Alumni Profile: Sheetal D. Agarwal ’04

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Sheetal D. Agarwal ’04
PhD Student, University of Washington
Department of Communication
Political Communication and Technology

When I left the University of San Diego in 2004, I had no idea what adventures lay ahead. In the back of my head, I always knew I wanted to teach communication, but I wanted to have some real world experience first. It was really important to me then, to be able to have a real-world understanding of the concepts I would one day teach. I am right now sitting in my lab at the University of Washington in Seattle, while still feeling the rush after guest lecturing on journalism, and it is wonderful to take a moment and reflect on the journey that has led me to where I am today.

In the summer of 2004, I found a great internship in Washington, D.C., at the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), a nonprofit investigative journalism organization. I headed out to D.C. for a three-month internship and ended up staying with CPI for over three years. While there, I worked with award-winning journalists, committed to producing journalism that served the public interest. 

My job at CPI was with their international branch, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). ICIJ was a network of over 90 journalists located all around the world, who collaborated across borders to conduct transnational reporting. The project I am most proud of that came from my time at ICIJ was our report on U.S. HIV/AIDS Policy Abroad. I traveled to Thailand and India while my colleagues reported from Haiti, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, and Uganda, reporting on the experiences of those most affected by the disease and U.S. HIV/AIDS policies. We won several awards for our groundbreaking work including the Society of Professional Journalist’s Sigma Chi Delta award for Non-Deadline Reporting.

I remember vividly sitting at my desk when we heard about the award and having a flashback to sitting in Esteban del Río’s Media and Conflict class and truly understanding how powerful journalism can be in giving citizens across the world a voice; and here I was doing it. Even more exciting than that moment is when I stand in front of my students today and am able to explain concepts like “media ethics” with real-life examples from my reporting experiences. I love connecting with the students on that level where it goes from an abstract idea to a practical application.

During my time abroad, I started to recognize the potential of technology in supporting journalism and citizens. I was able to use my Blackberry to send emails and connect to my colleagues in Africa, while I sat in a truck stop in India, and that connection informed our reporting in real-time. How powerful. I started to imagine other ways in which technology could support citizens and communities of change and decided to go back to school and pursue those questions. 

I continued my education in the Communication, Culture, and Technology (CCT) MA program at Georgetown University, which was located in the perfect place to study media, politics, and technology. My thesis focused on how young, politically active citizens used their social networks (online and offline) to gather support for the causes they cared most about. Using social network analysis, surveys, and in-depth interviews I created a report that informed the practices of what was then called the American Democracy Institute (now, The Impact Center) a group dedicated to engaging young people to participate in public life. It was an enriching experience to take my communication background to the next level and see it have practical application.

After taking a year off and consulting on communication campaigns with the federal government, I started my journey as a PhD student in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. I am currently working with brilliant professors and graduate students on projects examining how technology can support communities of change and promote political and civic participation. I just published my first article looking at how journalists assess credibility from non-traditional sources, such as Twitter in their reporting of every day news as well as crisis events such as the Iran election protests of 2009. My dissertation work examines citizens in creating a civic information portal in Seattle, Wash., to meet the community’s information needs in a time when they have low trust in politicians and media to serve their interests. 

While the research is exciting, I have to admit that teaching has been the most rewarding experience of all. I get a rush every time I stand up in front of the class, excited to share the world that my professors in the Department of Communication Studies at USD opened up for me, not so long ago.

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