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More Than a Student

Hang Summers, Purna Biswa, Evgeniya Zvigunova
Hang Summers, Purna Biswa, Evgeniya Zvigunova

Computer Science team video on the big screen in NYC

It started innocently enough: a Computer Science study group chatting during a break.

Hang Summers, a sophomore and Computer Science major in the School of Computing and Engineering at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, suggested that they might enter a video contest.

“I asked them, ‘Do you like video?’ and they answered ‘Yes.’ So I went on. ‘Why don’t we enter this UMB Bank Student Video Contest for college kids? It would be fun and give us a chance to be creative.’ They agreed, but we felt like it was a lark, nothing serious.”

Classmates Evgeniya Zvigunova and Purna Biswa, also sophomores, rounded out the video production team.

“More Than,” as the UMB contest was titled, was more than student videos;  there was the promise of prize money and the lure of a trip to New York City to see the winning video play on an enormous outdoor screen in Times Square. Although the contest, sponsored by UMB in recognition of its 100th birthday, ran from September 13 to December 21, 2012, the UMKC friends didn’t get started until the last minute. (That explains the Christmas lights in the Plaza scene.)

Like millions of other students, Zvigunova, an international student from Russia, loved to make little movies while in high school and post them on YouTube.

“I wanted to share stories in hopes that they might inspire millions of people,” she said.

Although his family lives here, improv and street theater that he had seen as a child in Nepal made an impression on Biswa.

For Summers, it was editing student movies and acting in school plays that gave her the film bug.

“My high school Spanish teacher found ways to liven up the course. We did skits and plays and movies. One of my jobs was to edit the movies that illustrated something we learned. In one play, I was cast as the old woman. I was hooked.”

After finals, they got down to serious business.

The three friends gathered in a coffee shop and planned their video. No story boards or sophisticated dialogue.

“We had it in our heads,” said Biswa.

None of the three had first-hand experience with poverty or want, but they knew that conventional beliefs about college students – laziness, procrastination, incessant partying and plagiarizing coursework – were far from the truth. In Zvigunova’s mind, college students like her and her friends are capable of so much more than people think. And because they are young, she knows they can influence their peers.

“We agreed that our theme would be ‘More than a student,’” said Zvigunova. “We had less than half a minute to get our message across, but we thought we could include the environment, anti-littering and concern for the poor.”

Still believing they were a long shot, they waited until they found themselves in the top five semi-finalists to follow the necessary steps. The next contest stage required a university advisor, so Zvigunova emailed Marisa Lewis-Moreno, the International Student Advisor to whom she was assigned.

Lewis-Moreno’s first reaction was one of disbelief. Was this another scam aimed at students or some kind of elaborate practical joke? With diligence and responsibility, she vetted the contest and the UMB staffers who had made contact with the UMKC students. Finding everything legitimate, she agreed to sponsor the video team.

In the film, Biswa walks down the corridors of Royall Hall and outside. A woman in front of him (Summers) tosses her plastic cup in the direction of the trash receptacle but doesn’t stop when the cup bounces off and down to the sidewalk. Biswa picks it up and disposes of it. In the next scene, while walking on the Plaza, he sees someone (Zvigunova) huddled in the recesses of a storefront. He goes into a shop, comes out with a coat and drapes it over the figure’s shoulders. “I am more than a student, I want to make a change,” and the UMB message and logo come up. Elapsed time: 30 seconds.

Now it was in the hands of the gods – and some determined phoners.

“You could vote online for your favorite,” said Biswa. “The contest only allowed people in the USA to vote, but my mother set up a phone tree, calling friends in Nepal and everywhere to contact American friends.”

Summers added, “It took teamwork to gather the votes.  Jenya and I did a lot of walking around campus, asking people to support us. The three of us also used a lot of social media to get the word out. It was consistent hard work and dedication to get people to vote for us, and it must have worked.”

Must have. The UMKC trio won the contest.

As winners, the trio went down to the Power & Light stage to pick up their oversized check and pose for the media. How did they feel after this whirlwind experience?

“We are so proud to represent UMKC,” Biswa said. “The experience has made me think about what to do with my life, and I’m sure now that I want to have a shelter and make a safe place for homeless children.”

“We are all friends,” said Summers, “and we discovered that we care about the same things. I hope when people see our movie it touches them. I believe little things do make a difference. Also, I now really have confidence in myself to do film.”

She and Zvigunova would like to find work in the film industry that combines their interests in computer science, film and video editing.

The students have one enthusiastic fan in Lewis-Moreno.

“This is just a great accomplishment for students, especially to have an international student involved. This is a very atypical experience for an international student, because it’s unusual for them to break out of their comfort zone and come together like this for a project. Jenya found it so rewarding and such a thrill. These three are all from different backgrounds and traditions, but they worked together so well,” she said.

The four of them left for New York City early on April 24 (Lewis-Moreno is their chaperone). As excited as they were about the trip – only Zvigunova has been there before – they were already planning to start a film club at UMKC as soon as they return.

This may just be their first steps in a long, illustrious career.

Photo Credit: Janet Rogers, Division of Strategic Marketing and Communications.

 

 


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