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SJMC student Liala Helal awarded 2007 Scripps Howard Top Ten Scholarship

By Jen Keavy

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A curious student at the Minnesota International Middle School looks on as Helal works on a video story.
Photo by Suhair Khalil

SJMC senior Liala Helal has been awarded a 2007 Scripps Howard Top Ten Scholarship--the first ever in the School's history. The competition, which is open to full-time students entering their junior or senior year who are nominated by their schools, honors ten of the nation's best journalism students with a $10,000 scholarship. The Top Ten Scholars were chosen by a panel of newspaper, broadcast and television professionals for their academic achievement, demonstrated interest in journalism, portfolio and an essay about their long-term goals.

"Winning the award has instilled in me a greater moral responsibility for doing good journalism," says Helal, who is a student in the CLA honors program majoring in journalism, minoring in psychology and teaching ESL. "I am thrilled to have so many opportunities to take on that challenge."

Helal says that she loves the excitement of covering breaking news and the unpredictable nature of newsrooms. Last summer, she was the only full-time reporter intern for the Pioneer Press--in charge of covering her own beat, which consisted of six cities in the metro area, as well as general breaking news. She was given the opportunity to join the team covering the breaking news of the 35W bridge collapse, and was sent to local hospitals to interview victims and their families the night of the disaster.

Her work as an intern at the Pioneer Press received accolades from newsroom management and peers. Maria Reeve, her direct supervisor for the summer internship, says of Helal, "She was responsible and tackled small-town politics with the poise of a veteran. I felt total confidence in her. Her leads were some of the best I've seen from an intern. I loved that she also brought her cultural perspective to her work, and the paper gained quite a bit having her on staff." Helal continues to work part time for the Pioneer Press covering general assignment news.

In her freshman year at the University, Helal was hired as a reporter for The Minnesota Daily. She worked for about a year, covering beats such as student groups, student life, international issues and higher education. Throughout her college career, she has written more than 150 news articles published in various newspapers.

Helal has a strong sense of duty in her chosen profession. She explains, "When I'm reporting, I like to think of myself as a sponge: My goal is to soak up exactly what I'm there to pick up, and do it accurately and with little error. Just like a good reporter, sponges have built-in grooves to feel out empty spaces they need to fill. In that sense, I strive to be a reporter who has knowledge of what is empty in the news, and what I should fill it with, what I should 'soak up' next. It may sound silly to compare myself to a sponge, but it's such a great metaphor!"

In addition to being a college student and a working journalist, Helal is an active volunteer, both in the campus and Muslim communities. During the fall semester, Helal volunteered at a Minneapolis middle school's Arabic and ESL classrooms, where she helped teachers incorporate news materials and activities into their class lesson plans. She's also a Muslim health mentor at the University of Minnesota, where she's part of a team that uses culturally appropriate techniques to mentor Muslim students on mental health and fitness issues.

Helal was born and raised in the Twin Cities to parents who came from Egypt and met at the University of Minnesota. She says that in the future she would like to use her knowledge of Islam and the Arabic language to accurately cover stories in the Middle East. She's also interested in covering social justice issues, politics, global news, religion, education and health.