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International IMC master’s graduate makes mark with massive fundraiser

Posted on: February 19th, 2019 by ldrucker

Mina Ghofrani Esfahani was pursuing a master’s degree in the University of Mississippi’s integrated marketing communication program in fall 2017 when her compassion for a critically ill child in her home country prompted her to put to practical use the theories she was learning.

Esfahani was born and raised in Iran. She took to English quickly as a teenager, began teaching others the language before she finished high school and eventually majored in English and applied linguistics as an undergraduate student in that country.

During her time as a graduate student in the UM integrated marketing communication program, Mina Esfahani organized a social media fundraiser to raise money for a seriously ill child in her home country of Iran. The campaign drew in more than $700,000 that was sent to the child’s family to help with medical costs. Photo by Megan Wolfe/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

During her time as a graduate student in the UM integrated marketing communication program, Mina Esfahani organized a social media fundraiser to raise money for a seriously ill child in her home country of Iran. The campaign drew in more than $700,000 that was sent to the child’s family to help with medical costs. Photo by Megan Wolfe/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

After immigrating to the United States with her husband, an Ole Miss student, she learned that one of her former English teaching colleagues had a child born with type 1 spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disorder that affects nerve cells that control voluntary muscles, complicating breathing and eating.

Esfahani, who also became a student at UM after moving to Oxford, was inspired by her passion and knowledge of social media to start her own campaign for the 9-month-old child, named Radin. In just six weeks on Facebook, the campaign raised more than $700,000 that would eventually make it to the boy’s family to help pay for the expensive treatment that would keep him alive.

“Let’s confirm that borders cannot stop humanity,” she said on the Facebook page. “Help him see more loving days with his loving parents. Don’t leave them alone. Every dollar would count.”

The online fundraiser appealed to donors with Esfahani’s words of compassion for the child, who, she said, reminded her of three nephews back home that she missed dearly. Within hours of the first posting in October 2017, the campaign drew in its first $1,000.

“It kept getting shared,” Esfahani said. “I invited everybody I knew, and those people invited everybody they knew and it exponentially grew. Over five weeks, we had raised $705,000 in the campaign.

“There was momentum. I would go back and see what’s going on, and every time I checked there was more.”

Robert Magee, assistant professor and director of the IMC graduate program, was one of Esfahani’s mentors at Ole Miss. Magee said he was inspired watching Esfahani’s compassion and ability to apply the theories he was teaching to a practical online campaign.

“I gave her ideas on the most effective types of messaging and, sure enough, she tried some of these and they were quite successful,” Magee said.

Esfahani and her colleagues worked countless hours and made countless phone calls to find a country that would accept the child and administer the needed medication. The family eventually made its way to Belgium and through a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, the money made it to a hospital there that treated the child.

Esfahani said she is grateful to “the donors and supporters who invested their love, trust and energy in the campaign and had my back to the last stage of transferring the funds to the hospital.” The campaign received donations from people across the globe, many from the Persian community. Donors from 37 different countries made contributions.

Nearly 70 percent of children with type 1 spinal muscular atrophy don’t make it to age 2, but Esfahani said the boy is approaching his second birthday and all indications are that he is doing well.

Longing for America

When Esfahani was growing up, she often expressed a desire to move to the United States. She learned English and started teaching it to others in less than one year.

“I wanted to emigrate when I was 15 or 16, but then 9/11 happened and that was the period to that story,” she said.

She continued her education in Iran and eventually studied English in college, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees and serving as an adjunct lecturer. She met Vahid Ghomi, an Iranian graduate student at Ole Miss at the time, during one of his visits home. The two courted, their families met and they were married in July 2015.

Esfahani then successfully applied to attend UM as a graduate student seeking a second master’s degree, moved to the United States and joined Ghomi in Oxford.

Her passion for communication, social media and effective messaging pointed her in the direction of IMC, and she reached out to Magee to inquire about a degree program in marketing communication.

“She’s always been very proactive,” Magee said. “She always had a practical orientation of what needs to be done. She’s very focused and driven – very smart. She also has a lot of initiative.

“She’s not the kind of student who will just sit back, take notes and leave class. She always has some kind of commentary or some kind of observation.”

Esfahani quickly made a home in Oxford, she said.

“I was very lucky to have the chance to study here,” she said. “I really didn’t know what a wonderful place it was before I came, but now that I have gone to other cities and colleges, I realize how great a place it was.

“Everything is vibrant and lively. You see that people are really ‘living’ here at the university.”

