What if I Broke a Rule?

By Krysta Scripter

This was my first chance to experience working in a professional newsroom with deadlines, editor notes and constant feedback.

I actually enjoy interviewing. When I get into it and start digging – and really having fun with it – I come away with a much better experience.

I struggled a lot when reporting and recording. We had so much riding on what we covered that day, plus I wasn’t familiar with the recording equipment or how to use it efficiently. I was anxious and incredibly nervous about asking people questions they may not be comfortable with. What if I broke a rule? What if I made someone uncomfortable? What if they got really upset with me?

Erika Aguilar was my mentor for the project. I’ve never met someone so encouraging and supportive (other than my mom).

One of the things she shared with me, after noticing how stressed I had been that morning, was that as a journalist, it is our job to inform people about issues they aren’t familiar with. When we work under that motivation, the courage to put yourself out there and ask that direct question is more goal-based. We have a job. Our job is to help give voice to things unheard.

After three possible story ideas, over two hours of audio — and a whole lot of hair-pulling (See earlier post.) — getting that final piece of audio was incredibly satisfying. It set us a little behind, but it was worth it to get our final story pitch for our editor.

(No seriously, THANK GOD.)

I live for happy accidents. We met Dave while looking for someone else. But his sweet demeanor and willingness to tell his story really won me over. After Wednesday afternoon, it was nothing but edit, brainstorm, then edit again, then ask for more help, then edit again…

Its hard. It’s really hard. I was in the newsroom from 8 a.m. to nearly 8 p.m. I’ve never been so submersed, so deep in such a huge project. It was hard, stressful, intense work.

And I loved it. 

God, its going to be hard to go back to retail after this.

Five Days Later

By Cynthia Sandoval

“I remember starting the NPR boot camp as if it was just five days ago”

That’s because it did start just five days ago!

That was a total cliché, and believe me, I know better to use those. It was one of the many things I learned at the boot camp: no platitudes!

(right, Jess?)

Selfie with Jess on our tour of 4th Street.

Selfie with Jess on our tour of 4th Street.

Jessica Naudziunas was my very insightful, funny, inspiring and motivating mentor for the week. She taught me more than I can thank her for. She really let me be creative and express my ideas on paper how I wanted. Then we would go through it together and “sculpt” our piece of clay. I liked that she would give me feedback on whether or not she agreed with what I wrote, and tell me why and not just take over and show me how to do it.

One of the biggest lessons I will take away from this past week’s experience is that I have to advocate for myself because no one is going to do it for me.

Whether it be asking someone to edit my paper or getting an interview, I have to find a way to get it done myself and not just depend on others to make it happen.

In the beginning, I was afraid to start the boot camp because I knew I was going to be surrounded by professionals. While that was also super exciting, (especially because my mentor is from The New York Times) it was nerve wracking because I have little experience with journalism. I was scared that I’d lag behind the other students because I thought I was going to need extra help with the equipment. I especially thought I was going to need help with developing a story further than into a feature piece.

Cynthia at the Mic_CFYxHh7VIAAxjZL

This is me pretending to be calm as I do my first ever phone interview.

The interviews were brutal, because, first off, one was a phone interview, and I had never done one before. So, Jessica showed me how and it was different, but less intimidating because the person isn’t in front of you. The second interview was “on-the-go” which I found out I enjoyed because it is not so stiff and you can really be submerged in your story. The only difficult part for me was getting over the nervousness I was having talking to a legit and credible person for my story. However, I felt that throughout the conversation I worked up the courage to ask a few questions (shout out to Jessica for making it less awkward when my mouth would open, but nothing came out).

If five days ago someone told me that I was going to create a four minute story in both Spanish and English, with video content, a print version, and not be stressed out, I would have called bull. For some reason, with this project, although it’s been my hardest piece I’ve ever worked on, it’s been the least stressful. Maybe because I had someone to point me in the right direction. That’s not to say there weren’t moments where I thought I was going to wave my flag and surrender, but I truly enjoyed every bit of it, especially the s’mores we had at dinner!

