Interactive Profiles: Student Searching for Newest Niche

Paul Wagner finds niches. He's built a career on identifying a target audience and giving it the products it wants. He's a savvy businessman, who's worked as a greeting card writer, product developer and, out of necessity, a storyteller because in the business world, he says, you have to spin a tale if you're going to sell a product.

Paul Wagner

But at 62 and after more than 30 years of business experience, Wagner decided to leave his most recent job at Carolina Pad and re-enroll in Elon University’s Interactive Media master’s program. Why? Well, because of that whole niche thing.

“I see this interactive media program and the lights to go on,” says Wagner, the program’s oldest student. “Wow, here’s something that is being done that is not very ordinary and not very common. I think Elon has the opportunity, as any business does, to be the first in a category, and that’s what I like to do. What’s exciting to an entrepreneurial, creative person is when you see a niche opportunity, when you see that opening, and you see that nobody’s put a name to it.”

Wagner’s first foray into higher education netted him a bachelor’s degree in theatre from Miami University of Ohio, a master’s degree in speech communications and performance studies from the University Cincinnati and a doctorate education in performance studies from Southern Illinois University. But he left SIU before completing his dissertation to find a steady job that could provide for him and his family.

Now, Wagner says, seems like the perfect time to re-engage academically, so he’s begun the one-year, full-time iMedia program that will prepare him and his classmates to think strategically across media platforms; plan and create interactive media content consisting of text, images, sounds, video and graphics; and manage information for interactive news, entertainment and persuasive communications.

Students will learn from award-winning professors, build their own interactive media projects in state-of-the-art facilities and help chart the future of media communication.

So back to the niche for a moment. Where is it? What does Wagner see in this program that he can implement after graduation?

“You’ve got a turned-on world,” Wagner says. “It seems to me you could do the same in the classroom. Here you are, coming out of high school. Your whole life is texting, that’s all you do. Now you can take that and use it in the classroom, and I don’t think a lot of that is going on. Somebody has to manage that, somebody has to pull that together. That’s a whole new career for people.”

Wagner decries the “chalk-and-talk method” of teaching, and he hopes he can find a job in academia helping teachers design lesson plans and curricula that are interactive and more interesting to students. And, he says, maybe it gets him a teaching job at a college somewhere, too.

“I can get a fresh master’s in a category that’s very dynamic, and I think there’s an opportunity here to take content and make it more interesting,” Wagner says. “You don’t have to be a calculus expert to help the math instructor visualize calculus.”

Wagner says he became aware of Elon’s iMedia program while he was working at Carolina Pad, a company he helped increase profits from $20 million to $90 million by the time he left. During his time at Carolina Pad and in his previous jobs at Hallmark and with importers, Wagner says he’s produced and sat through endless PowerPoint presentations. And the process of listening and learning via bullet points became stagnant.

Wagner wanted to do more, so he attended the iMedia open house. There, he sat through another PowerPoint presentation, when it dawned on him that he needed to get back into a classroom. On his drive back home to Charlotte, he decided it was time to go back to school.

So he quit his job at Carolina Pad and made the move to Elon.

“Without exception, every one (of his coworkers) responded with a little bit of jealousy because they look at me and realize their lives are way too complicated to do such a thing,” he says.

He says he’ll go home to Charlotte on the weekends to see his wife. His daughter is married and lives out of state. But he’s invested in the iMedia program full-time, he says, because he’s excited and invigorated about the post-grad prospects.

“I think there’s an opportunity here,” Wagner says. “If I could become an expert in this category, maybe even Elon would talk to me about a job someday. But if not Elon, maybe UNC-Charlotte, maybe some other universities that want that interactive ability. I can’t even think about retiring. The thought of retiring, it doesn’t translate. I can’t even think about it. What the heck would I do? So I’m just going for the next step. To me, this is just the next job. I see a niche. Let’s go after it.”

This is the final part in the Interactive Profile series.

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