September 26, 2012

Jan Aldea and José Saavedra

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By Molly O'Brien-Foelsch

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Jan Aldea seemed excited during the first two sessions of the 2D animation class at Nuestra Escuela, an alternative school in Caguas, Puerto Rico. The 19-year-old had quickly mapped out a detailed, 102-panel storyboard for a video depicting a tale of love, loss and renewal. Then he vanished.

"We didn't know what happened to him," said José Saavedra, an art major in the Bucknell University Class of '13 and one of Aldea's teachers. "One day, we found him in the hallway. It turned out he'd had to miss class because of family problems and was afraid we'd kick him out." Saavedra convinced Aldea to return and complete his video. He ended up finishing first.

"The artwork is rough," said Saavedra. "But you can see there's something deeper there. Something meaningful." || Watch video

Aldea's was just the kind of success story Saavedra was hoping for when he conceived the course. He first thought of teaching creativity to at-risk, impoverished teens during his first year at Bucknell, but it wasn't until last fall when the idea gelled. A self-taught animator, Saavedra decided that a 2D animation course would be the perfect vehicle for teaching both creative and practical skills. He enlisted help developing the project from his good friend, then-international relations major Stefan Ivanovski, Class of '12.

The pair read up on the problems facing teens in Puerto Rico — problems including drug trafficking, violence and poverty. Through a personal connection, they found a supportive partner on the ground in Nuestra Escuela, which provides emotional and social support to students who've previously dropped out of school. For the project, which they called Puerto Rico se Anima — a play on the word animation that means, literally, "Puerto Rico is excited" — they received a $10,000 Davis Projects for Peace grant, along with funding from the Flamboyan Foundation, whose CEO is Kristin Ehrgood, Class of '92, and CompUSA.

"We believe education and creativity are tools that can drive social change," said Ivanovski. The program teaches students how to be agents of change in their communities."

"When people see what they create, their self-esteem goes up," said Saavedra. "They think, 'I made that.'"

By mid-June this year, Saavedra and Ivanovski had navigated Puerto Rico's spotty infrastructure to find housing and the hardware and software they needed to set up a "hall of creativity" at Nuestra Escuela. They were ready to teach, except: On the first day of class, there was a power outage. It turned out to be the first of that summer.

But that bump in the road was nothing, they found, compared to the crushing reality of their students' personal circumstances. One student had cancer. A few had to leave school. Others had to be home before 9 p.m. to avoid being shot by gangs. And at least several came from households with no water or electricity — let alone computers. And before they could even begin to teach animation, Saavedra and Ivanovski discovered they needed to teach their students basic skills, like how to use Microsoft Word and how to outline a story.

"When you write a proposal for a project, you're a hero," said Saavedra. "But when you're there, it's very different. You're not just behind a desk thinking about the problems."

It didn't take long, though, said Saavedra, for the class to go deeper into the material.

"One boy was struggling to accurately draw a man riding a bicycle," said Saavedra. "He wanted to get the distance from the leg to the pedal right. So we cracked open a biology book and analyzed YouTube videos." Saavedra also found himself teaching physics and the concept of pi to students who wanted to know more about animating video games. "They needed to know how to make circles move," he said.

What helped the Bucknellians succeed in their teaching was being able to build trust with the students and bringing them joy, said Ivanovski. "It was the first time someone told them they could do research on their own. We kept telling them, 'You will go to college.'"

On Aug. 15, Saavedra and Ivanovski held a Puerto Rico se Anima graduation ceremony at the Art Museum of Caguas. Families, teachers and community members watched as the students received their diplomas. There was also a screening of the videos at the museum's first-ever animated film festival. || Read the blog; View the videos on YouTube

"It may seem like a little thing," said Ivanovski, who is from Macedonia. "But I know how I felt when I graduated in May — having my family there to see my get my degree — you realize, 'I can do things. We wanted to bring more joy to their lives.'"

Contact: Division of Communications