UTICA, N.Y. - Though Utica College students didn't know what to expect from the school's upper level Media 461 Web Design class, they knew it would be more than just a line on their transcript.
"We were told early on when we were in this class, that if we were just looking for a grade, this wasn't the class for us," James Mcclendon, a senior said.
Helmed by Assistant Professor of Media and Management Brett Orzechowski, the class revolves around designing a social media campaign to raise funds for the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees.
"One of the core learning objectives of this course is to focus on real-life experiential learning and what most of them are going to be facing when they get into the industry," Orzechowski said. "It also teaches them to go beyond the campus borders."
"Professor Orzechowski said 'This is our plan, we're going to work with the Refugee Center, we're going to start a campaign from nothing," senior Zach Thomann said.
Nothing turned into three words that would soon prompt dozens of stories: "Why I'm Here."
"It's specific and it gives you that personalization of every person's different story," Mcclendon said.
Students interviewed local refugees, sharing both history from their lives before coming to Utica, and their goals for the future.
"I'm a refugee myself, so I mean, this project resonated with me right from the get-go," Benjamin Mehic, a senior working on the project said. "I'm part of the writing team, so I interviewed at Kenyan family and a family from Myanmar."
"I would come home from kindergarten and first grade with homework, and it's the spelling words and my mom is like 'Oh my God, this is so foreign to me. I have no idea what this is,'" Selma Jasencic, an interviewee and Utica College student said. "As I learned, my mom learned with me."
Those interviews turned into audio projects, video documentaries and blog posts on the student-designed website, whyimhere.org.
"I'm part of the marketing team to try and push out our content," Thomann said. "I also run our Twitter website."
The 'Why I'm Here' website has a direct link to the MVRCR page. From there, people can donate directly to the center's case management programs. Students are hoping to raise $5,000 dollars by December 8th, the end of their semester.
Though the semester is almost over, Orzechowski says he's proud of the dedication students continue to show toward the cause.
"The fact that they're fully invested, not only in terms of professionally, but emotionally as well, that's something that's rare," Orzechowski said. "Two of my students have already forged lifelong relationships. One student actually filmed one of the refugee's daughter's birthday parties."
"There's really not a moment in the day where you're not thinking about or doing something for this class," Mcclendon said. "It's not even a class, it's almost a job."