Clay Dawson stood under a giant American flag hanging from the plant’s rafters and studied his lines.
A few steps away, Allegheny College senior Shu Yi Tang flipped through sheets of paper that laid out the entire video shoot in detail: what scenes would be filmed and when, where and how they would be shot, and the people involved in each.
Lily Loreno, a senior at Allegheny, framed the opening scene with her hands, her fingers forming a square in front of her face. Sophomore Margaret West wheeled the camera into place.
“Every single second (of the video) has to be exactly perfect,” West, a 20-year-old communication arts major, said later.
The Allegheny trio had an important client to impress: Acutec Precision Aerospace Inc., a Meadville-based company that makes parts of the braking system used on Southwest Airlines jets, among other products, had tapped the group to create a commercial that would re-introduce the company to the community after a rebranding and, ultimately, encourage more prospective employees to walk through Acutec’s doors. Dawson, project manager for new product integration, would be one of the stars.
Acutec President and CEO Elisabeth Smith had worked with Allegheny students before and felt confident West, Loreno and Tang would bring the breadth of a liberal arts education to bear on the project.
“Who we look for (to work with) are people who think,” Smith said. “Allegheny students know how to think.”
The Acutec project is just one part of a larger multidisciplinary effort, still in the pilot stage, to create a student-run media agency at Allegheny that would connect students with local businesses and nonprofit organizations that need media, marketing and advertising services.
Vice President of College Relations Susan Salton proposed the idea of a student-run media agency when she came to Allegheny in 2015. Intrigued, Assistant Professor of Communication Arts/Theatre Julie Wilson started talking about the possibility with other faculty partners in and across departments.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity to showcase the creative talents of our students and serve the community in a real, tangible way at the same time,” Salton said. “Our students gain experience working with clients in professional settings, applying what they’ve learned in the classroom to the benefit of our region.”
The Acutec project started as a college-wide competition among groups of students interested in vying for the company’s business. Interdisciplinary groups of three students each pitched a storyboard and tagline. Tang, West and Loreno’s winning tagline? “It all starts here,” a nod to the region’s manufacturing roots and Acutec’s essential role in the supply chain creating individual parts that, pieced together, make the whole.
Once selected, the students were mentored to handle all the pre-planning and contract logistics. They hired a makeup artist and another person to help with some technical aspects of the shoot, scouted the Acutec’s Meadville and Saegertown plants, and shot the video over the course of several days
Tang relished the opportunity to put what she’d learned in her advertising and video production classes into practice.
“You get to have a real-life experience and talk to a client and get to know people. Why not take part?” she said. “It’s a very valuable experience, something I can talk about.”
They all felt pressure to deliver a quality product. The heightened expectations that came with working for a client gave the group “an opportunity to rise to the occasion,” West said.
“When you’re (working for) someone else, when you’re taking their time and their money, you want it to be that much better,” Loreno said of the video.
After a late-night scramble to the finish, the commercial debuted at a companywide breakfast on Feb. 8.
It was a success, Smith said.
“People really enjoyed it,” she said. “In terms of working with students, (the experience) was excellent. They were very professional.”
Associate Professor of Communication Arts/Theatre Ishita Sinha Roy ran the Acutec storyboard competition and worked with the students, along with Assistant Professor of Art Byron Rich.
The Acutec project and the larger media agency effort are “a great way to respond to the critics that say that the liberal arts are impractical,” Rich said. “The ideas and critical thinking skills that we foster here can be put into practice in the business world.”
Working on the commercial “empowered students to bring their ideas to life” and allowed them to take ownership of a project from start to finish, Sinha Roy said. The commercial and other projects that will fall under the media agency umbrella also help foster and strengthen ties between the college and community — and that’s a good thing for all involved, Sinha Roy said.
When students work for and within the community and learn the stories of its people, “suddenly your neighborhood starts to become friendlier and more well-known in your mind,” she said.
The Acutec video is not the only project of the nascent media agency, though it might be the most visible. A group of communication arts students working under the direction of Professor of Communication Arts/Theatre Michael Keeley have also filmed videos for the Tamarack Wildlife Rehabilitation & Education Center. And students working with Wilson and Assistant Professor of Computer Science Janyl Jumadinova developed a website and pitched a logo for an online food hub that, when launched, will connect restaurants and food wholesalers with local farmers.
Wilson stressed that the agency is still in very early stages of development. But if it’s successful, she said, it could be a model for business incubation that leverages the resources of the college to help promote economic development.
Wilson said she doesn’t know of many other colleges or universities similar to Allegheny doing that important work.
“If we get this up and running soon, we’ll be pretty cutting edge.”