Thank you NPR boot camp mentors and mentees for helping me fall more in love with journalism.


Jesse Leaman Reno

Transforming the Wheelchair: Co-robots in Disguise

By Ryan Smith

Astrophysicist and quadriplegic Jesse Leaman is designing a smart wheelchair with robotic arms. He hopes the invention, which he calls an iChair, will help other quadriplegics live more productive and independent lives. Until Leaman’s robotics team at UNR receives funding, he works as an unpaid volunteer, commuting to campus on public transportation.

Jesse Leaman struggles to live in a world that isn’t built for him.

Getting out of bed every morning, commuting to work, opening a door – the majority of Leaman’s daily activities require the assistance of others.

Leaman is a quadriplegic,  and he’s spent the last 17 years designing wheelchair technology that helps people with severe disabilities be more productive.

Leaman’s newest project is the iChair. Like a typical smartchair, it includes a motorized chair, a computer and sensors. But, Leaman has even bigger plans. He’s creating a co-robot.

“That’s just the beginning,” he said. “Because once I’m going to be able to add the robotic arms, I’ll have the ability to eat and drink again on my own, press buttons and I can even do some nonverbal communication like celebrating or doing the robot dance.”

In 1996, Leaman jumped from his parent’s patio into a snow bank below and landed on his head. The impact crushed his third, fourth, and fifth cervical vertebrae.

According to Leaman, adding the arms will help people like him get back into the workforce.

In a 2012 report by Cornell University, only 25 percent of Nevadans with walking disabilities were employed and little more than 15 percent had full-time jobs. Cornell reported similar statistics for the United States, as a whole.

“The iChair, as it is now, is already really useful for making a person who can’t use their arms or legs, or a quad, to make them more employable because they can interact and work on a computer just the way anyone else can — even make them more efficient.”

Jesse Leaman’s smart chair includes a laptop with an infrared tracking system so he can work on a computer like any other able-bodied person. He also has it outfitted with a backup camera, GoPro and speakers. CREDIT: Ryan Smith

Jesse Leaman’s smart chair includes a laptop with an infrared tracking system so he can work on a computer like any other able-bodied person. He also has it outfitted with a backup camera, GoPro and speakers. CREDIT: Ryan Smith

A PhD in astrophysics and a former Post Doc. in space science at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Leaman designed his first wheelchair technology as an intern at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. It was just two years after his accident.

With other NASA engineers, Leaman connected a back-up camera to his wheelchair so he wouldn’t break anything in the lab.

“I was faced with the challenge of having to visit a lot of different scientists who could be mentors in the future,” Leaman said. “And, I had to go into all these strange offices and I was worried about colliding with objects and people because I can’t turn around to see what’s behind me. So, I was inspired to use the technology from the big rig [trucks] that put the rearview camera by the windshield.”

All of his innovations since spawned from necessity.

“It’s always about being more efficient when you’re in this situation, because you know very often you can just end up bedridden if no one comes to help you get up,” Leaman said. “So, I have to be as productive as possible when I’m up and about.”

Leaman recently turned all his attention to assistive technology. Following his Post Doc. work with NASA, he couldn’t find a job in his academic field.

Money became tight and eventually Leaman left California for Reno. He now works as a volunteer in the University of Nevada, Reno’s Advanced Robotics and Automation Laboratory — home base for his iChair research.

To become a salaried employee at the university, Leaman needs funding for his project.

He recently applied for a National Science Foundation grant which would pay his salary and give him graduate students to help him write the code that will bring the robotic arms to life. He is also developing 3D mapping technology which will help wheelchairs navigate obstacles on their own.

Without the grant, however, Leaman said his research is progressing slowly.

“Without an outside grant, I wouldn’t be able to accomplish this research, not on my own,” Leaman said. “It means that my research is going much slower and I have to spend out of pocket if I have to buy a new sensor. But, it also means I’m focusing a lot on things that I can do. For example, the Access Report is something I can do. Filming, editing and publishing, I can do that part. So that keeps me busy.”

