People”

Today I hosted American Student Radio’s first show of the semester, “We the People”.

I brooded over the theme for a long while, and finally chose “We the People” to tie in with Friday’s presidential inauguration. I wanted to create an outlet to talk about what is next for the people of this country. We crafted the show around the uncertainty that comes with a change of power.

It was a great opportunity to talk about newsworthy topics at a relevant time. I am proud of the show and thankful to my dear friends who produced pieces and worked on the episode. It came together so well thanks to their dedication!

I produced a piece on campus activism in the 1960s and the parallels and differences of today’s youth. Finding the relevance and purpose of the piece was a challenge — I knew that young people were affected, but at times felt that it was too early to tell the story. I soon realized that the story was exactly that: Young people, and all people, don’t know what is next, but things are happening to affect them.

All of the pieces in this episode have to do with that motif. It resulted in an interesting array of stories about people in a state of limbo, just waiting to see what will come next.

Link to the show: 

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NYT Mag’s ‘The Lives They Lived’ & Feeling Good in 2016

2016 has somehow become notorious for “the bad stuff”. International tensions, political uproar, tragic, violent deaths.

It’s some of these deaths that The New York Times Magazine has taken a spin on. In its “The Lives They Lived” issue each year, writers highlight the influence of prominent deceased people, often with unique anecdotes. In 2016’s issue, published December 25, the story that caught my attention particularly was that of Gwen Ifill.

Gwen Ifill. Photograph from The New York Times.

Gwen Ifill. Photograph from The New York Times.

Role models often appear with a thunderclap, a bright flash on a dark horizon, but can feel remote and evaporate just as quickly. Gwen Ifill was different.

In this piece, writer Sara Mosle tells Ifill’s story through her profound impact on two of Mosle’s former journalism students, Sophie Sabin and Isabel Evans. These girls’ journalistic aspirations quickly became tangible thanks in part to Ifill’s strong encouragement.

Sophie had the chance to interview Ifill via Skype in 2014, and she asked Ifill why “this important person, who had this really busy schedule” was taking the time to talk to her. Ifill answered, “Well, Sophie, it’s because I was you.”

Isabel had learned that race, ethnicity and gender were hurdles she had to jump. Her admiration of Ifill began when she noticed that Ifill, despite her own race, ethnicity and gender, had “never been held back”.

Sophie’s and Isabel’s mindsets remind me of my own — starting out timid, but quickly becoming imbued with a drive to ask the hard-hitting questions and tell the important stories, and facing the challenges of being a young, female person of color. Even though I never had a relationship with Ifill akin to those of Sophie and Isabel, I can find my role model in her through the lives she touched.

The editor of the annual “The Lives They Lived” issues, Ilena Silverman, talked on the podcast Still Processing, another product of The Times, about the purpose of the issue: finding humanity.

“Everyone is sort of looking for the deep humanity in their people,” Silverman said, referring to the writers’ goals. On the general audience for this issue, people who are moved and upset about these deaths, she said, “I feel like at its best you’re reading these stories and you’re going deep into people’s lives and deep into particular eras and that you just actually feel good.”

And in a year end that dramatized and dwelled upon the bad, I think it’s valuable to search for that humanity and cause for celebration, and just actually feel good.

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“Fun Home”: a familiar allusion

“The end of his lie coincided with the beginning of my truth.” (pg 117)

The cover of "Fun Home", a bestselling graphic novel by Alison Bechdel.

The cover of “Fun Home”, a bestselling graphic novel by Alison Bechdel.

Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel “Fun Home”, which is now a Tony-award winning musical of the same name, is a precise documentation of her family’s secrets. Whether thick, unanswered or forgotten, they shape the story to be reminiscent of more than just “In Remembrance of Things Past” or “The Odyssey”, two of the many pieces of literature to which Bechdel alludes. The story of the Bechdels, as specific and exclusive as it is made to seem, is an allusion to every family and its own secrets. Continue reading

MacDonald Scholars

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MacDonald Scholarship connects students with community for long-lasting success

Originally posted on IU Communications’ Student Experience blog.

Photo the MacDonalds Scholars dinner, taken on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016.

Alumnus Scott MacDonald meets with the inaugural MacDonald Scholars during a recent ceremony. Photo by Eric Rudd.

In 1970, IU Bloomington was very different from IU Bloomington today – its population was only 30,368, the building of Assembly Hall wasn’t yet completed and SPEA had yet to be established. But there is one aspect that has remained for some students and families: struggling to pay for college. Continue reading

Bicentennial intern

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Bicentennial intern projects showcase IU history

Originally posted on IU Communications’ Student Experience blog.

One hundred ninety-six.

That’s how many years since IU was founded in 1820, and today’s campus is greatly transformed from that first version. In anticipation of the 200-year anniversary of the university’s founding, interns for the Office of the Bicentennial have been researching IU’s history for projects that will be featured on the IU Bicentennial website. Their projects will be featured at an open house from 2 to 4 p.m. Friday, Dec. 9, in the Indiana Memorial Union Dogwood Room.

scott jauch

IU Senior Scott Jauch works on his project in the common lounge at the new Media School. Photo by Eric Rudd.

According to Kelly Kish, Director of the Office of the Bicentennial, 2020 will be not only a celebratory year for IU but a moment for reflection.

Continue reading