The university’s Office of International Programs played a major role in her adjustment to life in the U.S., Esfahani said.

“They were very kind. I really felt at home with them,” she said, noting that the office would keep her up-to-date on events to attend and organizations to join. “I said, ‘This is not just academics; it’s going to be a life here.’”

Esfahani said she is struck by how welcoming the university was of international students.

“The one way I would describe Ole Miss is ‘all-inclusive,’” she said. “There’s academics, health, sports, fun, events and, to a great extent, they really pay attention to diversity.

“When I was talking to other international students, they never complain that at Ole Miss you are disregarded or people don’t know us. All of the events are for everybody.”

During her time at Ole Miss, Esfahani never missed an opportunity to exceed expectations. The IMC master’s program does not require a thesis, but she elected to complete one anyway. She worked on her thesis while also taking a full course load and running what equated to a full-time fundraising campaign.

As the money grew and the campaign gathered more traction, red tape began piling up. Dealing with international tax law, banking codes, international sanctions and organizing people and large amounts of money began to take a toll on Esfahani. But her support group in the IMC department and the Office of International Programs was there to help.

“She got a crash course in bureaucracy,” Magee said. “She was dealing with tax treaties and all kinds of things, but she was willing to say, ‘I don’t know,’ and find help from other people.”

Esfahani and other international students contribute to a more robust education experience for all students, Magee said.

“She has a perspective, coming from the Middle East, that always enriches a classroom,” he said.

Since moving to the U.S. in 2015, Esfahani’s only interaction with her family in Iran has been through social media and phone conversations. She talks to her parents daily and keeps them updated on her studies and life.

“I show them a lot (of pictures of Oxford),” she said. “My parents, like me, love cities with a lot of green with rain and nice people – calm, quiet – and Oxford is what they would like. I was sure if they were here, they would never feel depressed.”

Looking ahead

Esfahani completed her master’s degree in August 2018. She and Ghomi split time between Jackson and Cleveland, where he is an assistant professor at Delta State University. She works as a research analyst for WDBD Fox 40 in Jackson.

The couple often visits Oxford. When in town, Esfahani frequently visits the Oxford Community Garden, where she spent a great deal of time as a student.

“I was lucky to find the community garden,” she said. “Sometimes when I felt sad or bored, I would go do some gardening.”

Ole Miss left its mark on Esfahani, but Magee said he feels she left her mark on campus as well.

“It’s been a delight to work with her,” he said. “I think she’s made a valuable contribution to the program and to student life.”

The story was written by Justin Whitmore for University Communications. The photo is by Megan Wolfe of Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services. To learn more about the journalism or IMC programs, email jour-imc@olemiss.edu.

UM School of Journalism and New Media students, faculty spend winter break on Puerto Rico reporting trip

Posted on: January 8th, 2019 by ldrucker

The University of Mississippi School of Journalism and New Media continues to offer students extraordinary reporting opportunities outside the mainland United States. A group of students and faculty were in Puerto Rico for Winter Intersession on a multimedia reporting trip to interview island residents about the impact of Hurricane Maria.

Brittany Brown interviews the mayor of Loíza. Loíza, in northeastern Puerto Rico, is the center of Afro-Puerto Rican culture.

Students used social media tools to identify sources before the trip, and while they were in Puerto Rico, they used social media to post frequent updates. One student was invited to join media professionals on a documentary project in Puerto Rico later this year. They were impressed with the content she posted from this trip.

A guided night tour of Old San Juan. Pictured are professors Iveta Imre and Pat Thompson, and students

The group has visited several cities and villages for interviews. Their content – articles, photos, video, audio, graphics and more – were produced for a website and available for other platforms.

Christian Johnson and Devna Bose take photos on a beach in Aguada in northwestern Puerto Rico.

 

University of Mississippi journalism professor’s Black Mirror Project mentioned in Harvard Political Review

Posted on: January 1st, 2019 by ldrucker

Last week, Netflix dropped the first feature film released by the popular, science fiction anthology series “Black Mirror.” “Bandersnatch” is the story of a “programmer creating a video game based on the fantasy novel of an unhinged genius,” Mashable reports.

This is exciting to fans and some University of Mississippi students because the UM School of Journalism and New Media has its own class that incorporates episodes of “Black Mirror.”

Harvard Political Review recently mentioned The Black Mirror Project created by a University of Mississippi School of Journalism and New Media journalism professor that envisions the future of media through the lens of the science fiction television series.

