Sept. 12, 2016Vol. 47, Issue 1

Capturing Student Potential

Donor support creates real-world opportunities

Daniel Bruns films the Sacramento River from a helicopter.

A new program is turning donor dollars into real-world opportunities for students, faculty, and staff—just ask anthropology professor Brian Brazeal, founder of the University’s globally celebrated Advanced Laboratory for Visual Anthropology (ALVA).

In July, ALVA was one of 19 programs across campus to receive an inaugural University Foundation Special Endowment Award. More than $250,000 was distributed to help students and faculty reach beyond the limits of state support.

ALVA was the first facility in the world to incorporate digital cinema into social science research, Brazeal said. Since 2010, students, professors, alumni, and staff have had unparalleled access to Hollywood-grade cameras and the technology needed to produce television-ready documentaries.

“Professional film people thought I was crazy,” said Brazeal, who’s helped ALVA films appear on public television channels and prominent film festival screens.

As he and students “fumbled” through how to use the most advanced camera on the market—the Red One—he says professional studios were reluctant to put the same equipment in the hands of less-than-senior technicians. But the outcomes were worth it.

“You’ll see students catch the love,” said Brazeal, who also uses student films in various classes. “They give it their all when they realize they’re not just responsible to me but all of their peers.”

He’s using the Special Endowment Award to build servers better equipped to handle the massive amounts of data generated by the state-of-the-art digital cameras.

“I tried to make it as future-proof as possible,” he said. “But technology is always advancing by leaps and bounds.”

The award is also helping replace outdated computers and purchase smaller cameras that are still sophisticated enough to use in conjunction with the Red cameras, which output five times the resolution of HD.

“You would think a program like this would be at Harvard, or MIT, or UCLA, or USC,” said Matthew Ritenour (’13), who discovered anthropology in community college. He searched for a school to pursue his two passions—moviemaking and studying the physical and sociopolitical evolution of people across time, cultures, and environments.

“But I believe the best program for doing (documentary) film is right here,” said Ritenour, who continued working for ALVA after graduation, eventually directing Impact of the Frolic and winning a Northern California-area Emmy Award in 2015.

ALVA’s documentaries are often used by advocates to raise awareness of the issues faced by marginalized communities. Topics have included Sikhs in California, Hmong textiles, the Mechoopda tribe, and a film about drag queens, Putting on Face, which was screened at the International Ethnographic Film Festival of Quebec.

Brazeal says ALVA’s films advance the mission of anthropology—using science to debunk harmful notions steeped in racial and cultural prejudice. However, anthropological work is often confined to academic journals or college classrooms.

“I’m so dedicated to undergraduate education,” said Brazeal, who teaches popular courses like "Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion." “But, I’ll teach my whole life and I won’t teach a million people. Through documentaries, someone sitting on their couch will get a taste of what anthropological research means.”

Special Endowment Awards allow Brazael to keep professional-grade equipment in the hands of his students so they can continue using visual anthropology to promote the greater good

“This is the promise a culture of philanthropy can deliver year after year,” said Ahmad Boura, CEO of the University Foundation and vice president for University Advancement. He credits the impact of the Special Endowment Awards to Chico State’s benefactors who gave the Foundation’s board the resources to support the innovative work of students, faculty, and staff.

“They are so passionate about using these gifts to support students,” said Boura, who explains that several endowed funds under the board’s discretion were used to establish the award program. “And we’re just getting started.” 

lum Matt Ritenour and master’s student Jake Martin film petroglyphs for a film on archaeological looting that was broadcast on public television across California and used in US Forest Service trainings.

lum Matt Ritenour and master’s student Jake Martin film petroglyphs for a film on archaeological looting that was broadcast on public television across California and used in US Forest Service trainings.

Other 2016-2017 University Special Endowment Award projects included:

  • quantum optics equipment for physics education
  • tutoring for students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)
  • student grants for summer research
  • professional communications lab
  • library technology lending program
  • science guest lecture series
  • new technology for livestreaming campus events
  • engineering-student retention center
  • marketing materials to promote out-of-classroom learning opportunities
  • mentoring for underrepresented minorities in agriculture
  • student and faculty training in new audiovisual software
  • arts and humanities course development in digital skills
  • tutoring for underrepresented minorities in behavioral and social sciences
  • virtual technology to showcase the Chico Experience to prospective students
  • advanced sports medicine technology for student-athletes
  • expansion of free tutoring through the Student Learning Center
  • support for former foster youth at Chico State
  • faculty development funding

The University Foundation board is currently working with the president, provost, and vice president for student affairs to identify proposals for the 2017-2018 award cycle. To apply for a Special Endowment Award, Chico State faculty and staff should speak with their deans, program directors, or the vice president for student affairs.

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