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Chico State

Capturing Student Potential

student works with the state-of-the-art Red camera
Photos by Dan Bruns / Lab Technician, Advanced Laboratory for Visual Anthropology

Photo by Brian Brazeal

Updated on January 6, 2017

A new program is turning donor dollars into real-world opportunities for students—just ask anthropology professor Brian Brazeal, founder of the University’s globally celebrated Advanced Laboratory for Visual Anthropology (ALVA).

In July, ALVA was one of 19 programs across campus to receive an inaugural University Foundation Special Endowment Award. More than $250,000 was distributed to help students and faculty reach beyond the limits of state support.

CEO Ahmad Boura says by entrusting endowed gifts to the board’s discretion, several donors collectively funded more than $250,000 in projects. Together, they’re helping students and faculty reach beyond he limits of state support.

ALVA was the first facility in the world to incorporate digital cinema into social science research, Brazeal said. Since 2010, students, professors, alumni, and staff have had unparalleled access to Hollywood-grade cameras and the technology needed to produce television-ready documentaries.

“Professional film people thought I was crazy,” said Brazeal, who’s helped ALVA films appear on public television channels and prominent film festival screens.

Two people facing away looking through a camera at a cliffside
Alum Matt Ritenour and master’s student Jake Martin film petroglyphs for a film on archaeological looting that was broadcast on public television across California and used in US Forest Service trainings.


As he and students “fumbled” through how to use the most advanced camera on the market—the Red One—he says professional studios were reluctant to put the same equipment in the hands of less-than-senior technicians. But the outcomes were worth it.

Going into her final year, Erin Gillette (’11) says she was struggling to manage the heavy course load she needed to overcome failed classes and a change in major. ALVA offered her a chance to do work that mattered.

“I wasn’t just cramming for a test—the information to be lost as soon as the class was over,” said Gillette, who discovered ALVA after taking Brazeal’s visual anthropology class. “I cared about my projects, and what I learned stuck with me.”

Her transformation was remarkable, Brazeal said. “She was incredibly gifted,” spending hundreds of hours in the lab and volunteering to work on various projects, including going abroad to Antigua to film Caribbean archeology with professor Georgia Fox.

“It was just surreal to have that experience,” said Gillette, who described her pre-ALVA college experience as solely focused on attending class, doing homework, and going to work. “I just feel that without the lab, without them trusting us with professional equipment, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity.”


Alumnus Matthew Ritenour (’13) wins Emmy for ALVA-produced film.
ALVA Laboratory Technician Dan Bruns and anthropology alumni Matthew Ritenour and Arik Bord accept Emmy awards for their film, “Impact of the Frolic.”

Professors add scientific rigor to students’ films, while ALVA’s technology allows students to produce compelling content that challenges dangerous misperceptions of marginalized people, Brazeal said.

For her upper-division theme capstone course, Gillette produced Voices of Tolerance, a documentary about violence against the LGBTQ+ community. Brazeal helped her secure a grant to create DVDs that she sent to 100 high schools and universities in California to support violence prevention efforts.

As the impact of ALVA grows, Brazeal is using the new Special Endowment Award to build servers better equipped to handle the massive amounts of data the Red cameras generate (two gigabytes per minute.)

“I tried to make it as future-proof as possible, but technology is always advancing by leaps and bounds,” said Brazeal, who is also buying new computers and smaller cameras that can be used in conjunction with the Reds, which output five times the resolution of HD.

“You would think a program like this would be at Harvard, or MIT, or UCLA, or USC,” said Matthew Ritenour (’13), who discovered anthropology in community college. He searched for a school to pursue his two passions—moviemaking and studying the physical and sociopolitical evolution of people across time, cultures, and environments.

“I believe the best program for doing (documentary) film is right here,” said Ritenour, who worked as a Foundation-funded ALVA employee after graduation.

His film Impact of the Frolic, which won a Northern California-area Emmy Award in 2015, is one of the 12 ALVA documentaries that have appeared on public television channels up and down California, Brazeal said. The goal of ALVA is to broaden the impact of anthropological research, which is open confined to undergraduate classrooms and academic journals.

“I’ll teach my whole life and I won’t teach a million people,” he said. “Through documentaries, someone sitting on their couch will get a taste of what anthropological research means.”


ALVA staff member Daniel Bruns (pictured here in the field) supervises production and post-production of films.
ALVA Laboratory Technician Dan Bruns shoots for “Treading Water”—a documentary on California’s water issues, directed by Jesse Dizard, chair of the anthropology department.






Dozens of student documentaries have been created, he said. Their work is incorporated into course curricula and used by community groups and schools to raise awareness of important topics, such as Sikhs in California, Hmong textiles, and the local Mechoopda tribe. Last year, Matt Purifoy (’16) created a film about drag queens, Putting on Face, which was screened at the 2016 International Ethnographic Film Festival of Quebec.

Boura says ALVA exemplifies the strong leadership, innovative education, and cross-campus collaboration in which the University is asking donors to invest.

Brazeal says ALVA has been supported by the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences (BSS), the College of Communication and Education (CME), and the University’s departments of Facilities Management and Services, Telecommunications Services, and Computing and Communications Services.

“In fact, it was Gayle Hutchinson who really created the institutional will to make this work,” Brazeal said of the University’s new president, who returned to campus in July 2016. As dean of BSS, she worked with the provost, the dean of CME, and the various department heads to put together the lab’s infrastructure.

He says the Special Endowment Award-funded upgrades to ALVA’s servers and video editing lab ensure that these cross-departmental efforts continue to give students world-class experiences.

“This is the promise a culture of philanthropy can deliver year after year,” said Boura, who explains why growing the number of endowments is a priority in Transform Tomorrow | The Campaign for Chico State. “By investing their gifts, donors give us the resources to change lives—not just today, but for generations.”

The Foundation board is composed of alumni, parents, and community leaders who serve because they care about the future of Chico State, said Mike Prime, chair of the board of governors.

“We believe students are the heart and soul of Chico State,” Prime said. “And that’s why the board is so committed to their success.”

Other 2016-2017 University Special Endowment Award projects included:

  • quantum optics equipment for physics education
  • tutoring for students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)
  • student grants for summer research
  • professional communications lab
  • library technology lending program
  • science guest lecture series
  • new technology for livestreaming campus events
  • engineering-student retention center
  • marketing materials to promote out-of-classroom learning opportunities
  • mentoring for underrepresented minorities in agriculture
  • student and faculty training in new audiovisual software
  • arts and humanities course development in digital skills
  • tutoring for underrepresented minorities in behavioral and social sciences
  • virtual technology to showcase the Chico Experience to prospective students
  • advanced sports medicine technology for student-athletes
  • expansion of free tutoring through the Student Learning Center
  • support for former foster youth at Chico State
  • faculty development funding