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Alum Deborah Woolley Creates Endowed Scholarship for Land Grant Films

A student readies a camera for a Land Grant Films interview.

When Deborah Woolley (’70) first saw the Land Grant Films work started by Nick Geidner, School of Journalism & Electronic Media associate professor, she knew it was something special.

“He really taught me a lot about what it takes to do a documentary. I was so impressed not just by what he was doing, but how he was doing it,” Woolley said.

As a UT alumna who graduated with a degree in journalism and worked in newspapers for 20 years, Woolley understands what it takes to report a good story—but she didn’t fully know how stories are told through the medium of a documentary. That is, until about a few years ago, when Geidner spoke to her and other College of Communication and Information Board of Visitors members about Land Grant Film’s first project, The Medal of Honor Project.

When Woolley saw what Geidner and the students were doing, she also saw an opportunity to contribute to the education of this generation’s journalists. She learned how the students attended the Medal of Honor Conference a year before it was set to come to Knoxville in 2014, and how they spent an extensive amount of time researching, writing, and preparing to make the documentary.

“The students have a lot of work to do before they get to sit down and start with the script or interview anybody. He was giving them a very educational and meaningful real world experience. As a result, they not only had the experience, they had a viable project to show future employers,” she said. “Both the documentary and work of the students were very high-profile, which was a major win for CCI. We’re talking a lot today about the university’s land-grant mission and serving different elements of the state, and Land Grant Films fits right in.”

JEM Associate Professor Nick Geidner, left, sets up a camera with a student as part of a Land Grant Films interview.

JEM Associate Professor Nick Geidner, left, sets up a camera with a student as part of a Land Grant Films interview.

Woolley began donating to Land Grant Films for them to purchase items they needed to continue their work. Geidner said she was the program’s first real donor, and it was her funds that allowed him to buy a high-quality broadcast camera to produce more professional content.

“Land Grant Films is a key example of how CCI is living out the university’s land-grant mission,” said CCI Dean Joseph Mazer. “When donors like Deb believe in this mission and its connection to a hands-on forward-focused program, it directly benefits our students and prepares them to step forward together as Volunteers.”

Geidner’s own undergraduate experience included a big project, one that he could put on his resume, and he was seeking to provide a similar experience and opportunity for CCI students.

“I want students to understand that they can do big things, audacious things in their community if they are willing to put in the time and effort. So at Land Grant we are constantly jumping into projects that are probably bigger than we should be doing,” he said. “But we put in the work to complete the project and have a significant effect on the community.”

Since that first film, Land Grant Films has produced several more short- and feature-length films, including The Library That Dolly Built, about the Imagination Library, a children’s literacy non-profit created by native East Tennessean Dolly Parton. While the planned 330-theater release of the film was canceled due to COVID-19, an online premiere and fundraiser was launched in 2021. It was viewed by more than 1 million people and raised more than $250,000 for the Imagination Library. The Library That Dolly Built is currently available on Amazon Prime, Apple Video, and Kanopy streaming services. 

Throughout it all, Woolley has continued to donate to Land Grant Films, and she recently created an endowed scholarship for students participating in the program. After she realized how much time these projects require of the students, she knew some of them likely cannot work on the projects without financial support.

“Some students cannot afford to participate in these experiences without being paid, especially students in key leadership positions,” Geidner said.

Woolley said she remembers how time-consuming, but beneficial, it was to earn required practicum hours when she was a journalism student working at the UT Office of Public Relations News Bureau, so she wanted to support current students as they pursued hands-on experiences.

“It is a program that can benefit all students, even those who might not have a career in documentary films,” she said. “The skills that are developed in creating a documentary film are many of the same skills that make a person a successful journalist. In both careers, you must really look at all the aspects of the story, weigh through the facts and decide what you are going to use and then decide the best way to communicate the information. 

“Land Grant Films is an excellent project, and I think CCI is so very fortunate to have it.”  Next up for Land Grant Films is a variety of projects, including:  

  • A documentary in collaboration with the Howard H. Baker Center for Public Policy at UT about the late Senator Howard Baker.
  • A series of short, social-style videos in partnership with the Tennessee Valley Authority and East Tennessee PBS (East TN PBS) that show children cool jobs and connecting those cool jobs to what they’re currently learning in school. The project is funded by $408,000 TVA Connected Communities Grant. 
  • A three-year long endeavor to document a project just awarded $1,347,443 by the National Science Foundation, which includes funding for Land Grant Films participating in it. The project proposal is led by Lynn Hodge in the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences and is called Mathematizing, Visualizing, and Power (MVP): Appalachian Youth Becoming Data Artists for Community Learning.
  • Land Grant Films is also relaunching the Medal of Honor Project to cover the 2022 Medal of Honor Celebration, which will be held in Knoxville in September.  

Getting grants, such as the TVA Connected Communities Grant, couldn’t have happened without Wooley’s support, Geidner said.

“Woolley’s willingness to support projects at start-up has made all the difference in the world.  We need to show proof-of-concept before we can get big grants, and she’s helped us do that,” he said.