Professor Jim West talks with MAC-On-Campus about the Cosumnes program's dedicated faculty, its diverse student body, and its facilities in the brand new Winn Center.
For more information about Cosumnes River College, and to see photos of the campus, visit the school's profile in the Prospectus.
MAC-On-Campus: What is distinctive about your program?
Jim West: There are four community colleges in the Sacramento area, and out of the four, we have the largest staff, which is three plus one full-time instructional assistant. I've traveled around and been to a lot of different programs, and I think one thing that sets us apart is our personal attention to the students. It’s our ability to connect with them on a level that is more creative. We just don't teach the class; we also teach creativity. We build a strong relationship with our community of students, because creativity is from the heart, and that has a tendency to breed a collegiality with all of the students. We also get the students out in the community and have them volunteer and do internships, and we put their images out into the community.
This is my 20th year teaching, and I work with two great women, Patty Felkner and Kathryn Mayo. I think that we all bring strength to the department through our own individual styles as instructors. I teach mostly commercial photography and advertising photography, and my specialty is in color and digital imaging. Patty and Kathryn are fine art photographers, and both of them also have the skills to teach more technically and commercially oriented classes. We also have a full-time instructional assistant who manages the lab.
We try to give students opportunities and say, "Hey, just because you're from a small central California town doesn't mean that you cannot look at the world as being a bigger place.” Patty, Kathryn, and I all travel extensively, and I've led several trips to Europe with my students. I've led one to Japan, and we also lead a yearly field trip to Yosemite. So we try to give them a bigger perspective on the world.
MOC: What kinds of students does the program attract?
Jim West: There are something like 97 different languages spoken at our school. We have a very diverse population. We embrace the diversity of our program, whether it be gender diversity, age diversity, or ethnic diversity. We think it’s one of our strengths. I have a woman in her 60s and students as young as 17. I would say about 40% of them are coming from high schools. But the rest are either changing careers or have been at another college, and what they got from the photography program at that college wasn't what they needed.
When students come in from other colleges, we immediately tell them to start at the beginning again, which they don't always like. But our program is rigorous at the beginning level, and whatever they missed at another institution, they get from us at the beginning. I can't tell you how many have come back to me and said, "I'm so glad that you asked me to start at the beginning." Our classes are very sequential, and there's a purposeful way that we have them in the sequence that we do.
We have this idea of commercial training, to teach people how to make money out of photography, but we also have fine art photographers. I believe that if you're a commercial photographer, you'd better darn well also have fine art training, because commercial photography is leaning so much toward fine art. But I would say in general, most of our students are training to have some sort of career in photography.
MOC: What kind of campus does your school have, and what is student life like?
Jim West: It’s in a suburban area about 20 minutes away from downtown Sacramento. What we're most excited about is the photography center in our new building called the Winn Center. We occupy almost the whole second floor of it. In the back of every single one of the rooms there are floor-to-ceiling windows. They have shades that they can be opened or closed to completely block out the light. In the studio, there are skylights that can be feathered as if you're turning down the power of a light. They have an electric shutter that can be opened or closed, so the students can use that for natural light shoots. The Winn Center is a completely green building too.
All of our athletic fields have just been updated too, and there’s a quad-type area where there's usually an activity going on every single day. There are music recitals, plays, career fairs. There's always a Frisbee being thrown around—just typical college life.
Our photography students have group shoots together, and they’ve designed their own Facebook page called "Friends of CRC Photography." They constantly assist each other.
Some of our students commute upwards of 45 minutes per day. There's a 2,000-spot parking lot and light rail transit that stops right in front of the school.
MOC: Does the program have required courses or final requirements?
Jim West: Yes. Our Careers in Photography class is what we call our terminating class. What we mean by that is that every person in the class has to have a portfolio that is typical of their style and the area they hope to be employed in. They also have to do a resume, business cards, and a business plan for that class.
MOC: Do your students do internships?
Jim West: Yes. Wedding and portrait photographers, commercial advertising people, and some state government agencies have interns come in. We set them up through an internship office on campus, and then they have to take an internship class. Sometimes they're paid, and sometimes they just earn credit.
MOC: Do you hold special events for photography students?
Jim West: Yes, a lot. In addition to MAC-On-Campus visits, we generally have a Canon Explorer of Light come in once per year. We also have local photographers that come in from the community and show their work. Renee Byer is one of our photographers at the Sacramento Bee. She won a Pulitzer a few years ago, and she's come in to show her work.
We are the capital city of California, so we have an amazing opportunity to see historic photographs from the archives. All the motion studies that Eadweard Muybridge did for Leland Stanford, the railroad magnate, are in the state archives. We have partnerships with those agencies so that our students can come in and take a look at the images. We have original Ansel Adams and Edward Weston images.
In our Careers in Photography class, we visit a studio or bring a photographer in for every single class period. We're also starting to Skype with photographers in places like New York and Chicago during class. The photographers show imagery and talk about what they do.
MOC: Do your students get opportunities to show their work?
Jim West: Yes, in fact our students have their work in the governor’s office now. We also show work at local hospitals. The hospitals donate money to our program, and then the work becomes part of their permanent collection. There are also the typical opportunities to show work in restaurants and small galleries.
We're working right now with some art buyers who are looking at student work on our website. If they find work that they like, they contact us. The student sells them the piece, and the money goes directly to the student, for their education.
MOC: What areas do graduates of your program go on to work in as professionals?
Jim West: I would say a good majority of them, maybe 60% of them, are people-based photographers doing things like weddings, portraiture, and senior portraits. Another 20% would probably be in the fine art category, and then another 20% are probably in commercial advertising.
MOC: Could you name a few distinguished graduates?
You can see work by some of our graduates on the CRC Photography website.
MOC: Does the program have any important new developments on the horizon?
Jim West: The next big thing we're going to be tackling is this whole idea of online education. We're also trying to do some more collegial kinds of things, working to align better with four-year institutions and some of the private colleges. We’re trying to be a lot more collaborative. It used to be that four-year institutions didn't want to talk to us because we were just a community college, and I think a lot of those barriers are being broken down. We’re also starting to do some collaborations with engineering students and graphics students.
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