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For Student Journalists, No Burden Guarding Vargas' Secret

For six weeks, 35 teenagers protected Jose Antonio Vargas after he revealed to them his undocumented status.

When Jose Antonio Vargas told the Oracle editorial staff his immigration status, silence fell upon the room.

"I'm an undocumented immigrant," he confessed to the group after a nervous pause for a sip out of his Starbucks cup. The gaze of the roomful of stunned individuals locked on their guest speaker.

"Could someone say something?" he asked.

On that cooler than usual spring morning in Silicon Valley, Vargas sat across from 35 reporters ages 14 to 18 at Mountain View High School and told them his deepest secret, which he said only a few people knew. He also told them to keep it safe for a while. They did.

For the next six weeks not a murmur, whisper, tweet or status update suggested the teenagers guarded privileged information for Vargas, 30, a former Oracle editor-in-chief and a 2000 graduate of MVHS.

But now, the off-the-record comment he made on May 11 has been released and the news that a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, who worked at several national news outlets all the while being in the United States illegally, spread like wildfire online and raised a fury of opinions.

Closer to home, however, the teens felt relieved that now they could also share what happened on that day and why they bit their lips.

Outgoing co-editor-in-chief of Oracle, Magali Gauthier, explained that at first, Vargas spoke to the students about "the world of journalism" and his experiences.

The students "treated him like the Oracle god," she said, because of his accomplishments, particularly his Pulitzer for coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting. "People were excited."

Gauthier, 17, sat on the second row of chairs set up so that the cameraman, with his D7 SLR camera, could get them all in the frame. Those images would be used in Vargas' latest project. Six or seven students sat to the left and didn't have photo releases.

From there she watched and participated in the question and answer session posed by Vargas to solicit suggestions for his new documentary on illegal immigration to the United States. 

Vargas wanted "our point of view about how to make it more interesting," Gauthier said.

This interaction with the students, Kevin Troxell felt, made Vargas "connect really well with us and he presented himself to be easygoing and reliable."

Students started to suggest Vargas find a way to connect to his audience and build credibility, according to Troxell, an assistant entertainment editor. "I think that's what triggered it," the 17-year-old said about the confession.

From the back row, Troxell saw the shock on Vargas' face after he told the Oracle staff that he was undocumented.

"He seemed surprised to tell us," Troxell said. "He kind of put his hand over his mouth as if to say 'what did I just say?'"

Behind the closed-door of room 415, the fluorescent white lights and a complete hush filled the room. The unexpected disclosure of the information, Troxell acknowledged, instantly bonded them with Vargas.

"I think that especially because he was an Oracle and he went to MVHS, we felt camaraderie for him," Troxell said, who met Vargas for the first time that day. "Oracle is a tight knit group and we are all friends. He's a friend and an Oracle, and that was the reason we wanted to keep his secret."

Later in the day, Vargas would also speak to the editorial staff of The Talon, the Los Altos High School paper. However Oracle staff members don't believe he told them. But they wouldn't know, since they didn't tell anyone they knew anything.

"From my knowledge, the Oracle was the only class he came out to," said William Beare, 18, the former Opinions page editor. Even the dozen or so sophomore members of Oracle, excused for the Advance Placement examinations, never learned what happened. Beare regularly contributes to Mountain View Patch.

According to Beare, the depth of conversation between the students and Vargas, and the poignant question of one outgoing and outspoken girl who asked for more validation from Vargas about "why could he write about illegal immigration," may have played a role in the revelation.

"He asked us not to tell before he told us what [the secret] was," Beare said. "I don't think there was one person in that room who could have broken that trust."

"It was a powerful moment that went beyond our pursuit of journalism." 

Accompanying Vargas, who had given a keynote speech that morning at a breakfast with Mountain View community leaders, was Susan Sweeley, who couldn't believe he told the students.

Sweeley, a mentor to Vargas and president of the Board of Trustees of the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District, admitted that when he glanced at her right before his confession, she whispered to him 'no!'

"They were awestruck," she said upon hearing the secret and added that Vargas told her afterward that he felt better. Also in the room in addition to the students, the cameraman and Sweeley, were advisors to Oracle, William Blair and Amy Beare, and District Superintendent Barry Groves.

"Each one of those kids will feel privileged that they were trusted with this [secret]," Sweeley said.

The new co-editor-in-chief of Oracle, Katherine Pantangco, doesn't think Vargas would have shared his secret with them if he didn't trust them.

"He had so much trust, even though it was spur-of-the-moment," she said. "We are a journalism class and we know the importance of confidentiality and being mature about it."

Pantangco, 16, and of Filipino ancestry like Vargas, expressed how honored she felt that he shared with them his experience of how he came to the United States. She also appreciated that Vargas used Tagalog and talked about his Lola and Lolo–grandmother and grandfather–in his stories.

"The secret was an eye-opener for us, in terms of immigration and how we see immigrants," she said. "Because of that we appreciated his secret and felt honored for his trust."

As Pantangco watched the minutes tick away from the front row, the questions from students kept coming, she said, because "we were so hungry for more discussion and insight." Vargas went to the wipeboard and with a black Expo marker gave the students his email. He also asked them to "friend" him on Facebook. She did.

It was actually through Vargas' Facebook news feed on June 21, more than a month after Vargas' visit with Oracle staff, that Pantangco learned The New York Times had published his article. The world now finally knew too.

Pantangco sent the link to her Oracle classmates.

Admiration, respect, inspiration and the fraternal bonds of the Oracle helped a group of usually chatty, inquisitive and ambitious teenage reporters keep Vargas' secret.

"I'm sure many of us were anxious for this moment and here it is," Pantangco said, admitting that she did talk to her best friend, also an Oracle, about the secret. "We were so honored that he was able to share it with us first."

"It felt exclusive and we felt special," she said.

 


Bishop Andrew Gentry June 25, 2011 at 07:24 PM
I support fully Jose Vargas and applaud his courage. The right wing can rage all they like but this whole discussion is so coloured by racism the stink rises higher than the Washington Monument! If anyone should be deported it is the Republican Party and done so posthaste while we still have a representative republic. While we are at it please let us assist Subcarolina, otherwise known as South Carolina, along with Texas, and the other secessionists governed states to do that, leave the Union! We would all be better off without them.
Carlos Villatoro January 09, 2012 at 07:23 AM
Awesome story Claudia! Felicidades!
Claudia Cruz (Editor) January 09, 2012 at 06:03 PM
Thanks Carlos. If I was going to win a prize for any story, I'm very glad this one was chosen. It was my "day-two" story and it was nice to get a very unique (and local) angle to this national story.

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