Storytelling That Sells

Blending creativity with technology to wow clients and employers
By Rosalind Fournier • Photos by Steve Wood
Photo of Rosie O'Beirne working with students on stop-motion animation. Title: Storytelling That Sells
Blending creativity with technology to wow clients and employers
By Rosalind Fournier • Photos by Steve Wood

Few scenes capture the anxiety of pursuing a job straight out of college better than one in The Secret of My Succe$s, the 1987 movie starring Michael J. Fox as an applicant who can’t catch a break:“

Photo of Matt Drummond working with video camera.Student Matt Drummond sets up a video shot. At top: Digital Media director Rosie O'Beirne (center) works with web designer Shibli Rahman (left) and student Samantha Richardson (right) to create a stop-motion animated film using colorful paper and a digital camera. 

“I’m sorry,” says his interviewer. “We need someone with experience. What you’ve got is college experience, not the practical, hard-nosed business experience we’re looking for.”  

“Then why did I go to college?” Fox’s character demands.

Interviewer (chuckling): “Had fun, didn’t you?”

It’s the kind of exchange that concerns Rosie O’Beirne, director of Digital Media and Innovative Learning in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences. “A lot of students encounter that experience gap,” she explains. “They graduate, start job hunting, and keep hearing that employers want two to three years of experience.”

But that common response also planted the seed for UAB’s unique Digital Media Fellowship program, which has won prestigious awards—and helped new graduates to land coveted jobs—in just three short years. Twelve student Media Fellows work in a full-fledged campus creative agency, providing digital storytelling in the form of professional graphics, websites, videos, and even apps to clients ranging from UAB academic departments to external nonprofit organizations. During their fellowships, which last at least a year, students earn part-time salaries while gaining precisely the kind of “practical, hard-nosed business experience” that can serve them well in any number of fields after graduation, O’Beirne says. That includes technical knowledge—learning to shoot and edit a promotional video, for instance—as well as more conceptual skills, such as crafting messages that are informative and engaging. Both the Media Fellows and Media Interns, who are either aspiring fellows or simply students who want to gain more experience in digital-media production, include a variety of majors, from psychology and music to business management and accounting.

Photo of Anna Lloyd and Tyler Harris at outdoor video shootDigital media specialist Anna Lloyd offers pointers to student Tyler Harris during a video shoot. 

Professional Quality

The seed for the fellowship was planted in 2011, when the College of Arts and Sciences created the Media Commons, a space offering students access to state-of-the-art media technology. “The notion was to share resources that are becoming ubiquitous across all disciplines,” explains O’Beirne. “Whether students take art, media studies, English, or biology classes, they use digital tools to document, represent, and communicate the ideas they’re learning.”

After the facility’s launch, people quickly realized that many students were creating professional-quality work. That’s when O’Beirne saw an opportunity to help them gain career experience: The fellowship program enables students to hone their digital storytelling skills while working for “real” clients, under the supervision of staff serving as mentors in web/mobile design, graphics, audio, video, and more. The clients, in turn, receive high-quality work at reduced rates, and the money earned benefits the students in the form of salaries. “We know students are more likely to stay in school and graduate if they are working on campus and getting paid to do something related to their future careers,” O’Beirne says.

This video, created by the Digital Media Fellows for TEDxBirmingham, won a 2014 Silver National ADDY award. 

All About the Stories

Anna Lloyd, a UAB digital media specialist who directs the fellows and interns, says the most important criterion among program applicants is not necessarily what people expect. While they need some degree of technical skills, “we’re looking for the ability to work with a team,” Lloyd says. “We want people with integrity who are curious and seek answers from others around them. Those kinds of connections are important to being successful.”

Jeanette Vasquez, a recently graduated fellow who took a position at the Minneapolis branch of international ad agency BBDO, agrees. “We had really conservative people and more liberal people, from different races and skill sets, and everyone got along well from the beginning,” says Vasquez, an art major originally from Mobile. She spent much of the past year overseeing the production of "KNOW DOPE," a series of videos about the local heroin epidemic for United States Attorney Joyce Vance and the U.S. Department of Justice—one of the digital-media program’s most prestigious clients yet. “It’s all about trying to tell stories,” Vasquez observes. “We all have that common interest, which helps break down barriers.”

Digital Media Fellows shared the rules of the road for urban cyclists in a video for the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham and UAB Sustainability. 

Accolades and Apps

Because the program is just three years old, O’Beirne and Lloyd are watching closely to see how graduates fare in the outside world. To that end, it’s so far, so good: Along with Vasquez, others earning key positions include 2014 alumnus Ryan Meyer, who now works for Birmingham-based Scout Branding. Though Meyer already had graphic-design knowledge, “the fellowship was much more collaborative,” he explains. “I was able to start doing a lot more than design—photography, video editing, filming, animation. Each project helped me get better.” Those expanded skills helped him land his job as a designer and motion artist, especially after the Media Fellows won a 2014 Silver National ADDY from the American Advertising Federation Awards for “Rediscover the Magic,” a film produced for TEDxBirmingham. To date, fellows have collected more than a dozen local ADDYs for different projects.

Photo of Scott Thigpen and Jeremy Nelson looking at tablet and desktop computersGraphic designer Scott Thigpen and Jeremy Nelson review an interactive app that Nelson created for a UAB client. 

Another recent graduate, Jeremy Nelson, went on to a paid internship with information-technology firm Everis USA. But last year the Birmingham native and information systems major faced the challenge of building Digital Media’s first in-house apps. One was for a UAB forensic-science professor teaching an online course. The app “recreates the traditional setting of an actual crime scene and helps users learn the fingerprinting process without going to a forensic lab,” Nelson explains. (Explore Nelson's crime-scene app.)

Managing the Future

Brent Caswell, a 2014 political science graduate, now works at Architizer, the largest online showcase for architecture and design. As a student, Caswell did freelance work in UX (user experience) design, where interaction with clients was often long distance and limited to email. The  Media Fellows program changed that. “I realized that on a team, I could have a true learning experience with all the things that interested me rather than trying to teach myself everything,” Caswell remembers. He eventually learned to supervise others: “It opened a lot of doors, because I know how to work with people, listen to them, and get them moving in the same direction.

“Now I’m a product manager in New York,” says the Mobile native. “I would not have gotten this role if I had not learned communication skills through the fellowship.”

Lloyd believes stories like these speak volumes for the Digital Media Fellowship’s potential. “Our hope was to collect these star students and see what they could create,” she says. “It’s exciting to see them perform at a high level in the right environment with the right resources and encouragement.” The work—and the career experience—coming out of the group each semester “has only gotten better and better.”

Digital Media Fellows created a video to introduce GEAR UP Alabama, a partnership facilitated by the UAB School of Education that helps to prepare low-income students for postsecondary education. 


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Photo of Shibli Rahman, Samantha Richardson, and Jeanette Vasquez with headphones and computersRahman, Richardson, and Jeanette Vasquez work together to edit a video in the Media Commons. 

Published September 2015