Iraq veteran's Ethiopia trip a stepping stone to a new career
Standard-Examiner, Ogden, Utah
LOGAN, Utah — Dale Nicholas enrolled at Utah State University with a pretty clear idea of the courses he wanted to take to train for his life's work.
The Tremonton native, a Marine veteran who served in Iraq, wanted to tell the true stories of conflict and crisis around the world.
He'd seen war up close. What he needed was journalism training and some hands-on experience.
"Most people wonder if they are going to enjoy their career," said Nicholas, 25. "We had the chance to see our career before it started."
Nicholas, with fellow USU journalism students Danielle Manley and Mackinzie Hamilton, signed on with USU associate professor Matthew LaPlante to travel to Ethiopia for a crash course in international field reporting.
LaPlante and his students each came up with the $4,300 for airfares and expenses, and spent about 16 days this summer in the country in the Horn of Africa.
The three students and their teacher conducted interviews through translators. LaPlante, a former reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune, had made the trip previously.
"They feel like it was an investment," LaPlante said of students and their trip expense.
"It's an experience you cannot replicate. It was an opportunity to work with me, one on one, for two weeks straight, and to report under circumstances you could never replicate in a classroom setting."
Nicholas said traveling with someone who had worked overseas as a freelance journalist made all the difference.
"I figured, what better way to go than with someone who has experience," he said.
Manley's goal was to report on runners in Ethiopia who struggle to make it out of poverty through athletics.
Manley interviewed long-distance runner Kababa Alemu, whose times would qualify him for the Olympics in nearly any other country, LaPlante said. Manley's story was picked up by Yahoo's sports site, ThePostGame.com.
Hamilton, a USU sophomore and reporter for Utah Public Radio, wrote about Jason Burton, an Oregon man who moved to Ethiopia at 18 to volunteer in an orphanage and hospital, and who has stayed to work for years.
And Nicholas talked to Ethiopian veterans about their war experiences and their lives as veterans.
"As a Marine, I understand the trust guys have for each other. I understand the mistrust the military has for the media," Nicholas said.
"Having been in that line of work, I understand these guys, and I understand what is going on around me."
Nicholas spent four years in the Marines and, afterward, worked in private security in Afghanistan.
"There's a sense of brotherhood and strong support that the military builds. It's a warrior brotherhood," he said.
"You're going to be closer with the guys you serve with in the military than you are with anyone else. You trust them with your life. You trust them with everything.
"Regardless of whether it is Africa or the U.S., it's the same, regardless, for people who served together."
Nicholas said the veterans he interviewed trusted him after understanding he had experiences in common with them.
Arranging interviews was far different in Ethiopia than it would have been contacting sources from the USU campus, Nicholas said.
"You would meet different people and try to arrange things, and hope they would be there. You can't email people or call them and expect them to get the message," he said.
"You can't pull up someone's contact information on a computer. The situation was constantly evolving when you were trying to meet up with somebody. I interviewed people on cattle farms, or standing on the side of the road."
Nicholas said it was about what he expected.
"But you can read about something all day and you don't know what it's like until you experience it firsthand."
LaPlante first traveled to Ethiopia a few years back for freelance reporting on minji, the practices by some rural tribes in Ethiopia of killing infants considered cursed.
A baby is considered cursed if it was conceived before its parents ceremonially declared their intention to increase the tribe, or if the baby's top teeth emerge before the bottom teeth, among other reasons.
The smallest of the three tribes LaPlante reported on has since banned the practice of minji, he said.
"I can't say 'A' led to 'B,' but I can say I had the opportunity to tell the world about the process of minji," LaPlante said.
"Hundreds of kids a year are saved. If we had even a tiny piece of the result, that feels pretty good."
LaPlante said he's proud of what his three students have accomplished.
"They did magnificently. One has been published, and we are still negotiating on the other two," he said.
"The stories they have written, the works of journalism they have completed, are tremendous. They are moving. They are super narratives and interesting, important pieces of journalism."