Grateful VCU alumnus “pays it forward” by voluntarily creating online courses in the midst of pandemic
In its EPIC strategic plan, the VCU School of Business declares that its “faculty, staff and students nurture curiosity, celebrate diversity, share ideas openly, learn from each other, practice teamwork, engage with the vibrant campus community and city, and are willing to step out of their comfort zones and take risks on new ventures.”
A recent collaboration between a VCU School of Business graduate and his former marketing professor to create professionally produced ecourses for students thrust into an online learning environment powerfully demonstrates how true that statement is.
Finding a mentor on a Greek island
Mark Yeattes first met Katie Gilstrap during the summer of 2014, when he enrolled in the International Consulting Program. The six-week program is offered during the summer to undergraduate and graduate students, and includes three modules: a pre-trip course, international consulting project in a host country, and a reflection paper. Since the program began in 2013, ICP participants have studied at The American College of Greece in Athens.
During the program’s two-week trip, students and faculty traveled from Athens to the Greek island Aegina on their weekend off. “After taking an island tour,” recalls Gilstrap, assistant marketing professor. “Dr. [Charles] Byles and I invited the students to join us for lunch and dinner. Mark took us up on it.”
“They both had done a few consulting programs,” Yeattes remembers. “I wanted to pick their brains.”
“He was purposeful,” Gilstrap explains. “That weekend, students were not on any academic clock, but Mark wanted to make the most of every minute. He was very intentional about building relationships and learning about owning a business.
“The ICP program is about growing as students and making the bridge from student to professional. Part that is learning to have professional relationships and building a network. I was so impressed with his approach to that.”
A mentee becomes a collaborator
After graduating in 2015 with a degree in business management, Yeattes maintained contact with Gilstrap. In 2016, started his own video production company, Yeattes Productions.
“We stayed in touch as he launched his own business,” Gilstrap says. “I had also started my own small business, so I knew what it was like to be an entrepreneur.”
“She definitely became a mentor,” Yeattes explains. “I still get advice from her regularly.”
In January of 2020, Yeattes invited Gilstrap to lunch. “He was redoing his company logo and wanted my opinion,” she says. “He also mentioned he had just finished producing a photography ecourse. He wanted to talk about my experience with that because he saw it as a way to diversify his business. I had been thinking of creating an ecourse and he offered to produce one for me for free over the summer so he could build his portfolio.”
Months later, during spring break, Gilstrap was in South Africa for VCU business when she got a text from Yeattes, touching base to see if the COVID-19 health crisis was impacting her trip. “VCU had just cancelled on-campus classes and so I jokingly texted him, ‘Do you want to work on that ecourse now?’” she remembers. “He said ‘Sure, when you get back, I’m in.’
The majority of Yeattes’ work is producing wedding videos. “I shoot about 20 to 25 weddings a year,” he explains. “When the pandemic hit, almost everything on my schedule got pushed back or cancelled, so I had a lot more time on my hands.”
Over the period of about a month, Yeattes and Gilstrap met regularly to film content for Gilstrap’s two marketing courses. Yeattes estimates the filming and production took about 60 hours. “We’d meet a few times a week, film for about four hours, and then I’d post the videos in advance of her classes so she could stay ahead of the curve.”
“Creativity at work” gave students an exceptional experience
Like many professors, Gilstrap had little time to transition to online learning. “Some professors tried to do Zoom classes, but that wasn’t workable for students who had inconsistent Wi-Fi or were sharing a computer with family members. Having pre-recorded asynchronous instruction was important for a lot of my students. Mark also bought a special mic to improve the sound. Students were able to feel like they were in the classroom with me.
“One student began my class during the spring semester, but had to withdraw. She took my ecourse this summer with the video lectures and told me it felt just like being in my class again. There’s no way I could have given students that experience on my own.
“The benefit of using a videographer for an ecourse is you have someone who can talk you through planning the course, and then film it,” Yeattes says. “Sometimes people try to film with their cellphones or their computer’s camera, but those who aren’t familiar with video don’t realize that audio is just as important as the video. If you have bad audio, it will be hard for students to pay attention to the video.”
Yeattes used his production skills to produce two professional-quality ecourses that seamlessly transitioned from Gilstrap’s on-camera instruction to her PowerPoint presentations as well as video segments featuring Zoom interviews Gilstrap conducted with guest speakers on a variety of topics.
Hannah Haine, a student in Gilstrap’s Marketing Principles course reached out via email, saying, “[I]t was very evident that you did everything in your power to make the transition to remote learning as easy as possible for us. … I can only imagine how much extra work you put in to make your lecture videos possible. And I recognize that these videos were a choice. You chose to put in the effort and I am immensely thankful. Your efforts helped me turn my grade around at the end of the semester, despite the unforeseen circumstances.”
“I couldn’t be more proud of the experience I was able to give to students,” Gilstrap says, “But Mark really is the unsung hero.”
As the semester drew to a close, Yeattes had yet another generous offer for Gilstrap, suggesting that she go back and videotape ecourses for the classes she had taught in-person at the beginning of the semester.
“She wanted to put her marketing classes online in their entirety,” Yeattes says. Then, after seeing news reports that necessitated changes to one of Gilstrap’s case studies, Yeattes even offered to reshoot certain content to help ensure her ecourse remains timely and relevant.
“We invested in him and he came back to us.”
“This kind of stuff happens at VCU,” Gilstrap explains. “It’s part of the VCU fabric. The university has been very intentional about encouraging faculty to create experiential learning opportunities, and when you are working side-by-side and collaborating together students versus lecturing at them, relationships like this can develop.”
Yeattes is humble when asked about his pro bono contributions to the school. “I’m not currently in a position to donate money, but I could donate ecourses. I can hire VCU interns and give them professional experience. When the pandemic first started, I lost so much business and wasn’t working. But then I realized anybody can be helpful in their own way, and I had skills that could help my alma mater.”
“VCU students are different,” Gilstrap reflects. “So many are first generation or putting themselves through school. Our students have a fire in their belly. So, when VCU creates a door for them to charge through, they do.
“Our faculty want to help students grow and, when you have that kind of engine, where people help each other, that’s when the good in the world happens. Mark is a perfect example. We took the opportunity to invest in him as a student, and he came back to us. It really is a living example of ‘We Are One VCU.’”