A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Real World Classroom Thrives at SUNY Ulster

When Keith Roosa, owner of Roosa Bee Honey Farm, first started meeting with the Real World Classroom he revealed his five-year business vision while handing out honey samples. The class of second year SUNY Ulster students listened and learned all about bees; they learned about Roosa in order to craft a branding campaign for his Wallkill-based honey business.

SUNY Ulster’s “Real World Classroom” model is increasing enrollment, retention, graduation, and transfer rates in the graphic design program, while also improving students’ employment potential and giving back to the community. This transformational reality-based approach to learning makes no distinction between the lecture halls and the world outside the college walls.
“It’s a two-way, win-win client-student relationship where everyone is a teacher,” said Sean Nixon, assistant professor of art and graphic design program coordinator at SUNY Ulster. “Our Real World Classroom accelerates the learning process and inspires learning and creative problem solving.”
Conceived by Nixon in 2004 from his own professional and educational experiences learning on the job and teaching as a graphic designer in New York City, Nixon began developing classes for his students that solve real life design problems.
He brought the first real “clients” before students in 2005 and the program took off from there. It has since become a model for the SUNY system that’s gotten the attention of Chancellor Nancy Zimpher and garnered national media coverage.
Each semester students meet with clients ranging from nonprofits to individuals and work with them, under the supervision of Nixon in a design firm format, to offer a portfolio of pro-bono design solutions.
The branding campaign for Roosa Bee Farm included the design and creation of a label for the honey bottles, a bottle tag, and the development of design elements for a new website. After working closely with the design students throughout the fall semester to come up with rough designs, then more refined ideas of what he was looking for, Roosa chose the final designs of Samantha P. McKnight. Although McKnight’s design concepts will go on the bottles, the entire classroom benefited from the experience as each of their concepts was adjusted, changed, and improved.
A benefit of working with this group of fine art/design students, most with an advertising photo foundation, is the fact that it’s a collective of young people who know about modern culture—it’s a sounding board as opposed to a couple of advertising reps.
Nixon stresses that presentation is everything. Although he and the students spend a lot of time behind the scenes discussing concepts and making adjustments, when it comes time to present to a client, the presentation must speak for itself. And ultimately, the bottle design that students will see on local supermarket shelves must try to appeal to every customer who walks by it—it’s a very real world experience.
This branding and identity creates a professional image for Roosa and allows his business to make ripples in the local economy. For example, now that his designs have been finalized, he will go to a local printer to move forward with his labels and marketing materials. More people will be attracted, by design, to his honey, which leads to more visitors to Wallkill and the local shops.
Clients have ranged from land trusts and affordable housing groups to musicians, authors, restaurants, and financial planners who may need a new logo, CD or book cover, or storefront design. In today’s economy, the in-kind services students are providing have become particularly valuable to cash-strapped clients who wouldn’t be able to afford them otherwise.
“What we are doing directly contributes to the economy of the county and quality of life as a design stimulus,” Nixon said. “We are a resource to the community. We also want to be an inspiration for other disciplines across campus, institutions, and organizations in the society to do the same.”
Nixon believes the Real World Classroom can be applied to any area of study and should become commonplace in higher education to prepare students for the global world we live in today. 
In this “classroom that never sleeps,” students might spend a day at the bookstore roaming the shelves and perusing cover designs, checking out the grocery packaging or store layout, and seeing firsthand how publications are created at the printing press.
Students have plenty of opportunity to showcase their work in exhibits, secure internships, enter design competitions, and network with artists and designers from art organizations in the region, enhancing their marketability when they enter the job market. They culminate their studies with a design project that is shown in an off-campus public exhibition in a professional art gallery.
To date, about 50 students have graduated from Nixon’s Real World Classroom program, enrollments have increased, and students are succeeding because what they are doing has meaning in the outside world, he says.
If you’re looking for a glimpse of what the college experience of the future will look like, Nixon believes it’s happening right here at SUNY Ulster and that others will follow and also make the world their 24-7 classroom.
“This work is unusual and on a very high level for second year students,” notes Nixon. “It takes a lot of hard work and dedication on the part of the students to achieve.”
After one class when Roosa walked back and forth choosing design elements that he liked, leaving behind ones he didn’t, one student said, “It’s like being picked for the dodge ball team in gym.”
For information on the Real World Classroom, contact Sean Nixon at SUNY Ulster, (845) 688-1588, nixons@sunyulster.edu.
For a look at students’ design solutions for a local client in the Real World Classroom:
youtube.com/watch?v=5pT_25cdigk&feature=related
Watch Nixon leading his class outside the traditional classroom:
youtube.com/watch?v=xIxug_6OAY4&feature=related
The final design (Large R) is by Samantha P. McKnight and second choice (dripping honeycombs) by Christopher Groelle.