Dr. James Owens
Some might call it coincidence. Others might call it luck. After hearing the story of how a small school in the tiny town of Wilmore became a national leader in media communications and, among other accomplishments, regularly sends dozens of students to the Olympics to work in paid positions, even a skeptic would have to admit the divine hand of providence has been working miracles at Asbury University.
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in our August 2012 issue, in advance of Asbury students’ trip to London for the Summer Olympics. For Asburians’ reports from the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, visit our Stories from Sochi blog.
James Owens was a typical preacher’s kid when he came to Asbury as a student in the 1970s. Prior to attending college, he thought he’d become a pastor like his father, yet his real interest was in photography and photojournalism. He didn’t see how ministry and photography were connected, but his older sister thought otherwise. “She had come to Asbury and told me, ‘You know, you can do that in a ministry setting.’ That wasn’t something I’d considered before. I liked the way the school looked at things. They believe you can use your God-given gifts anywhere,” says Owens.
Four years later, Owens was set to graduate with a degree in Christian ministries. It was a program of studies that had satisfied his creative instincts, but he wasn’t quite clear on his professional direction. He’d made plans to attend graduate school at Indiana University and thought his time at Wilmore would forever be history.
Providence thought otherwise.
Just days before graduating, the seniors were attending their traditional two-day retreat when then Asbury president Dennis Kinlaw, sat down next to Owens and began chatting. “What would you change about Asbury?” Dr. Kinlaw asked.
“I think he was just trying to make small talk,” Owens admits, “but I told him I thought we needed some classes in communications so that those going into the ministry would be better prepared to use things like radio and television. I’d seen ministers trying to use radio and television, and frankly, not doing a very good job. I felt some classes would better prepare them.”
To Owens’ surprise, Kinlaw agreed and promptly christened him as the man to start the program. “I didn’t know if he was serious or not,” Owens admits, but a few years later, after receiving his master’s degree and working in a variety of media positions, Owens came back to Asbury with the modest intention of developing “a few radio and TV classes.”
Not only did more students show an interest than predicted, but technology and supplies unexpectedly became available. In one instance, some gently used television equipment was being sold for the unbelievably low price of $3,000. Still, it was far more than the fledgling department had in its budget. When Owens casually mentioned the equipment to a staff member, he promptly replied, “I’ll give you $1,500.” Much to the professor’s surprise, the staff member had just sold a house and was looking for a worthy place to tithe his money. It was just one of many confirmations that the communications department at Asbury was needed and, seemingly, blessed from the beginning.
Fast forward 30 years, and those few classes in radio and television have evolved into the Asbury University School of Communication Arts, which includes journalism, theatre, communications, media communications and worship arts. Alumni have gone around the globe with their talents and have worked in television, film, stage and news media outlets. Twenty-one have won Emmy Awards. Some have become producers for shows on major cable networks, and a few have been writers for top-rated network television shows such as Everybody Loves Raymond and NCIS: LA. With a new multi-million-dollar facility that includes eight separate editing suites, an audio recording studio, theaters, and enough props, technology and equipment to create almost any high-quality piece of film or journalism, more accolades and successes are sure to come.
But it’s the Olympics that offer Asbury students a unique learning experience.
At the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, Owens worked with ABC Sports and developed a number of relationships with crew members. When the games came to Atlanta in 1996, Owens was contacted for assistance. He decided to take a few students along, thinking the experience would be good for them. “Honestly, I thought it was a one-shot deal,” Owens admits. Turns out, it was only the beginning.
That “one-shot deal” has turned into an ongoing relationship that has enabled more than 600 Asbury students to work in paid broadcasting positions during the Olympic Games. The Summer 2012 Olympics in London mark the school’s ninth Games. This time, more than 100 students applied for the opportunity. Applications were reviewed by Asbury professors and the broadcasters, with slightly more than half being selected to work the Games in some form of production. The only other school known to have students employed in production jobs is located in Spain.
After several months of instruction, including a few sessions on cultural sensitivity, some of these young professionals will work as event liaisons, assistant camera operators and editors, and will lend a hand with public relations. Others will do various journalism projects. For nearly three weeks, these select undergraduates will receive what is arguably the best possible training in their chosen field, all while being paid and getting a sampling of international relations and travel. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime that money can’t buy.
Although each of Asbury’s students understands working for the Olympics looks sensational on a résumé, it’s seldom the sole reason for coming to the school. While many students want to go into the communications field, the approach of most schools is decidedly secular. Asbury believes that working in the secular world doesn’t mean checking your faith at the door. “They come to Asbury because of our program and what we believe. That is, they can be both a Christian and work in the media,” says Owens.
The hallways of the Miller Center prove this point. Every poster in the building represents a project that has had an Asbury graduate somewhere in the cast or crew. To date, alumni have worked on 255 different television series or films from companies such as ESPN, Universal, Paramount and the major TV networks. Students have worked on films that have garnered 11 Academy Awards.
Whether it be the Olympics or other mass media venues, it’s difficult not to see Asbury’s imprint on modern media, a feat highly unlikely for a tiny school in a tiny town. Indeed, one would have to be hard-pressed not to admit that while talent and hard work have played a role, the School of Communication Arts at Asbury seems to be guided by a higher power.
“We believe you can start here and impact the world,” says Owens.