Writing coaching program connects students, professionals

March 24, 2016

 When Journalism student Heidi Weinrich transferred to California State University, Northridge last fall. she struggled with structuring the articles in her news stories. “The classes I took my first semester here were a little more challenging than what I was used to,” she said.

Today, Heinrich’s writing is more fluid and the structure of her articles comes to her more naturally, she said. She attributes this improvement in her writing to the time she has spent in the Journalism Department’s Writing Coaching Program. “It’s one of the best decisions I've made while attending CSUN,” she said.

The coaching program is a joint effort by the Journalism Department and its Alumni Association. The program partners journalism students with professional journalists, who can review their writing material and advise them on their work.

“When you have a student for 10 to 11 weeks you can make some terrific progress,” said Bob Tarlau, president of the Journalism Alumni Association. He is one of the founding members of the coaching program that originated out of a desire to provide undergraduates with tutoring and mentoring resources, he said. He indicated that many students can benefit from having sessions with a coach outside of class. “With the coaching you have some time for a real one on one,” he said.

Journalism student Abdulwahab Algherbah also has benefitted from being a member of the coaching program for the past two semesters.

“I learned so much from the program,” he said. “Since English is my second language I had a hard time writing stories but after the coaching program I feel like I'm really really [able] to write.” Weinrich and Algherbah are just two of many journalism students who have profited from the 3-year-old coaching program. This semester, 24 students are enrolled and there 21 coaches active in the program.

The active coaches are all either working or retired professional journalists and public relations practitioners. Each coach has experience relevant to at least one of the Journalism Department’s emphasis programs. Coaches, such as former KCBS managing editor Paul Skolnick, volunteer their time to the program to offer guidance to enrolled students.

“It’s my obligation to share the knowledge I have acquired for the good of the profession,” he said. “It’s how we pass the ‘wisdom of the ages’ along in news.” Skolnick believes the coaching program is rewarding for both students and coaches, he said. For the students it is a matter of improving their writing skills and ultimately becoming better journalists, Skolnick added. “For me, the reward is to help students who may be wrestling with things I once wrestled with myself,” he said. “I had teachers, mentors and colleagues who were kind enough to help me to polish my skills. Now it’s my turn to ‘pay it forward’ with a new generation of future journalists.”

The coaching program is offered to students taking one of several journalism courses. These courses include Journalism 110, 210, 310, 315, 341, 415 and 445. Students are often selected for the program by their professors. A professor may approach a student and recommend the program but ultimately the decision to enroll is up to the students themselves. Students interested in joining the program can also approach their professors and express their interest to enroll.

Once enrolled, students will be assigned to a coach whom they must contact to set dates and times for their mentoring sessions. Coaches and students are encouraged to conduct at least two 30-minute-long sessions per week but the frequency and duration of the sessions are entirely up to the two parties themselves. How the sessions are conducted is also up to the coaches and students. Sessions may be conducted in person, over the phone, on Skype, Google Docs or any medium that is convenient for both parties.

Volunteer coach Jeff Wilson said he and his students often conduct their meetings once a week over the phone. Wilson is a former reporter for United Press International and The Associated Press and has advised 10 different students during his time with the coaching program. “I have seen remarkable results from students who take advantage of the CSUN journalism mentoring program,” said Wilson. “The professors deserve much of the credit, however. They are in the trenches dealing with students who get it and don't get it. We just offer a helping hand.”

The coaching program is open to all CSUN journalism students. Though professors will often recommend the program to students who may be struggling with their writing, it is open to any student who wishes to improve their writing ability. “Every single one of our students could use extra help,” said Prof. Stephanie Bluestein, one of the journalism professors involved with the program. Students’ participation in the coaching program will be kept confidential. Both Weinrich and Algherbah encourage their fellow students to take advantage of the opportunity the coaching program represents. “I would absolutely recommend this program to other students,” said Weinrich. “Even if they are an exceptional writer, they are guaranteed to see the benefits with this program.”


- Luis Saucedo