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Wyoming’s Tomorrow rises from ashes to focus state’s higher education initiatives

in News/Education
Wyoming’s Tomorrow rises from ashes to focus state’s higher education initiatives
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Despite dying twice in the Legislature’s general session earlier this year, a task force designed to look into ways to make two years of higher education as close to free as possible is moving forward.

The “Wyoming’s Tomorrow” task force was proposed in legislation that was killed in the Senate and was vetoed as a footnote to the state’s supplemental budget by Gov. Mark Gordon. But it is active once again thanks to the Legislature’s Management Council, which identified its goals as something to be worked on in the interim between legislative sessions.

The task force is charged with studying a scholarship program that could provide funding for the first two years of post-secondary education, a job outlined by House Bill 310, which the Senate rejected 8-21.

Inspired by Tennessee Promise, a scholarship and grant program launched to boost Tennessee’s number of degree-holders, Wyoming’s Tomorrow could help to coordinate the state’s efforts to get more students into higher education, said Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie.

“It is a task force established by Management Council to take a look at higher education in Wyoming with a couple specific directions,” said Connolly, a co-sponsor of HB 310 and member of the task force. “One (directive) is to look at Tennessee Promise and think about the applicability of a similar program in Wyoming. The second goal is look at the needs of Wyomingites in relation to the projected economic diversification laid out by ENDOW.”

More degree holders

In 2018, ENDOW — Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming — set a goal of increasing the number of Wyoming’s degree holders to 67 percent of residents between ages 25 and 64. Currently, only 26 percent have a Bachelor’s degree or higher, ENDOW reported.

“We’re very low in terms of college graduates,” Connolly said. “We want an educated citizenry for so many reasons, but (a low degree-holder rate) is an impediment for diversifying the economy.”

Across the aisle, Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, said he co-sponsored HB 310 and is serving on the task force because Wyoming needs a focused direction for its higher-education initiatives.

“I don’t know (if Wyoming’s Tomorrow) is the best option,” Harshman said. “We’re trying to bring all this together in a bigger vision.”

Harshman said he believes the task force had a lot of support in Legislature, but it might have failed as a bill and a footnote because of timing.

“I introduced the bill and put it on the house side of the budget at the same time,” he explained. “The bill passed through the House with big margins.”

A house bill takes longer to reacher the Senate than a budget, so by the time the senators were voting on HB 310, they’d already approved its task force as a budget footnote, Harshman said.

“I think in the end, a lot of people thought, ‘It’s already in the budget, we can let it go,’” he said. “But then this governor decides we’re not going to put task forces and studies in the budget.”

Gordon vetoed the task force budget footnote along with 13 other budget items in February. Gordon did not respond to requests for comments on this story, but in February, he argued that the task force should have been created in a separate piece of legislation, not “piggybacked” on the supplemental budget.

As a bill, the task force received unanimous support from the Joint Appropriations Committee and majority support from the Joint Education Committee.

Education Committee member Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, voted against the bill in the committee and on the Senate floor.

“I didn’t object to the concept, necessarily,” Ellis says in an email. “Rather than creating a task force, though, I thought the Joint Education Committee could look at it as an interim topic.”

Resurrected

Wyoming’s Tomorrow was resurrected by the Management Council under the guidance of Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, Connolly said.Rothfuss was unavailable for comment.

Connolly said the process of bringing defeated bills back through the Management Council was commonplace and described it as “sausage making.”

With $16,000 budgeted for the task force’s use, Harshman said he envisioned the research effort lasting two years.

“It’s hard to say what the best outcome could be, maybe you meet and nobody wants to move forward,” Harshman said. “But we’ve got millions of dollars in workforce development, Board of Cooperative Educational Services programs, state aid to community colleges, and then, there’s the Hathaway Scholarship. Is it all working together?”

The task force could find a way to focus the state’s workforce and education programs on a single direction.

Connolly said a general lack of direction for the Hathaway Scholarship was a source of frustration for herself and University of Wyoming faculty.

However, with Wyoming’s Tomorrow, Connolly said legislators could discover an agreeable path forward for higher education in Wyoming. 

“What appealed to me about the task force is the recognition we are moving ahead in several directions without any coordinated discussion,” she said. 

The task force’s first meeting has not been set, but Harshman said it will get under way this summer.

Riverton brothers set their sights on Tinseltown: Central Wyoming College offers transferable film production degree

in News/Education
Man with video camera recording video, ALT=video production, Central Wyoming College
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By Ike Fredregill
Cowboy State Daily

Inspired by their father’s acting career and passion for the film industry, two Riverton brothers — Boone and Copeland Williams — have their eyes set on the silver screen, but only if it means they can work together.

“We’re kind of a package deal, I guess,” Boone, 21, explained. “It works well, because I can push his buttons and he can push mine, but we’re family, so we can’t give up on each other.”

The film industry can be a difficult trade to break into, especially for two brothers living in the middle of Wyoming — a state known for its vast landscapes, western culture and lack of representation in film.

