Scroll through Webster University’s undergraduate and graduate studies catalogs and you’ll see traditional degrees that are available at colleges across the country. Sprinkled in with majors like Political Science and English Literature, however, are some unusual undergraduate and graduate programs, many of which didn’t exist even a few years ago. These off-the-beaten-path options offer students specialized knowledge or cutting-edge training in fields like communications, fine arts, business and education.
While some colleges have a class or two on various aspects of animation, Webster is one of few in the region to offer a complete degree program. “We address every form of animation out there,” says Christopher Sagovac, associate professor in the School of Communications. “We are an applied program, which means not only do we teach you how to animate, we make you do it, too.” Created in 2008, the bachelor’s in animation grew out of the Interactive Media program in response to student feedback. Graduates pursue careers as illustrators, character animators, technical directors, voice actors and more.
Kristin Pratt, BA ’10, was among the first to earn the degree. “The idea of creating stories and characters was the most appealing job I could imagine,” she says. Today, she provides visual effects for blockbuster movies like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “American Sniper.” “I love the creative and technical opportunities my job presents,” she says. “I'm always kept on my toes. Visual effects can be a really fun and challenging playground. It’s truly a global industry and it can take you as far as you’re willing to go.”
“The video game industry is blowing up,” says School of Communications Assistant Professor Kevin Taylor. In response, Webster expanded its game design certificate into a bachelor’s program last year, and is one of few universities in Missouri offering the degree. Game design is about more than programming, Taylor says. “Video games are a very serious field.” His students are learning to direct cinematic experiences, including both technical and narrative elements, in classes like Filmmaking Fundamentals, Scriptwriting and 3D Animation Production.
The first class of the program includes Mercedes Brust, class of ’18, a visual artist and lifelong gamer who says the unusual degree perfectly suits her strengths. “Creating worlds with characters, lore and architecture that are so lifelike is more beautiful than any painting I could ever create,” she says. “To me, a game is not a way to make money, but an ever-expanding canvas that can encompass my wildest dreams and turn them into a reality.” After graduation, Brust plans to work for an independent game developer in St. Louis, then someday create fantasy role-playing games with a large company in Seattle.
In the 25 years since its creation, more than 150 people have earned Webster’s audio production degree. This first-of-its-kind program, which recently became its own department in the School of Communications, trains students to be equal parts artist and technician, says Professor Barry Hufker. It covers all aspects of theory and offers hands-on experiences in a state-of-the-art recording studio. Students also must pass a portfolio review before a required internship. “This has earned the department a reputation for turning out exemplary students,” Hufker says.
The 150-plus graduates work in all aspects of radio, music recording, live theater or concert sound, sound design for film and games, and more. Chelsea Vande Drink, BA ’06, records, mixes and archives Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra concerts. “It’s fast-paced and it’s different every day,” she says. “I have to be on my toes constantly — always be ready for the worst. A lot of my ability to calmly address those situations came from my education at Webster.”
One of Webster’s newest cutting-edge programs is the bachelor of music with an emphasis in composition (songwriting). It’s one of fewer than a dozen programs of a similar scope nationwide, and one of the only in the Midwest. “It adds an area we weren’t offering before, focusing on contemporary musical patterns and trends,” says Music Department Chair Jeffrey Carter. Launched this past fall, students in the program will take classes like Music Theory, Lyric Writing, and History of Popular Song Styles. They’ll work closely with successful songwriters, and eventually record a full studio album. The program will culminate with a recital of their original music.
“This combination helps me to record my own demos, write better lyrics, and add more meaning behind the music I write,” says Rachel Seiler, class of ‘17. “I love my private songwriting lesson because we analyze songs, work on my new songs and record demos for each one.” After graduation, Seiler wants to move to Nashville and have a career as a country singer-songwriter.
The pioneers of concert design are still working. The industry is so young, in fact, that Webster is the first university in the country to offer a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts for the non-traditional, non-classroom career. “There needed to be a way to properly train and solidify the industry, and move forward from the first-generation cowboy mentality,” says Assistant Professor Seth Jackson. After running in tandem with the lighting and scenic design programs for two years, students then take specialized classes focused on applying theatrical techniques to designing concert tours.
The young program already has had great success. Jonathan Schneider, BFA ’14, for example, is a traveling technician for Upstaging. He travels to venues to set up, maintain and tear down lighting systems for TV shows, corporate events, trade shows and concert tours for the likes of Beck, Phish and Paul McCartney. “I really enjoy being a part of something where a normal day is unloading 25 trucks, loading in 40 tons of gear, doing a show, taking it all down, putting it back in the trucks and then repeating it again the next day in a totally different city,” he says. “I get a real sense of accomplishment.”
It’s hard to imagine “Annie” without her curly red locks or “Wicked” without Elphaba’s green skin. Hair and makeup are essential elements of almost any theater performance, and many of the designers who create those memorable looks begin their training at Webster’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts. The wig and makeup design program offers a unique opportunity for students to work collaboratively with the Conservatory and the National Academy of Beauty Arts to obtain a Cosmetology license in addition to a bachelor’s degree.
Graduates go on to work for regional theatres, Broadway houses, national tours, TV and film. Rebecca Curl, BA ’14, is a wig stylist and makeup artist for several theatres in Chicago. She has helped create unforgettable looks for everything from Shakespearean plays to “Evil Dead: The Musical.” “I love being able to transform actors into different characters and having the power to change the tone or mood of a particular scene just with a few simple hair and makeup changes,” she says.
