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WNEC Communications Students Make Community and Career Inroads
Brenda Garton-Sjoberg and Talehia Traverso

Brenda Garton-Sjoberg, left, director of the Institute for Media and Nonprofit Communication at WNEC, and Talehia Traverso, a junior majoring in communications, in the college’s television studio.

Talehia Traverso, a junior from New Jersey majoring in communications at Western New England College, plans to spend much of this semester poring over video footage, perfecting her on-air delivery, and conducting interviews with Broadway star Mamie Duncan-Gibbs.

Duncan-Gibbs, who has starred in such productions as Jelly’s Last Jam with Savion Glover and Gregory Hines, in addition to television and nationally touring stage appearances, has enlisted Traverso’s help in publicizing another endeavor, Youth Theatre Interactions (YTI) in Yonkers, N.Y., for which she serves as executive and artistic director.

“It’s an amazing program that teaches creativity, leadership, and the idea that hard work pays off,” said Traverso, who began her work with YTI this summer and expects to complete her project by this spring.

She’ll be producing a promotional video for the organization as part of an independent study at WNEC, and the scope of the project isn’t lost on her. She quickly lists several specific hurdles she has to clear in order to complete the piece: “I’m still shooting,” she said, counting off the tasks with her fingers. “Framing can be difficult, and writing and editing the story line … I had to learn how to focus the cameras well — and getting good head shots, that’s a big one.”

Initially, Traverso showed an interest due to the program’s close proximity to her hometown; Duncan-Gibbs, interestingly enough, is a Springfield native.

But the connection she’s made with the actress runs deeper than that. The project is also part of a burgeoning program at the college that is growing quickly, and garnering national attention for its work with not-for-profit organizations and agencies, as well as the experience it affords students.

Passion to Product

Led by Brenda Garton-Sjoberg, communications professor and former news anchor for WWLP 22, the program is an option for communications students, and charges them with the creation of a five-minute spot that features and promotes a nonprofit business.

Students must write their own scripts, film their own footage, conduct interviews, edit, and produce their projects from start to finish, and Garton said the process usually spans an entire semester, if not longer.

“This is an extensive, months-long project,” she said. “Essentially, these students must live their project for weeks on end. But this allows them to graduate with a professional product to show employers — a product they are proud of, and frankly, so are we.”

Garton said serving the students’ professional needs through the project is as important as producing a quality marketing piece for nonprofit businesses, most of which are local. The dual focus ensures that the educational needs of the participants are met, she said, as well as the promotional needs of the agencies with which they work.

“It has to be a learning experience for the student as well as the nonprofit,” said Garton. “We match students with particular nonprofits, because there needs to be an interest and a passion on the part of the student. We know there is a need in the nonprofit arena, because we are inundated with calls.”

Tale of the Tape

The initiative began in 2003, with one student and a self-defense course for children, radKIDS, which has been held on the WNEC campus for several years.

Garton, at the time serving as the school’s director of College Relations and Community Outreach, became involved with the program as a volunteer and a mother, even becoming a certified radKIDS instructor.

Her news roots never far from the surface, however, Garton said she recognized a need for more publicity for the program. At the same time, a communications student, Michael DeFilipi of Agawam, was looking for an independent study project to round out his education in broadcasting.

A video was produced featuring Ed and Lois Smart, parents of Elizabeth Smart, who was abducted from (and subsequently returned to) her home in June, 2002. The Smarts were strong proponents of the radKIDS program, and not long after DeFilipi produced his video, Ed Smart appeared on Good Morning America to discuss kidnapping prevention.

In search of ancillary materials that would help explain what programs like radKIDS teach, producers at GMA reached out to WNEC and DeFilipi, airing portions of his project on air.

“After clips of Mike’s video appeared on national television, the program started to grow from there,” said Garton, listing several agencies that have since benefited from the students’ work, as well as several students who have seen their careers leap into high gear as a result.

Career and Community

Over the past five years, students have produced spots for organizations such as the Springfield Urban League, the Boy Scouts of America, GoFIT, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and the Willie Ross School for the Deaf. Many agencies include the videos in marketing materials, fundraising packages, and on their Web sites, and conversely, the professional benefits for students have already been seen.

In addition to DeFilipi’s national exposure on Good Morning America, two WNEC graduates — Lacey Girard, who was also honored by the Associated Press for her work with the Willie Ross School for the Deaf, and Bill Rinaldi, who met with high-level management at Reebok for his video on GoFIT, a Springfield-based fitness program for women and children — landed jobs at WGGB abc40 as a direct result of their projects.

“We focus on each student’s strengths,” said Garton, “so even though they’re managing the entire project, their talents shine through.”

Traverso, who hopes to forge a career in broadcast journalism, plans to serve as on-air talent for the piece on YTI, though she added that beyond her professional aspirations, she too has seen the crossover from school project to community involvement.

“YTI is so culturally mixed, and its instructors are pros in their field,” she said. “I have a brother who’s 8, and he’s never been interested in theater or performance. But when I told him about this program, he just wanted to know more. I thought, ‘imagine what it’s like for the kids, especially inner-city kids, who are really passionate about it?’”

The Final Cut

In addition to realizations like that, a new entity has been created at WNEC. It’s called the Institute for Media and Non-profit Communication, and Garton, who now serves as its director, believes the new, formalized program will provide a better stage from which to grow.

“WNEC is becoming well-known for this,” she said, “and the opportunities for students as well as nonprofits are endless. The institute adds some extra oomph to the work our students are doing; it’s our hope that soon, having their names associated with the Institute for Media and Non-profit Communication will mean something in and of itself.”

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

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