Mizzou Journalism Students In Brussels Say Scene After Terror Attacks Is 'Surreal'

Mar 22, 2016

Mizzou journalism student Meg Hilling snapped this photo of an empty street in Brussels on her way to work Tuesday.
Credit Meg Hilling / Twitter

Missouri Journalism student Meg Hilling didn't hear the explosion Tuesday morning at Brussels' Maelbeek metro station. But by the time she got to the office of Politico, where she is interning this semester, she saw "tons of police officers and ambulances" streaming toward the station just a few blocks away. 

"It's very surreal," Hilling says. "You see events like this on TV. All morning long all we've heard are sirens and police whistles." 

Hilling is one of 16 Mizzou journalism students studying abroad in Brussels this semester and interning at international news organizations like Politico and Reuters. University officials have confirmed all 16 students were accounted for and safe in the attack's aftermath Tuesday. 

Hilling admits feeling a tension between her aspirations as a journalist (on her Twitter account, she calls herself a "foreign correspondent in training") and living the reality of yet another tragic terror strike in a European capital. 

"Whether or not you think you're ready, you have to be ready. You can't stop and think about it. You have to go out there, get facts, and report," she says. 

On Tuesday, Hilling says she mainly monitored social media and helped copy edit in Politico's office. She also says she stepped outside briefly to snap a few photos of Brussels' eerily empty streets. 

Mizzou officials are adamant students in Brussels must prioritize their safety over the story. Gareth Harding, the director of the Missouri School of Journalism's program in Brussels, says he told students to follow the orders of  local authorities and stay indoors.  

"As young reporters their instinct may be to head towards the action. In this case, it has to be the other way," he said in an interview with KCUR 89.3. "In no uncertain terms we have told them they are not covering this story from the streets but from their desks. They have not been trained for these dangerous types of conflict scenarios." 

Harding says the previous group of Mizzou students studying in Brussels in the fall of 2015 went through a similar ordeal when Brussels went under a lock down for several days as authorities searched for and eventually confronted suspects in the November Paris attacks. 

"It's a different environment here now," Harding says of Brussels since those events in the fall. "It's not to say Brussels isn't safe. But we must have our students to be always mindful of their safety and surroundings." 

Far from dissuading her, Hilling says these latest events reinforce for her why she wants to be a foreign correspondent. 

"Two of my colleagues at Politico saw some of the victims on their way to work. And I want to be able to tell the stories of people like that. Tell their story and tell it right."

Kyle Palmer is KCUR's morning newscaster and a reporter. You can follow him on Twitter @kcurkyle