Linus Unah of Youth Journalism International documents the Great Falls Forum on Thursday at the Lewiston Public Library. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — As a college student in Nigeria, Linus Unah was taking journalism classes but didn’t feel he was getting any real-world experience. That changed when he became involved with Youth Journalism International, a nonprofit based in Lewiston-Auburn.

Unah, who attended the Great Falls Forum on Thursday at the Lewiston Public Library, is now an experienced journalist and documentarian with bylines in international publications like The Guardian, Mongabay, Al Jazeera, and the Los Angeles Times. He holds a master’s degree from the University of California Berkeley.

He credits Youth Journalism International for his start, one of hundreds of students from across the globe to have done the same.

Co-founder Jackie Majerus said Thursday that the teens don’t shy away from serious topics, and many of the group’s members live and report in countries with violent conflicts or unrest.

“Teenagers are not fluffy,” she said. “They really care about what is happening.”

On a day when Unah had college finals, instead of studying he found himself talking to people and writing about the terrorist group Boku Haram, which had taken young girls captive in northeast Nigeria.


He said Youth Journalism International put him in the position to tell stories about “what was happening in our country,” and the reporting made it easier for him to get jobs after college.

“The work I had done for Youth Journalism International at that point really opened a lot of doors,” he said.

Majerus founded Youth Journalism International in 1994 along with her husband, Sun Journal reporter Steve Collins, with a mission to teach journalism. Students on all seven continents have at one time written stories for the group.

Majerus said what she didn’t expect when starting the venture was the extent to which the organization could “build bridges between people with different cultures, nationalities, and points of view.”

“It’s really a peacemaking engine, and I’m really proud of that,” she said.

Student reporters tackle topics such as mental health and depression, school violence, suicide, child labor, war, terrorism, elections, natural disasters and climate change. They use their real names, are taught ethics, news writing, and sourcing material.


Jackie Majerus, executive director of Youth Journalism International, speaks Thursday during the Great Falls Forum at the Lewiston Public Library. She founded the organization in 1994 along with her husband, Sun Journal reporter Steve Collins, with a mission to teach journalism. Students on all seven continents have at one time written stories for the group. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Majerus listed off several notable members of Youth Journalism International, including Arooj Khalid, who was the first student from Pakistan. Khalid attends Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts on a Fulbright scholarship and is a member of the Youth Journalism International board of directors.

Khalid got her start in 2011 at age 14, writing about a 12-year-old girl who worked as a maid and was not able to attend school. Her story won a top prize in the annual Youth Journalism International contest and her work won recognition in Pakistan.

It also inspired other girls to reach out to Youth Journalism International and soon there was a group of Pakistani teens writing for the organization.

During the pandemic, a group of writers from around the world collaborated on a project about mental health. They interviewed roughly 60 young people and mental health experts about the pandemic’s impact on the mental health of young people. Majerus said it was published a full year ahead of a U.S. Surgeon General’s report on the same topic.

Funding for the nonprofit comes from individual donors, small family foundations, grants and some fundraising. Majerus said they are able to keep overhead low because it is completely run by volunteers, but that as it grows, “the all-volunteer model will no longer be sustainable.”

The organization works with about 80 students a year, she said, but far more apply than they can serve.


Asked how they help students navigate reporting in violent situations, Majerus said she tells them, “The first rule is your life and safety is worth more than any story or picture.

“It’s not necessarily what professionals would choose, but they’re kids,” she said.

Youth Journalism International has recently had students write stories about the war in Ukraine, the terrorist attack at a concert venue in Russia and other conflicts. She said they went back and forth with a student in Russia over certain language that could be deemed illegal in the country.

“We followed her lead,” she said. “She knows what the repercussions are.”

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