Leaman and the ARA laboratory won’t know if they received the NSF grant until July. If they don’t receive it, Leaman said he will just apply again.

When Leaman isn’t working on his research, he uses the GoPro camera on his wheelchair to document accessibility issues around Reno. He’s made nine videos highlighting opportunities for access improvements like automatic door openers, sidewalk cuts and wheelchair ramps.

“I would like to start documenting different accessibility levels first around Reno and then eventually around the nation and possibly around the world,” Leaman said. “Because unfortunately when people think of accessible they think of a ramp or an elevator, but sometimes it’s much more subtle than that.”

Without a paying job, Leaman’s problems are more subtle than accessibility.

While he waits for a grant, Leaman gets by on a NASA pension. It’s not enough to support his needs though, he said.

“Well, I certainly appreciate all the gifts I’ve been given,” Leaman said. “I try to give back by trying to make the best of myself and give back to the community. All I can be is grateful, right?”

A Shift in Perspective and A Change of Pace

The NPR Bootcamp newsroom after dark.

The NPR Bootcamp newsroom after dark.

By Ryan Smith

It’s 9:15 on Thursday night.

I’m the only reporter left in the news studio, and I still have several untouched assignments.

They are due tomorrow, and I am obviously behind.

The page-long list of tasks yet to be completed would normally leave me wrought with anxiety, but tonight, in this quiet, empty newsroom, I’ve made my peace with it.

It’s not my fault. It’s not really anyone’s fault. Sometimes life just gets in the way.

No one understands that better than Jesse Leaman, an astrophysicist who turned his attention to researching assistive technologies for the severely disabled.

Jesse Leaman and I talk in the club house at the apartment complex where he lives.

Jesse Leaman and I talk in the club house at the apartment complex where he lives.

A quadriplegic himself, Leaman has spent the last 19 years of his life at the mercy of the people and places around him.

Whether it be getting out of bed in the morning, commuting to work, or eating a meal, the world was not built for people like Leaman.

Quite the opposite.

In the two days I spent with him this week, I watched him wait patiently through long bus rides, and for people to open doors for him. Nothing happens quickly for the man whose nickname in high school was “lightning.”

It’s not likely, either, that the world will quickly change to better accommodate his needs. Nor, does he expect it to.

So, Leaman is determined to design a wheelchair that gives quads back their independence.

A project 19 years in the making, he hopes to builda pair of robotic arms upon the smart wheelchair he already uses that would enable him to feed himself, open doors and even do the “robot dance.”

It’s just the next innovation in a line of impressive technologies — including a backup camera, infrared tracking software and 3D mapping technology — Leaman helped prototype and incorporate into a mobile office and navigation system that sits atop his motorized wheelchair.

It has made his life much more productive. But, he stills opportunities to increase his contribution.

Like everything in his daily life, there are obstacles to his research — in particular, funding.

Leaman keeps on trying though. Always patiently.

During one long bus ride this week, the PhD in astrophysics told me that time goes faster when you’re moving. It seems only fitting, then, that while his body moves slowly, his mind is quick. He sees how to solve accessibility before the rest of us and he isn’t going to wait for the rest of us to catch up.

So, here it is the night before my story is due and I am behind in my work. But, it’s not my fault and it’s not Leaman’s fault. His world moves at a different pace than the rest of us.

I just have to catch up.

Choosing Young Latina Role Models

By Stephanie Serrano

Growing up in Reno, Nevada, and going to high school at Hug High School, diversity is nothing new to me.

I profiled Alondra Mora and Yaquelin Ramirez, two Latinas who will be the first in their family to go to a four-year-university. I truly think they are an inspiration not only to their families, but also to their community.


Here I am getting used to all the cables in our first interview at Hug High.

They’ve worked so hard to gets straight A’s and also help their families at home.

It is so important to surround yourself with people that will motivate you to be a better person and strive for a better future. Which is hard for a lot of students. For many, it’s extremely hard to avoid falling into the wrong crowd and saying no to negative peer pressure every single day.

