STORY BY MARI MOROZ
Senior Erin Menardi spent eight straight hours one evening cuddling with a 50-year-old man she didn’t know.
Menardi is not a professional cuddler, and this is not something she would usually do. She is just a Drake student completing an assignment.
Students in the JMC 120: Magazine Freelance Writing class were given an assignment to step out of their comfort zone and write about an unusual experience of theirs in an article.
“I call it the personal experience essay,” said Jeff Inman, professor of the course. “Journalism has always had a personal element and I wanted them to put themselves in the middle of a story and experience it firsthand.”
The students were assigned to prepare five potential ideas of experiences they could engage in for the assignment. They would then pitch the ideas to the class and their peers choose the best idea for them.
Senior Selchia Cain was given her first choice on the assignment, which involved wearing a burka on campus for a few days.
“It was my boyfriend’s idea, actually. He said ‘Why don’t you wear a holy dress for a week?’ and overall I was thrilled that the class was on board with me moving forward with the project,” Cain said via email.
Menardi went through Snuggle Buddies, an organization that pairs paid professionals with clients who are interested in cuddling and are in need of human touch for therapeutic purposes.
“I didn’t really get any training or any background checks from clients from the organization before doing it, so I was really sketched out about my safety,” Menardi said.
The different experiences this year ranged from going to a shooting range to eating every meal at a soup kitchen for a week to a student doing things for the first time since her father passed away two years ago.
Junior Lauren Kassien used a kit that simulated what dementia was like for the assignment, using gloves that mimicked arthritis, headphones playing static voices and glasses that displayed living with glaucoma.
“Both my grandmas had Alzheimer’s disease and one used to live with my family,” Kassien said. “My mother and I really got frustrated with her and thought that she could do so much more than she was, but now I understand she was just as frustrated with herself as we were with her.”
Each student’s experience in this assignment shaped and changed them in a different way.
Menardi explained that if writers are willing to try something new and uncomfortable, they can write truly great pieces.
“This assignment shows students that you can approach journalism in different ways and that you can be a vehicle for the audience to vicariously live through that they can’t do themselves,” Inman said.
Challenges arose for each student as their essays developed and they became more vulnerable in the assignment.
“The biggest challenge overall was stepping on to campus the first day because I was ignored by individuals that I know and see on a daily basis, yet they saw me completely different based on what I was wearing,” Cain said.
Cain began to see herself differently because of the assignment, but in a positive and life-changing light.
“It was in wearing a few feet of black fabric that I had found beauty in a burka, confidence in being completely covered and feminine liberation in extreme forms of modesty,” Cain said.
Students are not just submitting themselves to peer ridicule and shame, being mistaken for a prostitute or unable to fold their own laundry due to induced slippery hands for the fun of it. They do it for the article.
Inman believes this assignment shapes a good part of their education and experience here at Drake.
“This is the storythat students remember from this class and from their whole experience at Drake,” Inman said.