High Schooler overcomes travails to graduate, ready to face next challenges

Je'Kerra Hopper

Je’Kerra Hopper, 18, looks over her Lincoln High
transcript. Next fall, she will attend Peru State College on a track and field scholarship.

By Bobby Caina Calvan | Heartland Project

LINCOLN, Neb. – Je’Kerra Hopper is 18 years old and has a story of personal struggle. For a while, she wondered if she had the will to overcome the challenges she faced.

Both parents are in prison. At times, she seemed all alone in her despair. Last year, she lost her focus and her grades slipped.

A mentor assigned by the school district, helped Je’Kerra turn things around.

Mentoring is an important part of my personal and professional life, and I’m always delighted whenever I come across a talented young reporter brimming with enthusiasm.

I’m fortunate that I’m working with one such reporter here in the heartland: AAJA’s own Mega Sugianto, who arrived in Lincoln a few months ahead of me for her first fulltime job. She reports for News1011, the CBS affiliate.

I met Sugianto at the AAJA convention in New York. She was a member of the Voices staff.

I meet a lot of young people at AAJA conventions and I had lost touch with Sugianto – until she popped up on Facebook offering to pick me up at the airport in Omaha. In truth, I didn’t recognize her name, nor her face. I didn’t even remember friending her. But I accepted the ride.

During the hourlong trip from the airport, she told me everything she had already learned about her new community, and what would soon be mine, too. She told me where not to live (I should have taken her advice!), and where I could find a bowl of pho, platters of Mexican food and, more importantly, thick steaks.

Young woman’s perseverance pays off. See complete coverage at 1011now.com:

She also began talking about all the stories she wanted to do. One goal was to help her station better connect with Lincoln’s growing communities of color. She knew there were lots of refugees in the Lincoln area. She knew there was a growing population of Latinos. While the African American community isn’t huge in Lincoln, she knew there were stories out there. She didn’t have much experience delving into LGBT issues, but maybe with my help, she said, she could venture into that area, too.

Sugianto’s boyfriend moved to Lincoln from another Midwest station about the same time I did. He now also works at the CBS station. And he, too, has an interest in inclusive journalism. (He’s from the Sacramento area, where I’ve previously lived and worked, so he and I have become quick friends.)

The news director at their station, Stephanie Hedrick, has encouraged her young staff to not only be aggressive when it comes to breaking news, but also in covering the community through the lens of diversity. She understands that our industry needs to grow its audience by encouraging reporters to take more interest in every segment of our communities.

Indeed, Hedrick has encouraged her reporters to reach out to me for advice and help in covering Lincoln’s growing diversity.

Sugianto and I chatted about how we could partner on a story.

I had just recently done a package on high schools proms, and I had also done a quick hit on a national report about climbing graduation rates – much of the increases because of higher rates of graduation among students of color.

Sugianto and I decided we’d localize the graduation story.

I’d gather the necessary statistics and trends that would be the bones of the story. She and I would team up to find the voices that would humanize her report. She made a round of calls and set up appointments. Through the help of her contacts, she identified a student who could potentially be the focus of the story.

Together, we went to interview the superintendent of Lincoln Public Schools, who talked about how his schools were committed to boosting graduation rates. As we were readying to end the interview,  the superintendent mentioned a student he had heard about  — about how this student had overcome her personal travails and would soon be graduating.

That’s how Sugianto and I came to learn of Je’Kerra, a senior at Lincoln High School.

Sugianto and I knew that Je’Kerra had a story that we needed to share, and we made immediate arrangements to speak with her.

Hedrick, the news director, considered the project a special report and gave us time – a three-minute package – to tell Je’Kerra’s story.

Sugianto and I collaborated on a script. We chose soundbites. I put together animated graphics that she dropped into her report. We practiced her voiceovers. To accompany the video, I drafted 1,000-word story that would appear online and that would add more voices and detail.

In the end, Sugianto and I put together a tight package that we hope told the story of a young woman ready to face her next challenges.