That is why I think Alondra and Yaquelin are inspiring. They choose to rely on each other and help support each other when motivation is far from them. They also prove that a true friendship doesn’t have to be envious.

During this project, my mentor, Nico Colombant, really helped me understand what elements you need to tell a story. He compared story telling to preparing a full course meal. Collecting interviews and ambient sounds is the appetizer and the two high school seniors are the main meal. But my story was missing its dessert.

This is why I decided to highlight both of the girls’ fathers in a special Spanish version.

I think it is amazing how hard their families are working to give them a better future and supply them with what they can to keep pushing.

It is important to understand that Alondra and Yaquelin don’t have the luxury of having a parent that can make their college schedule or help them register for classes. Let alone provide them with full tuition. But they provide them with so much more.

Their families work so hard to make sure they do not have an empty stomach during the day. They provide them with the hope they need to move forward. They give them the strength to persevere.

Listen below to the full interviews of the two Dads in Spanish.

Manuel Mora, Alondra’s Dad, works as a forklift operator at a local warehouse. He came to the United States when he was 15. His first job was picking lemons. He described it as the hardest job he’s ever had. So hard, he’d rather not think about it.

He goes on to explain how proud he is of his daughter.

“Sadly, my job does not give me too much, but thank god she is getting scholarships,” said Mora. “She is moving forward on her own. What we can give her most is our support. We are very family oriented and there are moments where I see her working very hard at school and at home. I tell her, ‘I know you’re tired, but you’re suffering now, you’re working hard right now so that in the future you can relax and you’ll be in a better place’. That is all I want for her, to be better than us. It is important to support her as much as I can economically but more important, to support her mentally. This country is filled with opportunities and since she was born here, she is blessed to take advantage of all of these opportunities.”

Noe Ramirez is Yaquelin Ramirez’s proud dad. He works in cement on city jobs. Having this job can be very precarious as it is dependent on the weather. So during the winter, he often struggles to find extra money for his family. His living room has a large wrestling mat were he enjoys practicing mixed martial arts and teaches Yaquelin and the rest of their siblings a few tricks.

“My hope is that she prepares herself to gain a brighter future, to succeed in life,” said Ramirez. “She constantly surprises me. She works so hard at school, she barely has time to help around the house but that is ok because it is for her own good. As long as she keeps trying and takes advantage of her opportunities, that’s perfect. I help her as much as I can. I don’t charge her for rent, I provide her with her health elements, I buy her whatever she needs because she doesn’t work and doesn’t have an income coming in. Everything comes out of her mother and I. We have five girls and we try to help all of them with what we can. Yaquelin has always focused and put a lot of effort in school. It is important to focus on school and work hard, partying and celebrating will come later.”


First Generation: Two Latinas On Their Way to a Four-Year University

By Stephanie Serrano

Two Latina high school seniors strive to become the first in their family to attend a university. As Stephanie Serrano reports for Next Generation Radio the two young women come from a  Reno community and zip code (89431) where most residents have low paying jobs.

Listen to Stephanie Serrano’s radio feature about the two students.

Click here to watch Stephanie Serrano at Hug High School

College Bound Latinas at Hug High

Alondra Mora and Yaqi Ramirez are proud graduates of Hug High School in Reno. CREDIT: Stephanie Serrano

Early Bird Gets The Worm

It’s 6:30 a.m. and not only are the alarm clocks going off in the Mora household but so are the roosters.

Alondra Mora, a petite, curly-haired brunette, 18-year-old high school senior, begins her day.

Multi-tasking is Mora’s special trait. She starts by making breakfast for herself and her family. Waiting for the tortillas to be ready to flip, Mora steps over to the sink to begin washing last night’s dishes.

She makes breakfast with eggs from her family’s backyard chickens and also takes advantage of leftovers to make her lunch for school.

“There’s six of us and then my grandparents also stay with us,” said Mora. “Food runs out super fast.”

Money runs tight. Mora’s parents are both employed in a warehouse and are constantly working overtime to provide everyday necessities like food.

