Kasey McCargar Retires After 23 Years of Fostering Narrative Creativity at KCAD
It only took one glimpse of a woman behind a TV camera, and Kasey McCargar knew: she wanted to tell stories for a living. What the then-news station intern didn’t know was that she’d one day be teaching others how to be storytellers in their own right.
This May, McCargar announced her retirement from Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) after 23 years of empowering students to do more with their creativity. She did that not just by helping evolve the college’s digital ecosystem from a handful of computers to a vast network of cutting edge multimedia tools, but also by showing her students how to think more deeply about the kinds of stories they could tell with their art and design.
“Technology evolves so quickly that the goal here isn’t really to teach the technology,” McCargar says. “It’s to teach problem-solving skills and strategies that empower students to communicate ideas and tell stories in the most effective and impactful way possible, regardless of what the technological means are.”
McCargar’s own storytelling prowess was honed during two decades working in the broadcasting industry as a videographer and editor. But after stints covering Capitol Hill for CNN and the Associated Press, she came to West Michigan looking for opportunities to use her talents in a new way. In 1995, she found the perfect opportunity at KCAD, then navigating the transition into the digital age.
In her initial position as an adjunct instructor in the Graphic Design program, McCargar challenged her students to pick up a camera and storyboard, shoot, and edit commercials. Suddenly, they had a much larger palette to work with when it came to creating compelling narratives for products, brands, events, and services. It was drastic change of pace for the students, who were used to working primarily in print, but also for McCargar. While mentoring students and showing them the technical ropes came fluidly to her, structuring their learning took some getting used to.
“When I was working in broadcasting, I loved working with the interns, but teaching students was a very different challenge,” McCargar says. “The hard part wasn’t sharing my knowledge with them; it was figuring out how to create the curriculum and learning experiences to best facilitate that. That didn’t come naturally to me, but I saw how important it was.”
McCargar found her groove as her classes became populated more and more by students who had a strong interest in working with video.
“These were students who really wanted to build these skills so they could open up more avenues of creative possibility,” she says. “As that happened I began to thrive.”
Classes in motion graphics followed, with McCargar teaching students how to place 2D graphics and type over top of their finished videos. Around the same time, classes in digital illustration, time-based animation, and web design were being added to the Illustration program. The President of KCAD at the time, Oliver Evans, saw an opportunity for the college to break new ground. A new program, dubbed Digital Media (now called Digital Art and Design), was established, merging the digital-oriented classes from the Illustration and Graphic Design programs into a degree tailor-made for the 21st century.
The new program, McCargar says, became a haven for “Swiss army knife” students, not just because of the sheer variety of media they were being exposed to, but also because of the realities of the industries they were preparing to enter.
“You have to collaborate in any media landscape, so even if you don’t have a passion for working in a particular form of media, learning about it will help you talk to and work with those who do,” says McCargar. “From the program’s onset, the goal was to expose students to a wide variety of skills, technologies, and media; to have them experiment with a little bit of everything so they can discover the career they really want to pursue, or maybe discover a career they didn’t even know existed.”
McCargar presenting 2014 Digital Media graduate Jericho Castillo with the program’s 2014 Excellence Award
While McCargar stayed focused on teaching video production and motion graphics classes, the technology her students were using kept evolving at a fast and furious pace. That meant that she and her colleagues in the Digital Art and Design program had to be students themselves, investing time and energy into learning the ins and outs of new software and hardware before introducing it into the classroom.
“Our job was to keep up with what the world was creating,” she says. “If we didn’t keep moving ahead, students wouldn’t be prepared to succeed in the professional world.”
Each new wave of technological development opened up new possibilities in terms of the kinds of projects and opportunities the Digital Media program could provide. Still, McCargar says the focus has always been on creative rather than technical outcomes.
“We need to keep students on cutting edge of technology, but we also need to remove barriers of access that prevent them from realizing their creative idea. Finding ways to do both is tough, but that’s exactly what we’ve managed to do,” she says. “We focus on the creative mechanics of how to use the software or hardware to express something rather than putting all our energy into learning the tools themselves.”
