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Almost heaven, always an adventure

Regardless of where you’re from or what you do, West Virginia University has a way of pulling you in, exposing you to the wonders of the state and making you feel at home. This is especially true for the students, athletes and alumna who were brought together by a unique College of Media course. 

In March, 13 students piled into three vans and hit I-79 to spend spring break at the New River Gorge in southern West Virginia. Sophomore Kayla Starcher is originally from Rainelle, just 30 minutes from the gorge, but Victor Williams, a senior from New York, had never been farther south than Morgantown. And, neither of them had been whitewater rafting. The Adventure Travel Writing and Photography class was about to change that.

Led by Teaching Associate Professor Emily Corio, these students were experiencing the best of West Virginia for the first time. Not only would they be hiking and rafting through a heavenly slice of Appalachia, but they would capture it with cutting-edge photo and video equipment and turn it into creative multimedia stories, including a written piece, a short video and a portfolio of photographs.

“I was apprehensive at first because I’m not a huge outdoor sports person, but I decided to venture out of my comfort zone and see where this class would take me,” said Starcher. “I got hands-on experience with GoPros, DSLR cameras and audio equipment. We spent time learning different photo and video concepts and styles and I was able to really refine my skills.”

Corio developed the adventure media course in 2014 and has travelled with students to Canaan Valley, West Virginia, and Arches National Park in Moab, Utah. This was the second trip to the New River Gorge.

“One of my favorite things is when we go to these places in West Virginia, and the students who have lived here their entire lives say, ‘I just fell in love with my state,’” Corio said.

But this trip to the gorge was a little different. While the class typically focuses on tourism and travel stories, this year Corio partnered with innovator-in-residence Lauren O’Connor (BSJ, 2008; MS IMC, 2016) to incorporate adventure athletes and brands.

O’Connor has spearheaded marketing efforts for small and large organizations including Hewlett-Packard (HP), Trigger Point Performance and GU Energy Labs, where she met Magdalena Lewy Boulet, the company’s lead on Innovation & Product Development. In addition to her day job, Boulet is an Olympic marathoner-turned-ultra endurance trail runner and O’Connor encouraged her to participate in this unique course alongside three West Virginia-based adventure athletes: mountain bikers Sue Haywood and Ian McDonald and stand-up paddle boarder Melanie Seiler Hames.

Boulet travelled across the country from California to meet students at the New River. Five months later she would go on to be the top female finisher of the Leadville Trail 100 Run, finishing the 100-mile ultramarathon through the Rocky Mountains in 20 hours, 18 minutes and six seconds. But on the Friday of spring break, she was working with WVU College of Media students.

“We brought in professional athletes who’ve had these incredible careers,” O’Connor said. “When in your college career would you ever find yourself living with professional athletes in a cabin in the woods in West Virginia? This is truly one of the only classes in the country that provides this view into the global, multibillion-dollar outdoor recreation and sport industries.”

Corio, who has been a faculty member with the College of Media since 2011, understands the unique opportunity for WVU to have a hold in this educational arena. In addition to this course, she helped develop the new major in Sports and Adventure Media. And, she brings more than a decade of prior journalism experience into her classes. Before joining the College of Media, she was Assistant News Director for the statewide public television and radio network in West Virginia where she reported and produced stories for radio, television and the web. She’s always had a passion for the outdoors and has won awards for her work on environmental issues.

“West Virginia is a state with abundant natural resources for adventure recreation and tourism, but these are hidden gems in a lot of ways. This class presents a unique opportunity for our students to help tell the rest of the world about these incredible untold stories in the state,” Corio said. “We have students who want to have a media career in tourism or travel. Through this class, students were exposed to a level of professional experience they hadn’t experienced elsewhere.”

Williams, who graduated in May with a B.S. in Journalism, is one of those students. He’s back home in New York now, but plans to move to Japan to pursue travel writing and photography by the end of the year.

“I took this class because it’s verbatim what I hope to do in journalism – adventure travel writing and photography,” Williams said. “This class was the highlight of my college career. Every day was different – we got to explore every sport and talk to every athlete – and then we all came together in a cabin at the end of the day to show and critique our work.”

Those cabin critiques allowed the small, but diverse, group of students to bond with Corio, O’Connor, the athletes and each other. There were sophomores, juniors, seniors and even a master’s student. Students who grew up just down the road gathered around the coffee table with students from as far away as Senegal, South Africa.

“I think that’s the beautiful thing about WVU,” Starcher said. “It attracts people who’ve grown up and lived in West Virginia their entire lives and also people who come to WVU from all over the world. It brings everyone together and this trip was an awesome representation of that.”

And their work was just as varied. There were videos that depicted the whitewater rafting experience, driving down the windy country roads and exploring the small town of Fayetteville. There were photos that focused in on brands like GU, HOKA footwear and Ibis Cycles with more of an advertising angle. And there were written stories that explored the unique backgrounds of the athletes.

“Something about Sue Haywood really spoke to me,” Starcher added. “She’s a very independent woman who owns her own business that teaches others about mountain biking. I wanted my story to focus on how women in Appalachia fight stigmas and how Sue uses mountain biking to encourage other women and children and even herself to keep going.”

Then there’s McDonald who, at 12 years old, won the 2014 USA Cycling National Cross Country Mountain Bike Championship for his age group. He took the students through his home town of Oak Hill, West Virginia, and to a trailhead where he and Haywood rode over the same section of rocky trail until each student was able to get the perfect shot. That same day, the class headed to the river to catch Seiler-Hames “surfing” the Gauley, running through rapids and dropping down waterfalls while standing on a paddle board.

All of this was happening in a state that often finds itself at the bottom of rankings, through a university frequently pegged as a “party school.” It’s programs like this course and the new major in Sports and Adventure Media that will change that perception. It’s faculty like Corio and alumni like O’Connor who will continue to create new experiences for our students. And it’s students like the 13 who spent spring break at the New River Gorge who will be forever changed by the College of Media, and who will share what and how they learned with the future generations of students. And eventually, the rest of the world will know what we already do: West Virginia and WVU is the place to go for adventure media education.

“It’s so important and critical to expose students to unique opportunities in the real world that they maybe never thought about,” O’Connor said. “If I can have even a sliver of the impact on these students that my mentors at the College had on me, I’ll be thrilled. This class is really a testament to the fact that you can do anything you want to do through the WVU Media College. If you have an idea, they’re going to encourage you to pursue it.”