After learning about the history of media, professor LaReeca Rucker asks students in Journalism 101 to envision the near future of media after watching several specific episodes of the series. They are asked to use their imagination to write a synopsis of their own “Black Mirror” episode. The most creative and original responses are published on The Black Mirror Project website: https://blackmirrorideas.wordpress.com/

“Black Mirror” is a British science fiction television anthology series set in the near future that explores the potentially dark consequences of technology and social media. Each episode has a different cast with a unique story and, like most science fiction, it offers a speculative warning about what could happen if we lose control and allow technology to control us.

The show, created by Charlie Brooker, was first broadcast on British television in 2011. It is now a Netflix original series, and some have called it a modern day “Twilight Zone.” Recognizing its potential for the discussion of modern and future media, some colleges and universities across the country have incorporated “Black Mirror” into their journalism and communications classes.

 

Harvard Political Review recently published the article Primetime Paranoia that mentions Rucker’s “Black Mirror” Project. The article explores “Black Mirror” and modern anxiety.

It reads, “At the beginning of most Black Mirror episodes, viewers enter a near-future world with a technology that appears novel, even benign. Then this technology goes horribly, unpredictably wrong. In this chaos are echoes of our paradoxical anxiety, which grows worse and worse in a world becoming better and better. Black Mirror has resonated. The series has earned huge ratings, prestigious awards, and praise from figures ranging from Jordan Peele to Stephen King.”

The School of Journalism and New Media also plans to offer a different, but similar “Black Mirror” class this summer as an elective. Those who are interested may email Rucker at ldrucker@olemiss.edu.

Read the Q & A with Rucker about “Black Mirror.”

Q: What is the Black Mirror Project? Why did you get involved with it, and what results has it borne?

A: The Black Mirror Project is a website I created and an ongoing assignment I give my mass communication students each semester. After they spend most of the semester studying the history of media, we shift the focus to the future of media. I assign four specific episodes of “Black Mirror” for them to watch and ponder.

I have always been a fan of science fiction, and when this series came out, I thought it was mind-bending. I also liked that the first season of the series focused a lot on social media usage and offered some scary episodes regarding social media that seemed very plausible. I like that the show is set in the near future – not hundreds of years away. I think that makes it more frightening and relevant.

As a result of starting this project, I have been contacted by people from several different states and countries who have used “Black Mirror” in their college and high school classes. Some have reached out asking if they can submit their students’ Black Mirror Reflections to be published on our website, and I have encouraged them to do that. I love collaborating with others.

 

Q: How have you integrated Black Mirror into your teaching, and what does it add to your classroom?

My students are asked to write a Black Mirror Reflection by thinking about the episodes of the show they have been assigned while pondering technology and social media in the near future. Then they are asked to research the future of technology by Googling and reading several articles on the subject, and talking to friends, family and professors to get ideas.

They are asked to imagine that they’ve just been hired as a writer for the show. It’s their job to come up with a storyline for their own episode, but they only have a week to do it or they (fictionally) get fired. They are told to imagine it will be featured in the next season of “Black Mirror.”

Students write a one-page, double-spaced report describing their episode and the characters they imagine starring in it. They discuss what technology is used and how? They think about a scenario involving technology and social media, and take that idea to an extreme. That’s the story.

I read them and select the best ones to publish on our Black Mirror Project website. You will find a collection of creative “Black Mirror” responses there. I think the exercise helps students begin to think about their personal relationship with technology, social media and electronic communication. Some have said it was “eye-opening.”

Q: In what way is Black Mirror a “modern day Twilight Zone,” as the Black Mirror Project website says? Does the show diverge from the Twilight Zone in any noteworthy ways?

I think one of the differences is that “Black Mirror” seems to be set in the near future. To me, that makes it more frightening and plausible because many of the episodes involve scenarios that we are on the verge of experiencing now. While some of “The Twilight Zone” episodes were like this, many were set many years in the future and were often more fantastical than reality-based.

I wanted to show students several episodes of “The Twilight Zone” that could be compared and contrasted with “Black Mirror,” hoping in my research I would find some “Twilight Zone” episodes from more than 50 years ago that had envisioned the future spot on, but I had difficulty finding episodes that I thought would be a good fit. However, the Harvard Political Review article does offer up a lot of interesting points about what the “The Twilight Zone” has meant to our culture.

I do show one “Twilight Zone” episode called “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” that is about the idea of beauty and perfection, which is still very relevant to viewers today.

I think the scenarios that “Black Mirror” presents are warnings about the near future in the same way “The Twilight Zone” warned us about our world. They both were important shows with confrontational, yet helpful messages that we should pay attention to.

Science fiction is prophetic vision.