The collision of technological access and creative development was certainly helping Digital Art and Design students become adept storytellers when it came to expressing their own creative ideas, but McCargar wanted to push them further, outside of themselves.
In 2012, she launched an initiative called KCAD TV that gave students first-hand experience working on multimedia promotional projects for different areas of the college. These were projects with actual clients and real-world implications, from making a commemorative video for President Evans’ retirement gala to creating promotional videos for the KCAD Writing Center to working with other KCAD programs to help students outside of Digital Art and Design leverage digital media in their own creative work.
“I really enjoyed working closely with groups of students and seeing their portfolios blossom with real-world work. People were very impressed with the quality of the work, and our students seemed very energized by the opportunity,” McCargar says. “They had to learn how to listen to others and figure out a way to tell someone else’s stories rather than just pursing their own personal expressions.”
KCAD TV would prove so effective at generating engaging content that it eventually evolved into a component of KCAD’s internal Communications department in 2013. Digital Art and Design students continued to contribute at a high level, working among other things on creating promotional videos for the Medical Illustration, Master of Architecture, and Collaborative Design programs. Today, student interns in the Communications department come from a number of different programs, but are still immersed in the same model of experiential, real-world learning that McCargar helped establish.
McCargar with fellow Digital Art and Design faculty member Bill Fischer at KCAD’s 2016 Commencement
Within the Digital Art and Design program, meanwhile, McCargar continued to emphasize an outward focus in her class projects.
“My assignments were always open-ended, because that allowed me to tap into what students are interested in and passionate about,” she says. “It’s about giving them opportunities that also give them responsibilities they need to step up and fulfill, because when you leave school, you need to have that ability take ownership of your work.”
In 2017, McCargar helped lead a collaboration with Grand Rapids Creative Youth Center that saw Digital Art and Design students creating a series of videos that blended spoken-word poetry with digital animation and music to make a powerful statement on the social and cultural stigmas surrounding mental health in America.
“The subject matter was very gripping, and the students responded to that opportunity to raise awareness and spur conversations around a very critical issue in contemporary society,” says McCargar. “Seeing the videos go out into the world was incredibly rewarding too, because it gave students a sense of the difference they can make with their creativity. It’s these kinds of experiences that keep them engaged and curious, and that’s what they need to have a successful career in this industry.”
McCargar also helped build teams of Digital Art and Design students who, for two years running, took home the Best Directing award in the Grand Rapids Film Festival 36-Hour Challenge. The annual competition requires entrants to script, shoot, edit, and score a six-minute short film in only 36 hours, and most competitors are either students from film-focused academic programs or professional filmmakers.
“It was about building a diverse team of different skills and perspectives, and our students’ success against students and professionals who are wholly focused on film really reflects the versatility our program instills,” she says.
Though she’s retiring from KCAD, McCargar has little doubt that the Digital Art and Design program will continue to respond accordingly to both the evolving needs of students and the ever-changing media landscape. After all, she says, that’s what it was created to do, and it’s what she and her colleagues have worked so hard over the years to achieve.
“The Digital Art and Design faculty are incredible, and the program is very innovative in that it goes beyond the technology to teach students how to be creative thinkers and problem solvers,” she says. “They don’t even know where their career will be in five years, and that’s a great thing—we’re educating students for jobs that don’t exist yet.”
(left to right): Digital Art and Design faculty members Susan Bonner, Bill Fischer, Mike Dollar, and Brad Yarhouse with McCargar during an event celebrating her retirement
As for what has constituted success in her teaching, McCargar looks no further than the success of her students. And that success doesn’t only come in the form of awards, or social media clicks, or big-time job offers, though there have been plenty of all of those throughout her tenure at KCAD. Instead, it comes from knowing that she’s enabled her students to chart their own course for the future, to uncover and tell stories that are meaningful and connective.
“I like to think of myself as a facilitator,” she says. “And when I see a class full of final projects and each one is unique, that’s an incredible feeling, because I feel like I’ve empowered my students. There’s no limit to the stories they can tell going forward.”