Ivy Leaf - Fall 2002

Distinctively Digital

Mary Lou Nemanic laughingly remarks that this should be the unofficial slogan of Penn State Altoona's newest baccalaureate degree program. In reality, the slogan is right on track with the College's new communications degree.

As the program coordinator for Penn State Altoona's bachelor of arts in Communications—which officially began this fall—Nemanic was charged with developing a major that would educate students in traditional media, such as newspaper, radio, and television, as well as growing technologies such as digital information and the Internet. And as someone who's not only worked in television, radio, newspapers, and photography, as well as directed and produced documentaries, advised student newspapers, and taught college courses in journalism and mass media in her native Minnesota, Nemanic's excited at the prospect of developing a brand-new program for the College that will provide its students with a cutting-edge degree.

"As I looked at other communications programs across the country and talked with media representatives to see what they were looking for, a convergent media program seemed to be the way to go in developing our College's program," Nemanic says. "A program that combines many types of media and trains our students in all of these aspects will best prepare them for the future job market."

"Convergent media" is a term born from the digital world in which we now live. With the advent of digital information technology and the Internet, many changes in the ways in which information is produced, disseminated and received have evolved. The traditional forms of communication with which most of us are familiar—such as newspapers, magazines, television, radio, motion pictures, and still photos —are becoming increasingly interconnected to one another through digital technology.

The days in which a student prepared for a job in solely one field—for example, newspaper journalism—and followed a lifelong career in this area are over.

"Students preparing for the job market no longer can be super-specialists in one area, but need multi-media experience through print, broadcast, and online media formatting, and Penn State Altoona's unique program will give them hands-on experience in all of these areas," Nemanic says. These broad-based skills are what employers are expecting and what students must acquire.

Timing is everything, and the timing of this new degree couldn't be better. The program is unique, Nemanic emphasizes, because the College has the opportunity to start new in a digital age and build the program from the ground up.

"We're not updating equipment or re-tooling something that's been in place for years. We're starting fresh and can really design a distinctive, nationally-respected program that will prepare our students with the experience they need."

Students will be gaining this experience through a variety of channels: they'll be required to take a news writing class in which they'll learn the different styles used for broadcast, print, and online writing, and they'll be working in new computer labs with digital equipment to learn video production and post-production techniques. Students' final capstone course – a convergent media seminar – will give them the opportunity to bring everything together that they learned and produce a project that they can add to their portfolio.

To add to the hands-on experience, plans are underway to add a streaming Internet radio station, and the College has arranged for students to produce broadcast pieces at the local cable access station. "Once the program gets up and running, we'll have a traditional radio station and a television studio to produce regular news programs," Nemanic adds. "Our goal is to eventually have an integrated media center where students can work on radio, television, print, and digital formats all in one area and prepare their pieces in multiple media formats."

In addition to the hands-on experience that students will gain on campus, Nemanic says the program strongly emphasizes internship experience. "Businesses want their new employees to have a strong foundation and practical experience, and our internship program will allow students to gain this experience and to see if this major is the right fit for them before they jump right into the job market. We believe it is key for students to be able to work in the real world and gain real experience during their junior or senior year."

Nemanic says she has been meeting with local and regional media representatives to gather ideas for the communications program, as well as discuss internship possiblilities.

"We want to maintain a strong affiliation and connection with the media, because it's important that we keep abreast of the changing media market and changes in technology."

This connection plays a major role for our program graduates. Not only will the local media be familiar with the quality of the College's communications program, but a link will be established between the local media and our students as they seek post-graduate employment.

To keep students abreast of the latest changes and developments in the media, the College has hired faculty with a variety of interests.

"Many of our faculty are professionals with a current connection to the communications field, whether it be in the print media, photojournalism, multimedia studies, public relations, video production, or another area of specialization," Nemanic says. "The media is always changing and always producing, and it's important that our students have a background in educational theory as well as the experience."

Students, faculty and media representatives will also get together throughout the academic year to discuss timely media issues through panel discussions. The first of these panel discussions kicked off earlier this semester with a discussion by local media leaders on how the news media has changed since September 11 and provided students with a variety of perspectives on an issue that affects everyone.

"It's so important to have an outreach component for our program, and one that puts our students in touch with the people who are dealing with real issues on a day-to-day basis and making decisions that ultimately impact the way communication is processed. This all works together to give our students the best experience possible and build a major that is nationally respected," Nemanic adds.