Most days, Mora is responsible for driving her two younger brothers, her younger sister, her cousin and her best friend to school.

Mora and Ramirez are on an upward path

Mora and Ramirez are on an upward path. CREDIT: Stephanie Serrano


Mora remembers exactly how she met Yaquelin Ramirez when the two were in middle school.

“I didn’t have any friends,” said Ramirez. “I was at the end of the lunch line and she happens to walk by and I was like, she is in my P.E. class. I remember asking her, ‘hey aren’t you in my P.E. class?’ She was like, ‘yeah’ and I was like ‘oh, do you want to have lunch with me?’ And she was like, ‘oh yeah’. After that, our friendship just took off. We got really close.”

Their friendship is genuine. Since middle school, they have learned that their interests and goals are the same. They go to each other for the support they don’t have elsewhere.

Whether it be help on homework or applying for financial aid, they know that they have each other to lean on if they need help.

After four years and a lot of hard work, both girls will be graduating from Procter R. Hug High School in June. They are also both planning to attend the University of Nevada Reno in the fall and be the first in their family to attend a four-year university.

Alondra Mora in the Hug High Library

Mora takes part in a discussion to defend Hug High’s reputation. CREDIT: Stephanie Serrano

Hug High

City-Data.com grades public high schools, with 100 being the best. Hug High is classified as a four.

Mora has been selected to talk at an upcoming event to defend Hug High School’s reputation.

“When I’ve gone to scholarship dinners, they always say, ‘oh where did you go to school?’ They say ‘oh, Hug High School.’ They say ‘oh don’t you mean thug high school?’” said Mora. “I think that showcases that people always associate us as being a ghetto school, when in reality it’s not.”

More than half the students at Hug are Hispanic. Many come from middle to lower-income families where college tuition is not always affordable.

Ramirez has received scholarships

Ramirez has received one more scholarship than Mora. CREDIT: Stephanie Serrano


Jason Aytes has been helping Mora and Ramirez with information on scholarships.

“Working here it takes the right kind of person, but you don’t always understand the value you’re getting from that,” said Aytes, the social studies department and scholarship coordinator at Hug High. “It is completely inspirational to see these young people transition themselves and change lives, their future, their family, all of it. It’s good to see success stories.”

After countless hours of reworking essays, Ramirez received seven scholarships so far, just barely beating Mora who has six scholarships.

“It was pretty hard,” said Ramirez. “I had four AP classes and to find time, I would prioritize my homework. I would be like, ‘I have to finish my homework first, then I can go apply for scholarships’, because I didn’t want to fail my classes. Sometimes I would stay up really late doing scholarships, because I know it needs to get done.”

Mora also found it challenging, filling out scholarships while also doing her homework. Mora lives in a small, three-bedroom house with her six siblings, parents and grandparents.

“One time, I really had to read and I had a project due the next day, so I literally locked myself in the bathroom, and I was working in there because I was like ‘this is as good as it’s going to get,’” said Mora. “It’s really hard. I don’t have that quiet space where I won’t be bugged.”

Listen to Ramirez and Mora explain their ways to succeed.

Friend to Friend Support

Ramirez has also had her challenges. In eighth grade, she was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, a condition where the thyroid produces too much hormones. This causes an irregular heartbeat, weight loss and for Ramirez, loss of concentration.

“In middle school, I was 80 pounds and I drastically went up to 130,” said Ramirez. “It was just really difficult to cope with, because I couldn’t really concentrate. I used to be able to read something once and get it, after this I had to reread something multiple times.”

When she was a sophomore, she had to miss two weeks of school so she could undergo treatment for her overactive thyroid.

Mora was the one friend who helped her get back on track.

“When I came back to school, she helped me a lot,” said Ramirez. “She made sure all my teachers gave her all my work that I missed. It was really nice. She helped me finish and everything they had done in class, she would help me go over it.”

Now two years later, both girls are graduating in the top five of their class. They’ve found it fun to have a sister-like competition between each other. Ramirez is second in her graduating class. Mora is fifth.