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Students' Olympic journey was about more than sports

  • Story Highlights
  • 31 UNC journalism students volunteer at Olympic sports venues, media compounds
  • Two of them say experience raised confidence, helped confirm career choice
  • They also learned about culture, endured crowds, dealt with language barrier
  • One student: Chinese people went "completely out of their way to help you"
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By Steve Almasy
CNN
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BEIJING, China (CNN) -- Bethany Tuggle, Rachel Kurowski and 29 other North Carolina college students are going to be late for class. But it's all right with the professors.

Rachel Kurowski is shown at the Main Press Center, where she helped French journalists with daily tasks.

Bethany Tuggle said she had just two days off during the Games. She gets a rare break as Team USA plays.

The University of North Carolina journalism students are in Beijing for a few more days, working as volunteers at the sports venues and the media compounds. Back in Chapel Hill, classes have already begun, so the students at the Olympics will have to play catch-up once they get back. There will be no time to sleep for a few days to get over the jet lag. It's straight back to class.

Tuggle, a senior, has been in Beijing since July 6 as part of a group of international students who cover games and practices to get quotes for the Olympic News Service. The ONS translates the interviews into several different languages and sends out "flash quote" sheets soon after an event ends. Many of the 30,000 journalists covering the Games (including this one) use them in their reports.

It is the first time that an Olympics committee has used ONS reporters from outside the Games' host country.

Tuggle has worked at the basketball venue, which seems to be a natural fit for a UNC student. But she said she hasn't done any sports reporting in the past and really doesn't know much about basketball. So it was a steep learning curve, getting into the scrum with the other reporters, shouting questions to hulking figures, some of whom didn't always recognize the language of the question or pretended not to understand.

"I think the best thing I have gained through this experience is confidence," she said one day in the lobby of the students' hotel. "It's really hard for me to approach people. Doing this has given me a lot of confidence to just go in there, be professional and do what I have to do."

Not all the students get to work as reporters. Kurowski, who is in her first year as a graduate student, has been volunteering as a rental space assistant in the main media center at the office of the French news agency Agence France-Presse. She had applied to be a sports reporter, but her language skills -- she is one of a few students fluent in French -- seemed to work against her, and she was assigned to the AFP newsroom.

Kurowski has tried to keep a positive spin on the assignment, even though "what I am actually doing is not the highlight of my trip."

She has used the day-to-day interaction with the AFP staff to meet reporters and talk to them about their jobs to learn more and help her confirm that she wants to work for an international news agency.

"I'm really happy to get to observe everything in the [Main Press Center]," Kurowski said one day last week at the MPC cafeteria. "And it's been amazing the access that I have had to the Olympics. The magnitude of everything here is amazing."

She said she signed up for the trip primarily to go to Beijing, which had been on her list of places to visit. The chance to see the Olympics was a close second.

Neither she nor Tuggle had been to Asia before, so this trip was as much about seeing and learning about a new culture as it was about learning the nuances of sports reporting. There was a little culture shock, especially when it came to riding the city transportation to work.

"The Chinese don't have the same concept of personal space as Americans," Tuggle said. "They're not trying to be rude; it's just their culture."

Kurowski echoed her classmate's comments about the crowded transportation and streets, and added there were some initial language barriers, particularly in cabs. Beijing officials made a big deal about how many drivers had learned English, but other than a warm greeting ("Welcome to China!") there can be some difficulty getting where you want to go.

Fortunately, there are some markets, restaurants and nightclubs nearby, including a pizza place run by a U.S. expatriate that feels like home. It serves good slices and cheap beer and is a favorite gathering spot for Americans.

The Beijing Olympic Committee has organized cultural excursions, too. There were the requisite trips to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. There was also a night of watching the national acrobatic company.

But Kurowski said she also liked venturing out near the hotel to the hutongs -- neighborhoods characterized by narrow streets and alleys -- and witnessing the lives of the locals. However, when the Games started, life became dominated by work.

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The students, who paid $600 and airfare for the course, will leave China with memories they say have topped any experience they have had yet. What will they remember most, other that the work? The people, they said

"They are very giving and kind people. They go completely out of their way to help you," Tuggle said.

All About University of North Carolina at Chapel HillAgence France-PresseBeijing

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