Flint Hills project gives Wichita State students experience in the field
For the fifth year in a row, students from Wichita State University’s Elliott School of Communication (ESC) spent a week chasing down leads in the rocky pastures and muddy roads of the Flint Hills. They were part of the Flint Hills Media Project (FHMP), a hands-on course that takes students to the Symphony in the Flint Hills, an annual event that took place Saturday, June 14, and featured the Kansas City Symphony performing on the open prairie.
Students in the FHMP have had stories and photos published in The Wichita Eagle, The Lawrence Journal World, The Emporia Gazette and other newspapers. A few years ago, a collection of FHMP photographs was published in The Washington Post. Recently, the project has had video packages aired at KAKE-TV, KWCH-TV and other stations across the state.
The class is a popular one; besides two faculty advisors and a hand-picked team of 16 students, 10 FHMP alumni have returned to participate this year. To date, FHMP has seen 91 students participate in the project.
One of those alumni returning to volunteer is Taylor Dietterich, who finished both his undergraduate and graduate education at WSU and has been with the project since the first class. He helps the class with copy editing, video production, web design and more.
“The people keep me coming back,” Dietterich said. “The friends I make summer after summer make everything 100 percent amazing. I've learned an immense amount from this project.”
Forging a connection
Many FHMP alumni work as media professionals across the state — professionals who not only excel at their jobs, but have forged a connection to Kansas and gained an understanding of the Flint Hills’ importance.
Kaitlin Whelan, for example, took the course as a student in 2012 and 2013 and returned to help the class during this year’s event. Not only does she love everything about the project, Whelan said, but she attributes landing her current job as marketing director for the Kansas Aviation Museum to her participation.
“You get experience in other classes, but not like this,” said Whelan, who received her job offer the day of her graduation. “I used the (Flint Hills Media Project) magazine in job interviews, and they were blown away. It doesn’t look like school work – it looks professional. It is professional. You put your best work into this class.”
The program was originally implemented by long-time Elliott School icon Les Anderson, who passed away three years ago, and Assistant Professor Amy DeVault. She and Associate Professor Kevin Hager have kept FHMP going and growing.
According to DeVault, the heart of the project is students spending quality time with the people and the land in a special part of Kansas.
“These young people grow an immense amount of respect for their state and for the people whose stories they tell,” she said. “They connect on so many levels, and that's something that I believe will stick with them for a lifetime.”
That sentiment is echoed by DeVault’s students, including Jessica Craft, who is studying electronic media with a focus in videography and will graduate in December.
“I took this class to get back at being a storyteller,” she said. “I wanted to interview people, shoot some video and be done, but I gained relationships in and out of the classroom that I’ll cherish forever.”
Experience-based learning is something the Elliott School excels at, and FHMP is something of a jewel in its crown.
Students come into FHMP as journalists, videographers, photographers and writers, but the project gives them actual experience beyond books and lectures. They get experience gathering content and turning it into publishable story packages.
“It’s an experience, learning to report from the field,” DeVault said. “You can't recreate those challenges in a classroom setting. And while learning and practicing the storytelling craft is an important goal, it’s actually the most basic goal of the project.”
FHMP also builds community within the Elliott School. Students are assigned to work in small teams for their coverage and the entire class coordinates its work – about 50 stories, 5,000 photos and many hours of video so far – to produce content for the FHMP website and magazine. Out in the field, DeVault explained, students have unexpected experiences — snakes, mud, broken cars, interesting characters, even cattle stampedes, to name a few.
“They come back from the long weekend as friends with shared experiences,” she said. “All of it helps them grow more connected to their peers and our school.”
The project also benefits the Symphony in the Flint Hills, a nonprofit organization whose mission is education about the importance and beauty of the tallgrass prairie, only 3 percent of which still exists. Most of that is found in the Flint Hills of Kansas.
Six years ago, the organization’s signature summer event garnered little media attention, but after nine years of educating people – 7,000 in one day during the symphony’s performance – the public seems to be taking notice. The work of the FHMP has helped to expand and present the group’s message in a way they couldn’t have accomplished on their own. How much of the statewide shift in attitude towards conservation has to do with this combined effort is unknown, but in the past few years even lawmakers have changed their tune about the Flint Hills.
For the Symphony in the Flint Hills – and for nearly 100 past and present FHMP students – that glimmer of hope is something to be proud of.
“Participating in the FHMP has given me an opportunity to stand in the heart of the tallgrass prairie,” said Kevin Brown, a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. “Experiencing what the first Kansans felt before Kansas was even a state has forever changed my opinion of the Elliott School motto: ‘Experience. We get it.’”
For stories, photos and more from the Flint Hills Media Project, visit the project website at www.flinthillsmediaproject.com, on Facebook or on Twitter @WSUfhmp.