Chris Strobel has been inspiring area students and filmmakers for years, but often not in the way college professors usually do.
Strobel creates programs at Northern Kentucky University’s College of Informatics
that help students develop broader perspectives and bring them closer to understanding their role as world citizens. It’s the traditional teacher/pupil relationship flipped sideways about 8,600 miles.
Last summer 11 NKU students boarded a plane at CVG airport bound for Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The trip itself took nearly 24 hours, the beginning of a 16-day adventure that would teach them more about the world and themselves than they experience during a typical semester-long class.
The students, led by Strobel and Sara Drabik — associate professors in the Electronic Media and Broadcasting
(EMB) department at NKU, part of the College of Informatics — were on assignment to capture mini-documentaries about topics of their choice: a study of how locals dealt with an invasive species of wide-mouth bass; pop culture fandom across countries and socio-economics; race, poverty and the roots of jazz in traditional South African music; and others.
Strobel is the first to admit that not all of the projects ended with a completed documentary film.
“Many of them didn’t finish at all,” Strobel says.
But within his and Drabik’s vision for the class, it turns out that completing the film was just one small part of the grade and of the desired outcome.
“Our full-class study abroad experiences focus upon finding and telling stories through media,” Strobel says. “These stories connect us as people and as cultures. The class allows us to express our own understanding of the world and our place in it.”
Strobel suggests he’s crafting students not simply into college graduates but into into citizens of the world. And he’s leading the EMB department to put that ideal to the test.
NKU has enacted new curriculum requirements to ensure a substantial investment in teaching students about their place in the world. A study abroad class is now a requirement for all EMB students. Technically, they’ll have the option to study abroad or substitute three international study courses on campus in Highland Heights.
“The hope is that our students realize the cost of either option will be the same in order to incentivize them to sign up for a study abroad course,” Strobel says.
“For most of these students (last summer), it was their first time ever leaving the country,” Drabik says. “A few had never even been on a plane before this.”
The newness of the experience is central to what Strobel sees as the program’s essence.
“We can find stories to tell anywhere we’d go,” he says, but EMB study abroad offers a unique learning experience that transcends the classroom.
Are we there yet?
Carrie Crotzer, a junior from Louisville, Ky., was the lone journalism major to make last summer’s trek halfway around the world. The other students were communications majors from EMB and a Masters of Arts in Communication candidate.
Crotzer signed up to go to South Africa after talking with Strobel at NKU’s annual study abroad fair. Having traveled around the U.S. on family vacations when she was younger, she knew she was filled with wanderlust and was attracted to the very nature of the class.
“Unlike some study abroad courses, the focus of this trip would not be lectures and tourist-like experiences but rather immersion in a culture,” she says. “The (documentary) projects demanded that we strike out on our own and explore.”
For a little over two weeks, she and three fellow students worked on a film that evolved several times as they were making it. The original idea revolved around poverty, but “each day after looking at the footage we’d collected the story kept changing,” Crotzer says. These daily evolutions eventually led to their film Deep
, an idea she notes still “wasn’t really finalized until we got home and started editing.”
Students came to the EMB class with a basic knowledge of the complex process it takes to create a documentary: how to use a camera, light a subject, transfer footage and edit hundreds of minutes of film down to a cohesive short film.
The study abroad experience was an opportunity to dig deeper into the craft. In a foreign land where they knew virtually no one, the young documentarians had to identify a story, learn how to locate interviewees, develop skills to ask the right questions to coax out the story and learn how to navigate South African townships where white Westerners are not a typical presence.
You can still see signs of a poverty theme in the Crotzer team’s seven-minute documentary, but it’s not that simple. Crotzer and her team discovered that even their Western approach to the idea of South African poverty needed to be adjusted and changed.
may have started as a surface look at poverty abroad, but it seems to have become a short film about South African pride and triumph. A voiceover affirms the idea when local resident Sam Nzioki says, “Whatever you see on the surface is never it in South Africa. … It’s not that simple. It’s deeper than you think.”
“When you think of South Africa or Africa as a whole, you think of impoverished people or people who are suffering in their developing nations or third world countries, but that’s not what it was at all,” Crotzer says. “They were very developed. They had food and drove cars. So we wanted to show that these people aren’t suffering even through they live in what we consider a poverty-stricken place.
“They are not looking for handouts. They have a positive outlook on life. They’re happy with what they have. It so common for Americans to assume (Africans) are all suffering, but they’re not. They have fulfilling lives.”
That kind of shift in their student’s perspective is exactly what Strobel and Drabik were hoping for when they created the class.
All 11 students were required to post regularly on a Tumblr blog
created for the class as well as on their own individual blogs. Crotzer’s excitement and anticipation led to her blog’s title, Are We There Yet?
While internet access was more sparse than expected, each of the students maintained a visual account of their travels and reflections. Browsing through their entries yields a sense that each found a moment when his or her perspective shifted, if even a little bit.
'That's what this program is all about'
Now that the study abroad component is virtually a requirement, Strobel and Drabik hope to expand the program. This summer won’t feature an EMB-driven study abroad trip, but both professors are taking a few students along to document anthropology classes on their own study abroad experiences.
Strobel will travel to Belize while Drabik ventures to Sri Lanka. In addition to working with the respective anthropology classes, each has created a smaller, separate project to work on while traveling — Strobel and his students hope to make a mini-doc about the sugar cane industry in Belize, and Drabik and her students will film the next chapter in her ongoing International Women’s Coffee Alliance project
about women in the coffee industry.
Meanwhile, Strobel is already planning his next several study abroad opportunities. He and Drabik will once again accompany a class to South Africa in the summer of 2016. He’s also working with a colleague at Michigan State University who accompanies film students to India each year, hoping to create a second annual opportunity for EMB students in concert with a class from another university.
Drabik and Strobel say they’ll continue to evolve and develop the study abroad program, looking to spend more time in the countries they visit, to find more funding for scholarships and student exchange and to design more immersive experiences to get students out of their comfort zones.
“For the next class in 2016, we expect to focus the students’ project a bit more … providing more guidance on content and execution,” Strobel says. “We allowed a great amount of latitude in terms of content in 2014, and while we’ll look to embrace that same kind of wide lens we will also look to assure that the students are creating stories that have something new or unique to say.”
Even in its fledgling year, the program has had a profound effect on NKU students. Films like Deep
are among the first drafts of tomorrow’s filmmakers and journalists, and the results are impressive.
“Seeing the students engaged in deep conversations about cultural questions with people we met there,” Drabik says, “that’s what this program is all about.”