To call Kristi Pelzel ambitious is an understatement. Since moving to San Francisco, the Texas native and online graduate from the Academy of Art University’s School of Communications & Media Technologies (COM) has set herself on a journey to learn anything and everything she can to advance her career. She completed her B.A. this past spring (which took her three years) and has since embarked on high-level achievements, including a stint in the U.S. government and being recently named Director of Multimedia at Georgetown’s news outlet and academic blog, gnovis. We sat down with Pelzel and learned more about her motivations, aspirations and resolve.
Tell us about yourself: Where are you from? What were your aspirations after high school and where did they take you?
[I’m] originally from Texas, I moved to San Francisco after high school with the ambition of getting out of my small town. That was the single goal, move away to a bigger, “better” city without a plan, job, or any contacts. I got a job working in a real estate office when I realized I hadn’t valued my high school education, nor did my parents; education just wasn’t something modeled in my hometown or environment.
Living on my own, I quickly found I was hungry to learn. I wanted to attend the University of San Francisco. At first, I couldn’t get in but I was determined so I wrote an essay and gave it to the dean; long story short, he let me in. Those life-changing moments shaped my belief that anyone who wants something can get it. It might not come about the way you planned, but through persistence, it’s going to happen.
What brought you to the Academy?
At one point, I took a break from USF to refocus on my family and earn my real estate license. When the time came to jump back into my education, I started to review degree programs but nothing compared to what the Academy was offering. Every skill I wanted to learn and use in my career was laid out in the COM department degree play—it was like someone who’d worked in the business for many years used their wisdom to design the most practical path. I signed up and never stopped.
Even as an online student, your classes were able to set you up for some amazing opportunities. What is your advice to other online students on how to make the most of their education and create “real-world assignments” similar to what you experienced?
People typically choose to take online courses because they are working, and as you learn new skills online, it’s up to you to go out and showcase your abilities to gain more opportunities. If you are taking online courses, you have more of a burden to create networks outside of class than traditional students.
Before taking courses in podcasting and sound editing, I didn’t even know what Adobe Audition was, but it eventually led to design[ing] real projects in the classes. From there, I was able to take my newly acquired knowledge to edit sound and get paid while working on an international television show and a national NCAA media campaign. This is how fast it can happen; you learn it, and you talk about it in front of your network, you show it, you get hired.
You participated in an internship through a U.S. government program. More often than not, art school students don’t associate art and creativity with government service. What is your advice for Academy students interested in using their skills and education to make a difference?
I found a program through the United States Department of State, which assigned students to be mentored, for one year, by participating government agencies after a review process. Through that experience, I discovered that artists and digital media students bring a unique value and perspective to government agencies where there aren’t too many people like us. We are able to bridge the creativity gap when working on a project that might otherwise be large and complex.
Overall, I learned new technical skills, such as critical thinking and quantitative research methods, where I could apply my creative skills to these technical projects. It was a win-win and I received an award for participating in a problem-solving challenge. The takeaway for art students is to not shy away from applying to government and technical fields. The work is rewarding, they need art students, and that need is only growing.
Your education additionally includes courses at Rochester Institute of Technology and Thunderbird School of Global Management. What did you pursue there?
Not only should students be thinking about taking internships, but also supplementing their education. While I was studying at the Academy and working, I took one extra course at a time through an edX MicroMasters program, which is a shortened version of a master’s program that keys in on specific focuses.
I chose to complete a MicroMasters from Thunderbird School of Global Management to broaden my management skills and cross-cultural understandings. Now, I have moved on to a MicroMasters at Rochester Institute for Technology in design thinking. These extra courses have helped me to keep expanding my ability to view problems and solutions with different perspectives.
You are also currently enrolled at Georgetown University in its CCT master’s program. What influenced your decision to pursue this degree?
I was awarded a merit-based scholarship for the Masters of Communications, Culture, and Technology Program at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. I’m (officially) hanging up my online student hat and finishing my educational track as an onsite student.
The program itself is focused on challenges posed by new technologies in a range of fields, including research, government, politics, arts, media, communication, business, health and medicine. It’s a “design your own degree” program, where I’ll be advancing in my international communications and media studies while adding technology innovation problem-solving and design thinking/analysis to my resume.
Has your Academy education prepared you for this program?
My Academy education prepared me to navigate a digital world and understand the demands of interactive project collaboration and online relationships. Being able to communicate, pitch a concept, build trust and stand out via email are skills I will take with me on my next journey and I can point right back to the Academy for handing them to me.
Professionally, what’s next?
With graduate school coming up, maintaining a flexible contractor status makes sense for me. Since graduating, the scope of the work that I am doing is much more involved. This summer Laticia Headings, a friend and long-time producer, and I formalized our small business Latitude: Media with Attitude, where we accepted a contract to work for a government agency to produce media for an international campaign.
I’ve also been asked to speak at an upcoming government communication conference in August on the subject of data storytelling, so again, bringing together my education and skills in technical information with art. Between that project and opportunities that will pop up at graduate school, I am on my way. To where? I don’t really know, but the journey has been amazing.
Featured photo: Academy of Art University School of Communications & Media Technologies B.A. graduate Kristi Pelzel. Photo courtesy of Kristi Pelzel.