Lexington, Virginia • December 2, 2009
Like her faculty colleagues and students at Washington and Lee University, Indira Somani was prepared to spend a restful Thanksgiving break.
That all changed when Somani, assistant professor of journalism and mass communications at W&L, received an e-mail from an editor at India-West, a weekly newspaper published in California for Indian-Americans.
Before she knew it, Somani was headed to Washington, D.C., to spend three days covering the historic state visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and putting into practice some of the very lessons that she teaches her W&L students.
For Somani, a second-generation American whose parents came from India, it was more than just another freelance assignment.
"This was a personally rewarding experience," Somani said. "I felt very blessed to have this opportunity. To see the American and Indian flags flown together all over the White House and to be present to see the many prominent Indian-Americans attend President Barack Obama's first state dinner was just surreal for me."
Somani was part of the press corps at almost a dozen different events that Prime Minister Singh attended, including a day-long series of events at the White House.
Although much of the post-visit media attention has focused on the Virginia couple who crashed the state dinner, Somani believes she witnessed an important moment in U.S.-India relations.
"It was clear to me that the White House wanted to show that the U.S. values India as a key partner in dealing with important international issues, including terrorism, the global economy and environmental challenges," said Somani. "Some Indians had thought President Obama had neglected India during his first months in office.
"But I think that President Obama knows that he's ultimately going to need India's help when it comes to figuring out how to get the troops out of Afghanistan eventually, and that makes the relationship between the countries all the more important," she said.
Among the issues raised during the visit, Somani cited two major educational initiatives as particularly important: an increase in the Fulbright-Nehru Scholarship program and the Obama-Singh 21st Century Knowledge Initiative, which increases ties between the countries' universities.
"As I wrote in one of the articles for India-West, the prime minister was explicit in inviting American business to look to emerging possibilities in India," said Somani.
In addition to covering the substantive issues, Somani had the chance to attend the press preview that First Lady Michelle Obama had prior to the state dinner and also turned celebrity photographer to capture images of the guests arriving. She even captured the celebrated gatecrashers, though her photos of them are slightly out of focus.
"I, of course, had no idea who these two people (Tareq and Michaele Salahi) were, but I did remember them coming through and was shocked at the eventual reports," she said. "I was focusing on the Indian-Americans who attended — people like Bollywood composer AR Rahman and American film maker M. Night Shyamalan - because there is a great deal of interest among Indians in these individuals."
Somani said the general consensus among those with whom she spoke was that the visit of the two world leaders was fruitful. At the same time, she considered her experience equally fruitful.
"It was good for me to be out in the field again," said Somani, who spent 10 years in broadcast journalism before entering academia. "Our journalism program is based on a converged environment in which students learn to combine broadcast, on-line and print. In this instance, I was operating in the print medium but using both a still camera and an audio recorder in much the same way that we teach the students. I was a one-man band, and I can now share this experience with my students."
Somani's interaction with both the White House press corps and the Indian journalists traveling with the prime minister also demonstrated how rapidly journalism is changing.
"Even since 2002 when I was last working in media, the methods of news gathering have made huge strides," she said, noting that she worked alongside Indian journalists who were editing video on small, portable devices right on the spot and sending the material back to their bureaus where it was uploaded immediately and available on satellite television.
"It was amazing to see the speed at which they were working, and this is something I can also bring back to the classroom," she said. "We have been talking about implementing editing on deadline with our students because that will be their reality. Currently the students work on The Rockbridge Report (the journalism department's television newscast and on-line news magazine) as a weekly production so they have several days to work on their pieces. We obviously have to be realistic because of their other classes, but I want them to graduate from our program with skills that they can use. Seeing the way international media are working in this environment was helpful."