"When I started college, I had the expectation of doing the two years at Penn State Altoona and two years at University Park. But, toward the end of my sophomore year, I had this change of heart."
In high school, Gabe Hayes decided he wanted a career in information sciences and technology. And while he had no problem with the program at Penn State Altoona, the further he got into it, the more he was sure it wasn't right for him. Instead, Hayes felt pulled toward art, his true passion. He considered moving right into a visual art studies major but didn't want to regret two years studying IST.
Turning to some of his advisers and professors for advice and direction, Hayes was pointed toward Penn State Altoona's Letters, Arts, and Sciences (LAS) program, which allows students to tailor their course of study to meet their goals and interests. Students develop their own program that combines at least three different academic areas.
Suddenly, a new realm of opportunity and possibility shimmered before Hayes' eyes. After careful consideration, Hayes chose visual arts, English, and IST to form his course of study—artistic storytelling through digital media. "It was so refreshing. Once I started LAS, so many classes were available: English courses for creative writing and storytelling, art classes to express and hone my artistic abilities, IST for my digital interests. I loved not having to settle for just one area."
Hayes hadn't wanted to settle for a minimum academic workload, either, enrolling in the Honors Program as a first-year student. Honors students must take, on average, one Honors Section or Honors Option per semester. To fulfill that requirement, Hayes registered for ART 465: Individual Approaches I in fall 2020.
In this course, he was able to put the principles of LAS into practice. The course is taught by Rebecca Strzelec, Distinguished Professor of visual arts and program coordinator of the Visual Art Studies (VAST) program. "While Gabe isn't a VAST student, since it is a senior-level VAST course, I treated him like one," says Strzelec. That meant pushing him hard during class and requiring him to produce a physical piece for a senior project, something that incorporated all three of his LAS focuses.
In working through some ideas, Hayes recalled a mini-comic he'd once created. What if he could turn that into a full-length, published, printed graphic novel?
"I've always been into comics, but I'd never completed one of my own. The challenge of going with it as my project was I had about five months to pull it off—the writing, the art, and the publishing process. Quite an undertaking, but one I wanted to see if I could accomplish."
Hayes had some characters he'd already developed, inspired by his love of Dungeons & Dragons, including Damian Drost, who would be the protagonist of the graphic novel. Settling on a modern fantasy theme, the next step to tackle was the storyline. He found himself struggling to get the ideas in his head onto paper, to come up with a cohesive plot. Hayes was taking a creative writing class with Todd Davis, professor of English and environmental studies, so he took his broad ideas to Davis for help.
"He was instrumental in guiding me. The final story is very much inspired by those ideas he gave me, and I'm thankful for him." Hayes also took suggestions and critiques from his girlfriend, classmates, and Strzelec, who pushed him to make the visual elements fresh and relevant to the current world.
Strzelec was also credited with helping Hayes fulfill the Honors Program component of the project, which was to complete consultations on his work and career development with four professionals. Strzelec connected him with a Ph.D. candidate in library science working with graphic novels, a local comic shop owner, a member of Disney Imagineering, and an FX network supervisor for film and television.
Hayes welcomed the career advice each of the four professionals offered but was especially encouraged by their praise and helpful feedback for the graphic novel.
Transmission was published through Blurb in January 2021. Hayes points out his success did not happen in a vacuum. Having access to so many different professors and industry professionals was invaluable throughout the production process. He knows it will continue to be as he pursues a career as a video game concept artist and perhaps grows a Transmission story arc.
"Because of LAS, I've had exposure to a lot of different disciplines and viewpoints, more than if I had been just a VAST major or just an English major. LAS made me more well-rounded and more open-minded."
Sandra Petrulionis, the LAS program coordinator, says Hayes is a perfect example of how the LAS program can enhance the undergraduate experience for a motivated student whose interests encompass more than one subject. Students pursuing LAS often end up adding it as a second major since some of the credits in their primary major can double count. Graduating then with both a B.A. and a B.S. looks impressive on a resume and allows students to gain a more robust undergraduate education.
"LAS truly is a path that lets students take ownership of their studies and design an academic program that allows them to get creative, to select their major courses rather than follow a prescribed plan, and to be highly marketable when they graduate." Petrulionis goes on to say that many Penn State Altoona LAS alumni are working in satisfying careers, and many have gone to graduate school. "When they get in touch, it's to let me know that majoring in LAS was the best decision they ever made."
Hayes is slated to graduate in May and is optimistic about his future and career.
"Having a fully-finished graphic novel under my belt is a very good thing. It helps define me as an artist. It's something I can show to prospective employers and say, 'this is what I've done. This is what I can do.' LAS allowed me to formulate the best possible future for myself. It's an amazing option, and I'm so thankful I found it."