Program Coordinator, Professor of Journalism, Seneca College
Interview by Jaclyn Mika (RSJ '08)
Kennedy Jawoko, RSJ ’07 is Program Coordinator and a Professor of Journalism at Seneca College.
What did you originally see yourself doing when you first enrolled in journalism school?
Prior to Ryerson, I had worked as a reporter and radio host. When I immigrated to Canada I wanted to continue to work as a journalist.
Where was your first journalism job and how did you get it?
I began my journalism job at a small radio station in Uganda in 1998. I had left the minor seminary a few years before, to begin my own journey of discernment – which is the goal of Jesuit education. There was a new radio station opening, the first privately-owned radio broadcasting across northern Uganda, southern Sudan and eastern DRC– a very fragile region at the time. Without any previous journalism training, I interviewed for a job and became one of 11 journalists to work at the radio. We were determined novice. I got a week of training on the job. There was only one computer in the newsroom.
Two weeks after I began my career as a journalist, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels attacked a civilian convoy on a main route connecting Uganda to Sudan – killing, abducting and wounding hundreds of people. I went to a hospital to interview survivors. Lifeless bodies lay on the floor. Grief-stricken friends and relatives of the dead and wounded gathered in small circles. I was frightened, but I knew, through telling these peoples’ stories, that I could ensure these lives were not lost in vain. I also became conscious of my responsibility to bear witness. I had found the profession I wanted to follow for the rest of my life.
How did you get started here in Canada?
Well, I immigrated to Canada in 2003 where I learned quickly that I would have to start from scratch if I wanted to work as a journalist here. The revelation came when I applied for a dishwashing job and was turned down for lack of “Canadian experience.” This lack of “Canadian experience” meant that I had to go to university before I could realize my dream of working in Canada. I applied to Ryerson. When I received my admission letter, I knew I had taken the first step.
How did that vision change as the years went by?
My vision did not change. During my first year at Ryerson, a fellow journalism student, Mychyalo Pyrustupa, contacted me with a great idea for a documentary. We reached out to the CBC and pitched a story on road traffic injuries as a leading health burden in developing countries. The commissioning producer liked the idea. He provided us with equipment. We got some private funding to support our venture. Mychyalo and I traveled to Uganda to film the feature in December 2003. I was the reporter. Our TV feature aired on the CBC in April 2004. I then did an internship at the CBC in 2006. During my internship, I met Alan Guettel and Rick MacInnes-Rae who mentored me. I was awarded the coveted CBC Joan Donaldson Scholarship in 2007. After the scholarship, I was hired in different roles on TV and radio shows as associate producer, senior writer, and reporter/editor.
Why did you decided to complete a MA?
While at the CBC I began to ask myself these questions: Am I being relevant? Am I using my skills to give back? What skills am I still missing that I need to get to help me tell more underreported stories? So, I decided to return to university. I continued to work part-time at the CBC while also enrolled fulltime in grad school at the University of Toronto. I don’t remember sleeping much during grad school. I completed my master’s degree in political science and international relations in 2010. My graduate studies refined my analytical skills, particularly my understanding of quantitative research methods. Moreover, as part of my graduate work I spent a semester at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where I researched Israeli media coverage of the Oslo Peace Process.
More importantly, my master’s degree enabled me to do a major field research in South Sudan in 2011. I was able to conceive and design a needs assessment survey on the role of media in building the political, social and economic structures in South Sudan. I traveled to the embryonic nation and conducted interviews on the level of journalistic education and training. Based on the comprehensive needs assessment report, Journalists for Human Rights began implementing a massive media development initiative in South Sudan funded by the United Nations Democracy Fund – training journalists to effectively report on human rights.
Would you encourage other BJ grads to pursue a master’s degree in a field they want to cover?
The decision to pursue grad school is deeply personal. In my case, grad school helped me understand the theories behind my practical work as a journalist. I needed a better way of conceptualizing what journalism is and how it develops in conflict societies. But grad school is not necessarily a key ingredient to understanding journalism theoretical framework. Journalists love to read. At least that’s what I want to believe. So, I encourage my students to read widely and become an expert on a specific beat – be a generalist but also become a specialist. But I think that if you plan to eventually teach at a college or university level, then by all means, pursue graduate studies. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to get hired as a journalism professor without a master’s degree.
Thinking back to your first year self, how do you think they would react to where you are now?
I did not envision becoming Professor of Journalism when I first walked the corridors of RSJ. I’m extremely pleased to be in a position to shape the next generations of journalists at a time when journalism is rapidly changing and evolving.
What do you think the RSJ experience offers that you can’t get anywhere else?
I think RSJ truly embodies the University’s motto: Mente et Artificio – With Mind and Skill. At Ryerson I continued to improve my writing and to practice the craft on CKLN radio and The Eye Opener. I believe this learning-by-doing approach to journalism education separates RSJ from other similar university level journalism programs. Being grounded in theory is good, but at the end of the day, you got to be ready to hit the ground running.
How did you arrive at your current position at Seneca College?
I went to Stanford as a Knight Journalism Fellow for the 2013-2014 academic year. As a non-matriculated graduate student, I had the privilege of enrolling in almost every course I wanted without having to write exams! It was a transformative experience. I nurtured and developed connections with leading faculty in the field of political communication, journalism, business, law, engineering, and political science. I sought advice from Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. Secretary of State; Larry Diamond, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies; Dawn Garcia, Director of the JSK Journalism Fellowships; and James Hamilton, the Director of the Stanford Journalism Program. My research work focused at the nexus of journalism, peacebuilding, new technology platforms, and China’s and US’ foreign policy in Africa. When I was named a 2014-2015 Visiting Scholar in the Graduate School of Education, I had the opportunity to co-teach a course on “Challenging the Status Quo: Social Entrepreneurs Advancing Democracy, Development and Justice.” I also served as a mentor to undergraduate students.
When I returned from Palo Alto to Toronto I began preparing my PhD application. One night in mid-November I was having trouble falling asleep. I went online and serendipitously came across a job posting for full professor of journalism at Seneca College. I applied. Two weeks later I did my job talk. And after another round of interview with the Dean and VP Academic, I was hired to begin in January 2016. That’s how I arrived at my current job. I guess rational decisions and luck got me here. I recently became the Program Coordinator for the Summer Institute of Multiplatform Journalism Program.
How has your journalism degree and what you learned in school prepared you for your current career?
I now teach journalism students, so I think it prepared me well. I doubt I would have secured this position without a journalism degree. It provided rock-solid foundation. What’s more, I’m very glad I chose the broadcast journalism stream. It matches very well with Seneca’s Journalism program, which provides a hands-on training for multiple platforms journalism skills.
Can you talk about one of the biggest:
1) accomplishments you’ve made?
At the superficial level, being part of the White House Press corps for a day is a key highlight. This was when President Barack Obama visited Stanford in 2016. My White House press pass hangs in my office. But on a deeper level, I think the accomplishments are found in the stories of people who generously opened up their homes, tents and hearts to me. I feel I fulfilled my role as a practicing journalist by telling those stories truthfully. As an educator, seeing or hearing a former student report the news gives me great joy.
2) challenges you’ve faced as a journalist?
My work as a journalist also exposed me to some of the challenges in far-flung corners of the world – on four continents. So, I guess there’s the stress one gets from some of those experiences. Being a captive in a ditch for hours in Juba, South Sudan, tops the list of the challenges.
What advice would you give to current journalism students?
Follow your own path, it’s likely going to zigzag. Ponder on your journalism. Be enterprising. Have fun.