But as fortune would have it, the middle of the state is the perfect, and possibly only, place for someone pursuing an education in cinematography.
Central Wyoming College is the only post-secondary school in the state to offer a degree in film production, according to Jeremy Nielsen, CWC’s associate professor of film.

“There’s not a large film industry here in Wyoming,” Nielsen said. “As far as I know, I’m the only film professor in the state.”

The Williams brothers are slated to graduate from the program in spring, and with degrees in hand, Copeland said they will either transfer to a university with a film production program or join the military, but they won’t go their separate ways.

“I’m not sure we’d find better success if one of us were to go one place and the other to another, because the best ideas we’ve put forward, we worked on together,” Copeland, 25, said. “We’re probably far more likely to be successful together than apart.”

Wyoming doesn’t have a strong presence in the film production industry because, in part, residents don’t place high value on arts careers, Nielsen theorized. 

“The things that Wyomingites tend to value are not always artistic endeavors,” he said. “Convincing people to sign up for a course that isn’t seen as productive as engineering or business can be a challenge.”

In his seventh year at CWC, the 42-year-old film professor said he is working to change that. When Nielsen first started at the community college, he said the film production program averaged about six students a semester. Nowadays, around 24 students could be enrolled in the program at any given time, Nielsen said.

Shortly after he moved to Riverton from Utah, the Wyoming Office of Tourism recognized the potential of the film program’s ability to build film industry infrastructure within the state, increasing the likelihood of attracting large movie producers, and it invited Nielsen to join the Wyoming Film Finance Committee. 

“The Wyoming Office of Tourism wanted to boost the number of films shot in Wyoming,” he said. “They came up with a multi-prong approach — we need infrastructure, a film school and to incentivize film production.”

One of the largest challenges to shooting movies within the state is a lack of experienced camera crews, lighting specialists and stage hands, but the film production program could remedy that. 

“If you bring people in (from outside the state), you have to start paying them on a different structure and housing them and it gets a bit complicated,” Nielsen explained. “In some cases, film companies will bring their own crews, but it’s often just for a day or two.”

A large production set could employ more than 100 people at a time, and even independent film companies often hire about 20 to 30 production specialists, he said. 

“It’s an incredibly public art form — it is consumed by the public, but it is also created by the public in that it is not a single piece of art created by single person for a specific audience,” Nielsen said. “The jobs are very specialized. There’s a crew on a set that’s responsible for the lights, but there’s also a whole other crew responsible for the shadows.”

Being able to provide people experienced enough to fill these rosters is an important factor in attracting film producers.

Enter stage right: Nielsen’s students.

“On the first day of class, I put a camera in their hands and tell them we’re making a movie today, and we’re watching it today,” Nielsen said. “The film industry is more about experience than anything else, and I want my students to feel competent around all the equipment they may encounter when they leave here.”

One of the ways he’s recently helped CWC film production graduates further their career is by changing the nature of the program.

“The degree has changed from a technical studies certificate — offered in the same vein as automotive or welding courses,” Nielsen said. “I’ve worked to develop the program into a transfer degree.”

Unfortunately, the University of Wyoming doesn’t offer a film production degree, so Boone and Copeland will need to transfer elsewhere to continue their education.

Leaving the state isn’t what Boone had in mind when he started the CWC program last semester.

“I’ve lived in about 20 different places,” he said. “But this is where I was born, and this is the place I like the most, so this is where I’m from.”

After moving to Riverton, Boone and Copeland’s father decided to dabble in some college courses, Copeland said.

“I had just moved back in, and I was kind of directionless,” he recalled. “My dad used his GI Bill to take some of the film classes and told me to give a shot, even if for just one semester. And that kind of started all this.”

The family has talked about starting a film production company, but Boone and Copeland need to finish their education first, which means leaving home. 

“I see Wyoming as having great potential,” Boone said. “I don’t know how exactly to go about it, but I’d like to put my experience to use here and open some of that potential.”

Boone said the brothers have their eyes set on the University of Utah’s film production courses, but if the school doesn’t take both of them, they’ll join the U.S. Air Force and use their service benefits to further their careers.
“Either we both go to Utah, or we both join the military,” he said.

Copeland said the two developed a strong bond early in life when their parents divorced, but while other siblings often grow independent through the years, he and Boone’s relationship brought them closer together.

“Since we were kids — I was like 11 and Boone might’ve been 4 — we spent a lot of time together,” he explained. “We share a lot of the same interests. Working together, we know how to bounce ideas off each other and move toward something we both like.”

While the brothers bump heads on occasion, they fervently agreed the CWC film production program was one the best choices they made.

“I’m taking these classes because I want to learn the stuff, not because I need it for a degree,” Copeland said. “One of the things I like most — I hate homework most of the time — but the assignments in the film program are things I actually care about.”

Boone added, “I love this program. Most other college classes don’t really engage me, but more than that, they don’t offer the hands-on learning opportunities I get in film production.”

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