WSUV students seeing bright future

WSUV’s Creative Media & Digital Culture program find they have the right blend

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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‘Autovation’ at OMSI

OMSI had hoped to open the “Autovation” exhibit, being created by WSUV Creative Media and Digital Culture students, on Memorial Day weekend. But work has slipped behind schedule, and now the exhibit is set to open in early June.

The exhibit will feature a prominent display of an automobile unibody frame, supplemented by videos, 3D displays of an automobile’s components, and other “augmented reality” presentations that museum visitors will be able to access on iPads and their personal smartphones.

— Gordon Oliver

On their last official day in the classroom, students in Washington State University Vancouver’s Creative Media & Digital Culture program should have been saying goodbye to each other and enjoying the coffee and pastry treats set out on a corner table.

Instead, the 10 students and instructor Dene Grigar reviewed their work schedule on an exhibit for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, while some prepared to start new jobs and others made plans for job interviews. In a local economy with stubbornly high unemployment, many of the students were moving quickly into career jobs because of their niche skills in digital media, including Web design, animation, and 3D modeling.

And, according to their new employers, it helps that these students have gained professional-level skills by working on projects such as the OMSI exhibit on automobile technology, a smartphone application for customers of Dick Hannah Dealerships, and a Fort Vancouver history application for the National Park Service.

“They are talented individuals with fresh ideas,” says Sean McKannay, director of information technology for Dick Hannah Dealerships, who says five of his department’s 12 employees are from WSUV. “We just give them the tools and get out of their way.”

Chad McClure is one of those students. McClure, 26, attended Ridgefield High School and Clark College, took a break from school and returned to WSUV and the Creative Media & Digital Culture program. He’ll be graduating in August. Two months ago, he started working part time in Web operations for Dick Hannah Dealerships, a key corporate backer of the WSUV program. The job will become full time when he graduates, McClure said during last week’s official final classroom gathering.

McClure said he had unfailing confidence that he’d find a job, which points to another key element of the program’s hiring success: Grigar’s ability to network with local employers after sizing up the right fit for her students. “I had faith in Dene,” McClure said. “She’s looking for jobs for us the whole time.”

Largest graduating class

WSUV will graduate a record 979 students at its May 12 commencement. The graduating class includes 849 bachelor’s candidates in almost two dozen fields, including 37 who will receive degrees in digital technology and culture.

With some 125 students participating at some level, the Creative Media & Digital Culture program is the school’s second-largest liberal arts program, said Amy Wharton, WSUV’s dean in the liberal arts college. The program’s blend of a liberal arts perspective and hands-on technical skills fills a specialized niche that meets the needs of businesses engaged in digital communication, she said.

“I think (program graduates) are definitely in demand and filling a niche others don’t fill,” Wharton said of the program graduates. “Many employers, not just those that are technology-oriented, want those skills.”

That’s the experience so far of Nathan Stahlman, vice-president for product development at Instructional Technologies Inc., a family-owned Vancouver company specializing in safety training tools for the trucking industry. The company is moving heavily into animated training videos for truck drivers, which are easier to make, more effective, and less disruptive than creating simulated emergency situations.

“The state patrol tends to frown whey you role over a tanker on the freeway,” Stahlman deadpanned.

The company recently hired Jason Clarke, a 22-year-old WSUV student working on the OMSI exhibit, as an intern. He’s likely to have an opportunity to stay with the company when he graduates at the end of this year, Stahlman said. Meanwhile, Stahlman is working to fill several other internship positions that could become permanent jobs, and he’s looking first to the WSUV program for applicants. While students from some colleges seem to focus on a narrow specialty, Stahlman said the WSUV students have “a good generalized knowledge set” and know how to meet deadlines and work as part of a team.

The students’ work on a high-profile OMSI exhibit should look good on résumés, but WSUV’s connections with OMSI also could have a more direct benefit for at least some of them. The Portland science and technology museum is considering hiring one WSUV student as an intern and is looking at other internships, said Mark Patel, OMSI’s vice president of marketing.

“I’ve been really very impressed with their ability to present their work in both written and verbal presentations.” Patel said of the students. “I just think they have the right blend of skills for the workplace.”

Hannah plays key role

The Hannah Dealerships has played a central role in supporting the program. Last summer, it helped finance a “mobile tech research initiative” with 10 current students and two graduates. The students developed three smartphone apps, including a “customer care app” for Hannah. The Vancouver-based company this year contributed $40,000 to the OMSI exhibit on automobile technology, and provided a unibody frame that will be the exhibit’s focal point. The exhibit, called “Autovation,” is scheduled to open in early June.

Kent VanArnam, Hannah’s director of marketing, says the students are learning skills that can be applied to any company that uses technology, even if its not a technology-based company.

“There’ a real shortage in this specific area,” he said. At Hannah, he said, the students are “integrating very nicely into our company and providing skill sets to supplement the teams that are already in place to take us to the next level.”

Michael Langlois, 22, will graduate in August and hasn’t spent much time so far searching for a job. A leader in creating videos for the OMSI exhibit, Langlois says he’s focused on the OMSI project and is waiting to work with Grigar on a job search. “I haven’t been offered (a job), but I’m in a better position than some other people who are graduating.” he said.

Grigar has set her sights on connecting Langlois to a major Portland advertising firm and is strategizing how to use her connections to get Langlois into the company. Langlois says he hopes to land a job that will allow him to remain in the Portland-Vancouver area.

“The first thing is to try to do something you enjoy,” he said. “Pay is behind that. It’s nice to be able to do something you like.”