An award-winning documentary filmmaker, the work of Communication Professor Laura Vazquez brings into clear focus some of society’s most pressing issues, including the plight of homeless families, the often cloaked issue of college sexual assault and the challenges facing people with disabilities.
Yet the lines between her passions for filmmaking, student engagement and classroom teaching are intentionally blurred.
Ned Eckhardt, a professor of radio, television and film at Rowan University in New Jersey, notes that Vazquez’s documentary work has been included in the Smithsonian, showcased in more than 20 film festivals in four countries and broadcast on PBS, network and cable television stations.
NIU “has what is considered one of the better documentary programs in the United States, and the reason is Professor Vazquez,” Eckhardt says. “To sustain the excellence and impact her documentaries have made, while teaching and mentoring students to parallel success, is extraordinary.”
Vazquez has been the recipient of numerous awards for her works, including her 2010 film, “on the edge: Family Homelessness in America.” Four years in the making with Diane Nilan, a nationally known advocate for the homeless, “on the edge” received top honors for faculty documentaries in the prestigious Broadcast Education Association’s 2011 Festival of Media Arts competition.
The film was shown around the country and even at a Congressional hearing. Of course, Vazquez’s students were involved in production, including one who received valuable experience as the rough-cut editor.
Just recently, Vazquez and her students partnered with four other universities to launch a national movement to prevent campus sexual assaults. Dubbed Pact5, the effort uses student-made films, including two by groups of NIU students, to deliver powerful behavior-changing messages to young people.
A collaborator to the core, Vazquez helped develop courses that give opportunities to students in business, theater and dance to use media as a communication tool. She and her students produced videos on people with disabilities for faculty member Greg Long to use in his open online course “Perspectives on Disability.” She is helping establish a project on poverty and inequality that would result in new courses and research opportunities.
Since 2001, Vazquez has hosted the Reality Bytes Film Festival. Held each spring at NIU, the fest draws student-made films from across the globe and features industry professionals who motivate students to aspire to media careers.
Vazquez’s NIU students have garnered their own share of honors in fests and competitions nationwide. Over the past decade, 16 student-made documentaries produced under her supervision have won awards.
The professor’s efforts to engage NIU students also have allowed them to rub shoulders with the film industry’s elite. In 2006, Vazquez and six students traveled to Hollywood, where they worked with producer and NIU alumnus Robert Katz on “Slipstream,” an independent film written and directed by Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins. (He also starred in the film.)
Despite a dizzying schedule, Vazquez is active nationally in film organizations and on campus in service and leadership roles. A vocal advocate of diversity, she served as chair of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, as well as on the Higher Learning Commission Steering Committee.
She teaches and has developed numerous courses in media theory and production. And her students have gone on to successful careers in the media and film industry, as well as in higher education.
“Through her encouragement, I learned how to use my voice and become an advocate,” says Kacy Abeln, now a speech instructor and forensics coach at Kishwaukee College. “I strive to inspire my students in the same way she inspired me.”