URI student finds his way with Al Jazeera internship

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Kingston, Oct.5, 2012 – Eight years ago, Mark Scialla was a 10th grade dropout hanging out with drug dealers and other teenagers whose idea of a good time was drinking on school nights.

Now he’s an aspiring foreign correspondent, thanks to an internship last summer in Washington with Al Jazeera, the international news network that covers the Middle East and the world.

No, Scialla is not Arabic, and he isn’t majoring in Islamic studies at URI, where he’s a 25-year-old senior. Scialla sought out Al Jazeera for one reason: He believes it’s one of the best news organizations on the planet.

There are two divisions of the network — the Arab version, which reaches about 40 million viewers, and the English program, launched in 2006 and slowly gaining a presence in the American market. The main base of both programs is in the tiny Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar.

Scialla says his experience working for the English version changed his life. Not only did he learn how to whip up a television news story, he got experience that should make him a standout in a job search.

“It opened new doors and pathways,” he says.

It’s been a long journey from his tough days with gangs to a worldly newsroom in the nation’s capital.

Scialla was a lackluster student at Cranston West High School, where he got mixed up with the wrong crowd. He skipped classes and even his detention.

“I just didn’t go to school,” he says. “The teachers were good, but there wasn’t much room for creativity. It was predictable, not exciting.”

After a fistfight and other troubles, the school essentially kicked him out. He took his exam for his general equivalency diploma, but still didn’t know what to do. He ended up in Jacksonsville, Fla., and found a job shucking oysters.

Without the old influences, he dug deep and tried to put meaning back in his life. He took a philosophy course at a local community college. He loved it and soon found himself flipping the pages of Sartre and Nietzsche. From there, he moved on to political theory with Marx, Chomsky, and Smith.

His mind was full of possibilities.

“When I spent time in Jacksonville, it gave me a lot of time to think,” he says. “I needed to realize who I wanted to be. I wanted to learn as much as I could. I had a desire, for the first time, that I wanted to make the world a better place.”

Nine months later, he moved back to Rhode Island, fresh with ideas. He enrolled in URI’s College of Continuing Education, in Providence, and eventually transferred to the University’s College of Arts and Sciences, in Kingston.

At first, he pursued a degree in political science, but then switched to environmental and natural resource economics and journalism, a perfect fit for a guy curious about the world. He studied how to create sustainable markets; he wrote for The Good 5⊄ Cigar, the University’s student newspaper.

By his junior year, he was restless — again. He thought about scrapping journalism. Why not? Newspapers were folding all over the country. The celebrity-obsessed reporting was a turnoff.

“Then the Arab spring happened,” he says.

The wave of protests and demonstrations throughout the Arab world in 2010 fascinated him, and he scoured news sites for information. Al Jazeera English, he says, was clearly the best. The Arab version of Al Jazeera has been criticized as anti-American propaganda; Scialla says the reporting for the English-language network is fair and honest.

“I was glued to my computer for weeks watching,” he says. “They weren’t afraid to do real journalism. There wasn’t any sensational stuff. They tried really hard to report the truth.”

He set his mind on getting an internship in the network’s Washington bureau. It was a long shot. He had no experience, especially with a worldwide news group. Linda Lotridge Levin, a URI journalism professor, helped him reach someone at the station. Scialla sent his resume, but was told the position he applied for only takes graduate students.

Still, he pressed on. One day, he got an internship application in the mail. An invitation for a phone interview followed. “Tell me about yourself in five minutes,” the woman asked. He talked about the community garden he started in his neighborhood and his edible forest garden. A week later, the e-mail arrived.

“I was elated,” Scialla says.

His first assignment was covering a storm that devastated the Washington area. He went out in the field with a cameraman and talked to homeowners. “I finally felt what it was like to be a professional journalist,” he says.

He was pumped. He covered the National Aids Conference, where he interviewed the civil rights activist Al Sharpton. He spoke to the head of a nonprofit group about sex trafficking in Washington, and he talked to an expert about the stockpiling of chemical weapons in Syria. One day, he stood outside a Chick-fil-A restaurant to interview people about the company president’s controversial comments against gay marriage.

Those troubling days of his youth were in the past.

“All the people at the station were more than willing to help,” he says. “They were loaded with experience and advice, people well-trained in their craft.”

It was thrilling. At any given time, he would hear five languages from reporters in the newsroom — Portuguese, Italian, French, Arabic, and English. Even the interns were a diverse bunch, with some from Australia and France.

He never appeared on air, but he made three demo tapes and learned how the news business works on the world stage.

“I felt like I was part of a larger global network,” he says. “It made me feel like I was contributing to something that had global implications.”

If all goes as planned, he’ll graduate in December. He’s applying for a six-month internship with his old boss and hopes to return to Al Jazeera in the spring.

Levin says there’s one word to describe her student: persistent.

“He just kept going at it, going at it,” she says. “I was very impressed. He was determined, and he did it.”

URI Marketing & Communications photo by Michael Salerno Photography.