Graduate student searches for Paris’ untold stories


Courtesy Michael Esparza

Graduate student searches for Paris’ untold stories

By Campus Editor

By the night of Nov. 13, the terrorist attacks on Paris that killed at least 129 people that day were known worldwide. Within two days, Michael Esparza, a graduate journalism student, was on a plane overseas to cover a different side of the story.

Esparza said he received a ticket to Paris Nov. 14 from a friend who was not going to use it. Esparza said he was apprehensive at first, but  decided to go after being encouraged by  several journalism professors.

According to a Nov. 17 email to faculty and staff from Senior Vice President and Provost Stan Wearden, four students and one staff member were abroad in Paris during the attacks, but all are safe.

While most traditional media outlets followed the manhunt for the killers, Esparza said he sought stories about individuals affected by the attacks, adding it became difficult at times to find people who wanted to talk.

“The mood altogether was very tense,” Esparza said. “People didn’t want to speak to you. Taxi drivers kind of gave you a second look to unlock their door to let you in. That was all very surprising to me. I’ve never been [to Paris] before, but I’ve never experienced that in [other parts of] Europe.”

Among the people he interviewed during his trip was a Parisian man who lived near the site of the most deadly attack at the Bataclan music hall. 

“In my interview with him, he got tense and choked up and said ‘I saw people running with blood and I wanted to go out and help them but I couldn’t because I was afraid,’” Esparza said. “He barricaded himself inside the house with his daughter.”

Yolanda Joe, an associate professor in the Communication and Media Innovation Department and coordinator of the Broadcast Journalism program who is on sabbatical this semester, said she encouraged Esparza to take the trip and helped him prepare. She said she advised him on what materials to bring, how to stay safe and about “storified” spaces, meaning areas that would be the least dangerous but possible to find people to talk to.

Joe said she helped get Esparza’s stories published in the U.S. His photos and videos aired on WGN, WBBM and Telemundo, she said. 

“I told him if he went for the main story, you are competing against CNN, MSNBC, Fox [and other outlets],” Joe said. “They’re doing the main story about the investigation. Look for the niche, the story that they don’t have time to get.”

Esparza said getting airtime was not his main goal in traveling to Paris.

“I didn’t care where this story was published,” he said. “It’s a part of history, something that needs to be told from different perspectives and different angles. That’s important.”

Suzanne McBride, interim chair of the Communication and Media Innovation Department, said she heard about Esparza’s trip after seeing him being interviewed on WGN before he flew to Paris.

McBride, who traveled overseas with Michael for a 2015 J-Term course in Ireland, said she saw him push himself and that he always went above and beyond when reporting.

“Michael is a good example for other students because he had this idea, he called people who he had taken classes from at the college and made it happen,” she said. “I am constantly happy and surprised those opportunities are encouraged here.”

Esparza said the trip was emotional and nerve wracking, but the experience strengthened his love for journalism.

“The story becomes bigger than you,” he said. “You’re just a vessel to make the story come alive. That is what changed in me, it confirmed that this is my passion.” 

Among the students studying abroad is Rachel Miller, a junior business & entrepreneurship major. 

Miller said the college supported the students’ decision to either stay in Paris or come back to the United States, adding she received communication from International Programs and Ron Sodini, associate vice president of Safety & Security, who reached out to her and her family. She said among the friends she made from other American colleges, she was the only one to hear from her school.

While she recalled watching the attacks unfold as “devastating” and originally considered returning to the United States following the attacks, Miller said her perception of Parisians is forever changed by witnessing their resilience following the first few days of mourning, which makes her feel “completely safe.”

“The French people are so strong and empowering to watch,” Miller said. “I don’t know how they do it. I have a whole different perspective. I’m not grateful this happened on my trip, but it opened my eyes to a lot. I learned a lot about the reality of living.”