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A conversation with Francisco Vara-Orta of the University of Missouri

At the IRE Conference in New Orleans, 2016 Knight Scholar Arriana McLymore spoke with attendee Francisco Vara-Orta, a graduate student at the University of Missouri.

McLymore: What interested you in journalism?

Vara-Orta: My mother always had newspapers in the house. We didn’t always have the money to buy certain things, but she would say that she wanted me to have food for thought. Because of my mother, I grew up with a really strong appreciation for journalism. Even though there weren’t any journalists in my family and none of them went to college, they felt like it was their only window out into the bigger world. That stuck with me.

McLymore: What’s the biggest piece you’ve worked on? How did it impact you as a writer?

A: While I was doing a training program from the Tribune company, I got to write about a young Latino man who had been paying for his community college with cash. He worked at CVS Pharmacy and he would pay semester by semester. It was taking him forever to get an associate’s degree because he didn’t want loans. I wrote about the cultural implications of why Latinos are afraid to get loans and why people of color are weary of loans and banks. The story ran on the front page of the LA Times and someone who read the story contacted me to get in touch with the student. Months later the student reached out to me to say that the reader was a benefactor for the student’s education because he was so touched by the story. He ended up playing for the student’s bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

McLymore: What are your plans after graduate school?

Vara-Orta: I would love to do in-depth journalism. I think that doing thoughtful, nuanced, in-depth journalism is really important. We have to make sure that we are incorporating different types of voices. I want to work for a place that supports me that way and that values their workers. I want to in a place that I can thrive.

McLymore: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing journalists today?

Vara-Orta: Competing with the massive amount of misinformation. There’s misinformation that we as journalists already have to figure out, but there’s also public perceptions that are formed by social media. We no longer have the monopoly on the press.

McLymore: What is your favorite part of the IRE conference?

Vara-Orta: The relationships are my favorite. You are either coming back to someone you haven’t seen in awhile or you’re planting a seed. You can become close friends with the people here or you can find a way to get your dream job.

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