Video project at Round Rock exposes students to Army families’ lives By David King, University Marketing
Judy Oskam had her semester all planned.
Her class at the Round Rock Higher Education Center would ease its way into COMM 4309, aka Visual Literacy: Film. She would take advantage of her years in the television news business, her work in public affairs programming, her experience with documentaries, to nudge the group toward a better understanding of the medium.
And then she got a call from the office of U.S. Rep. John Carter, whose district includes a swath of Central Texas from Round Rock to Killeen to Stephenville. Would her Texas State class be interested in producing a video about the families left behind by troops sent to fight in Iraq?
“All of my planning, the things I was going to do, went out the window,” Oskam says. “It was such a great real-world project and a way to connect students with an interesting population. It was just a win-win.”
It didn’t hurt that her contact on the project was a dynamic woman named Amy Bennett, the wife of the commander of the 1-4 Attack Reconnaissance Battalion. The 1-4 had been deployed recently, and Bennett wanted to tell the stories of the families living at Fort Hood and awaiting the return of the troops
“Amy came down from Fort Hood and talked to the class, and it just worked,” Oskam says. “It was one of those magical, teachable moments that you dream about.”
Few members of the class had any experience with recording or editing video, but Oskam managed to find enough experienced students to create several teams, who set out for Fort Hood and other sites around Central Texas, armed with cameras and microphones. The students, many of them with full-time jobs and some with families, made time on nights and weekends to get to know the families and shoot both video and still images. Oskam and the student teams attended everything from a parade in nearby Taylor to a layette party for dozens of young parents.
“At first, they were really unsure about the project,” Bennett says of the students, most of whom were taking the class as an elective. “The first night, the first introduction by Judy, they didn’t know what to do or how to do it. But she gave them a lot of flexibility to be creative and work from their own perspectives.”
The project gradually came together. Carter made himself available for interviews. Family members were recorded sending greetings. Some of the student teams shot video at a Hutto football game dedicated to the troops.
The entire project was burned to a DVD and sent to Iraq at the end of the year, to rave reviews.
“I have to say this is, without exception, the most unique and rewarding project I have seen for our soldiers and the families,” wrote Lt. Col. Brian Bennett, the battalion’s commander, in a letter to Oskam.
Oskam, recalling the project while sitting in her office that looks out over the growing Round Rock Higher Education Center, smiles.
“It was a little rocky at first, but it turned into a living laboratory,” she says. “That’s the kind of projects I like to do.
“Students sometimes are not used to that kind of learning; they’re used to just opening a book. But unless they’re doing it, feeling it, tasting it, they’re not going to learn it.”
Her philosophy about teaching comes in part from her background. She worked in broadcast journalism for many years and often draws on the experience of getting information out of both interviewees and young reporters. Along the way, she picked up a wide range of technical skills, and she also learned firsthand the business of public relations, working first at the University of Texas and then at Oklahoma State University (OSU).
She went back to school while working at OSU, earning both a master’s and a doctorate, then landed a job teaching at Texas Tech University. When she heard Texas State was looking for a general mass communications professor for the Round Rock Higher Education Center, she applied for and got the job.
In March she was named the winner of the Alan Scott Rising Star Award from the Texas Public Relations Association (TPRA), which is awarded to a PR professional who shows potential for outstanding accomplishments in public relations and demonstrates leadership potential for TPRA and the public relations profession
Her classes range from visual literacy to mass media and society to public relations, and she uses everything from podcasts to the virtual world of Second Life to Twitter to make her points. Students talk to professionals in a variety of fields as well, and they have been on field trips ranging from Fort Hood to GSD&M Idea City to Dell Diamond. Her research into mass communications fits neatly into her diverse approach to the subject.
“I’m always trying to do something current and fun,” she says. “I think motivating the students is key, too. It’s not just about providing the information.”
Amy Bennett had a request when Oskam’s class was wrapping up its editing and taping work on the project for the 1-4 ARB.
“Toward the end of the program, I wanted them to be interviewed, too, about how they liked it and what they got out of it,” she says. “It was really important for me to see the results from their perspective, too.”
Without exception, the experience was a positive one for the students, who talked about their work, their perceptions and a newfound appreciation for the military in brief interviews with Oskam at the end of the DVD.
Bennett says their work and, more important, the lessons they learned, were thanks in large part to their professor, who tore up her plans less than a week before the start of the semester to have the class do the project.
“She put her teeth into it, and it really became a passion of her heart,” Bennett says. “That was the impression from the very get-go, that she was enthused. She was excited that they got to do something that really meant something to them, that made an impact on them.”