It may be a coincidence that Grady College and Grady County share the same namesake in Henry W. Grady, but they also share something else in common: a group of dedicated students making an impact with their skills and talent.
Grady County has been the semester-long focus of a group of students from the New Media Institute capstone course. Through the UGA Archway Partnership, these seven students were tasked with using their new media technology skills to improve the visibility and tourism in this small rural county in southwest Georgia.
“Our goal is to change this town for the better,” Kelly Buckman, an Entertainment and Media Studies student, said.
Over the course of the semester, the group has made the 500-mile round trip to Grady County three times getting to know the community, talking with its residents and uncovering the hidden gems that make this community special. They have toured sites, conducted research, taken pictures, edited video and enjoyed a lot of Grady County cuisine.
The students lovingly refer to themselves as the misfit team, but each student has his or her unique role in making sure the project is complete. The team consists of photographer Tony Phan, website specialist Elle Henderson, social media specialist Maggie Bell Duncan, content creator Aisleigh Edouard, videographer Kelly Buckman, design specialist Megan Flory and team leader Cassidy Chakroun.
Their guide throughout the semester was Sharon Liggett, operations coordinator with the Archway Partnership. It is Liggett’s role to match rural communities with projects, services and resources with which University of Georgia students can help. When Liggett found out that Grady County was in need of contemporary, current messaging focused on tourism, she turned to the New Media Institute. The NMI offers an interdisciplinary certificate program that focuses on using technological applications to address problems. The certificate is open to all majors at UGA and is housed in Grady College.
“This was a pretty exceptional project for Grady County and we couldn’t have done it without the New Media Institute students,” Liggett said.
The initial goal of project was to design new media messages through a web presence that could be used in a variety of local applications like education, retail and healthcare. What the community leaders of Grady County are receiving is more encompassing. Following extensive research and the development of personas of the type of traveler who would be interested in Grady County, the NMI team created a new logo and slogan, took high-quality photography, produced a 90-second video to be shown in visitor’s centers in neighboring states, designed print advertising and a one-page tourism guide, and enhanced Grady County’s Facebook and Instagram accounts. And, they created a website.
Projects like this are a win-win, Liggett explains. The communities win because they get fresh ideas from the students and professional deliverables that the county would not otherwise be able to afford. The students win because they apply the technological and messaging skills they have learned in their classes to practical, real applications, as well as gaining experience working with clients, meeting timelines and managing expectations.
“There is a real source of pride that we are bringing UGA home to Grady County,” Liggett said. “It’s exciting to have students share their experiences with community members, and to have the residents share their community with the students.”
The relationships the residents created with the students made an impact, too.
Phan, an EMST major, explains that in a small town, people talk a lot, so word of their project spread quickly.
“They definitely know who we are and seem really happy to see us,” Phan said.
While some residents were a little uncertain at first, they quickly saw what the students were doing to help them.
Phan continued: “Most of the residents were super welcoming and were really interested in everything we had to offer.”
Along the way, community members opened their homes to the students for dinners, showed off their personal car collections and sites known only to the locals, and hosted bonfires where they would sit around and hear about what the students were studying.
Liggett said the initial reaction among the community leaders who have seen what the students worked on have very favorable.
“They were all just over the moon about how professional it was and how it captured the essence of Grady County,” Liggett explained. “This could really be a pivot point and a real source of pride to have something this beautiful and this well done that accurately targets the amenities there. This project is going to add so much value in the community.”
Not only has Grady County benefitted from the students, but the students have benefitted from the project by way of technical skills ranging from video editing and photography, to practical skills like managing client relationships.
“Overall, this has been an amazing project,” Duncan, a psychology major, said of the experience.
Flory agreed, and was pleased that many elements of this project were going to be used in the future. “This is a real project, not just a class project,” Flory, a Lamar Dodd graphic design major, summarized. “It has the potential to change people’s lives. That is more pressure, but it feels really good.”
While making a good grade was the initial goal of the students at the beginning of the semester, the project grew into something more than that. These students have made a difference in Grady County, which is a reward in itself.
The video the students produced about their Grady County project.
A few of the images that were taken for the Grady County campaign.
Photos: Kelly Buckman and Tony Phan