On any given night, the evening news is filled with stories about human-rights violations around the globe. Despite the rampant problems, most American universities don’t offer training for careers in international human rights, and Webster is one of very few to offer an undergraduate degree program. “It’s very special,” says Assistant Professor Lindsey Kingston. “Unfortunately, there’s a huge need for human rights work.” Graduates of the program often work with government or nonprofit organizations focused on issues like human trafficking or genocide. Some continue on to law school or graduate school to later become lawyers or researchers.
The program requires students to take two years of a foreign language and encourages them to take advantage of Webster’s global footprint by studying abroad. Rachel Kaufer, BA ’13, spent four months on the Geneva campus. She also took a course about Rwanda that included a two-week visit to the country. “It was completely a transformative trip,” she says. “The program included a small group of students, who all shared the same passion for trying to figure out how to make the world a better place.”
When math and biology collide, a new degree is born. Just launched this past fall, computational biology is a hybrid program that teaches students to use computers to analyze large data sets for medical research. “People who understand both biology and math, and who also can do a bit of computer programming, are highly valued,” says Assistant Professor Victoria Brown Kennerly. “It’s a big hole in the workforce.”
The skills are traditionally reserved for people with advanced degrees, but Webster is offering a unique undergraduate program. Graduates get a jump-start on a career with a pharmaceutical company or research facility, Brown Kennerly says, or build a strong foundation for continued education. Mash Kinley, class of ’18, plans to go on to graduate school to study microbiology with the hopes of someday helping find new ways to cure superbugs. “Advances in natural science are nearly a daily occurrence and bring with them a vast amount of data that has to be processed,” she says. “I think computational biology has a bright future and I’m excited to be in the very first year it’s offered at Webster. I can’t wait to see what I learn.”
Forensics is the science of gathering and analyzing evidence to present in court. What most of us know about the field comes from TV shows like “CSI” or “Bones,” but it goes beyond investigating murders. Forensic accountants look into financial fraud, says Assistant Professor Rich Dippel, and they are becoming more in demand by the likes of the FBI and IRS, large corporations and law firms. Launched in 2011, Webster’s master’s in forensic accounting program teaches students how to identify, extract and examine data, and testify about their findings in court.
As an auditor at Brown Smith Wallace, Sharde Waller, MS ‘15, helps clients manage business risk, improve internal controls and perform fraud investigations. “The job skills line up exactly with many things that were taught in the program,” she says. She chose the unusual program because she knew specialization would up her value in the job market. “It gets you ready for the type of jobs that are actually out there in the industry today, so that when you graduate you’re already qualified and knowledgeable.”
From Anthem Insurance to Sony Pictures, digital attacks have been topping the news a lot lately. To stop hackers from breaking into computer systems and stealing private information, the government and private companies are turning to cybersecurity experts for help. Schools across the nation now offer this specialized tech degree, and Webster is no exception. What makes Webster’s graduate program different, however, is a comprehensive cyberlab that gives students hands-on experience with viruses and malware. “They get to see what an attack looks like, and they can do very dangerous things in a very safe environment,” says Thomas Johnson, Associate Vice President, Chief of Strategic Initiatives and Interim Dean.
Only in its second year, the program already has attracted more than 200 students, including Catherine Button, MS ’15, who works for a telecommunications engineering company. The company added cybersecurity services to its offerings after Button earned her degree. “There’s a high demand and severe shortfall in skills in the field of information security, even more so for women, and having a degree that is directly relevant to this field opens a lot of new doors.”
Learning to be responsible and thoughtful stewards of the planet begins in the childhood years. Educators can play an important role in this process, says Lori Diefenbacher, who coordinates Webster’s master’s in education for global sustainability program. “Teachers go into education to make a difference in the world. We give them the tools to help them do that.” One of only a handful of degrees of its kind in the U.S., the program includes coursework in environmental science, economics and global citizenship.
After completing the program, first-grade teacher Traci Jansen, MA ’12, was inspired to write curriculum around sustainability and to integrate the concept into her classroom whenever possible. Birthday parties include nature explorations, storytime books focus on environmental issues, and the trash can is labeled ‘landfill’ (recycling and composting options are available). “Little pieces are woven into my instruction because Webster taught me how to think differently about how we can help our children understand the world more deeply. We are teaching our children to be community representatives and global citizens who can make their world better.”
Inconsistent spelling, grammar and pronunciation rules make English a very difficult language to learn (just look at this sentence for evidence: The soldier deserted his dessert in the desert). English isn’t the first language of about 10 percent of students in public schools, and that number could double in the next 10 years, says Associate Professor DJ Kaiser. To address changing demographics, Webster created a master’s in teaching english as a second language, the only nationally recognized program of its kind in Missouri. Certified teachers in the program earn ESL certification from the state, while non-teachers are trained to work with adult learners here or overseas.
Amela Omeragic, MA ’15, always wanted to be a teacher and, as an immigrant herself, knew working with English-learning students would allow her to truly make a difference. She’s now an ESL specialist in the Fox School District in St. Louis. “This degree can really open the doors to many career opportunities,” she says. “It’s a career where you really can help change lives.”