Happiness to be focus of film for Washburn student

Chris Neal/The Capital-Journal Avery Stratton, 20, a junior majoring in mass media with an emphasis on film, will be participating in Washburn University’s “Semester at Sea” study abroad program from September to December.

Defining happiness and determining whether one has found it can be a subjective journey. Avery Stratton will soon find out how people from several different cultures around the world define the sometimes elusive emotion.


“Everywhere I travel, I have a camera in hand,” Stratton said. “Since I’m going to so many distinct places with different cultures and norms, I wanted to know what’s one thing that ties everyone together; that’s happiness. I want to see what people all around the world think happiness is, but then to juxtapose it with American culture and see how different it might be.”

As a junior majoring in mass media with an emphasis on film, Stratton, 20, will be participating in Washburn University’s “Semester at Sea” study abroad program. She and fellow Washburn film student Madeleine Switzer, 20, leave the United States on Sept. 6 and head to Germany. From there, they will visit Spain, South Africa, India and several countries in Asia, including China, Vietnam and Japan. The trip will conclude Dec. 23 in San Diego.

Stratton said she’s become much more aware of “compulsory consumerism” in the past couple of years and wants to see how that impacts one’s own happiness.

“It sounds trite, but people believe that money can buy happiness,” she said, “and that material objects equate to happiness.”

While Stratton’s film will be about how people in other cultures define their own happiness, Switzer said her film will focus on empowerment.

“I want to know what inspires people to get out of bed every morning and go to work every day, and why they do what they do,” said the native of St. Louis, Mo. “I’m a feminist. I believe in women and I believe in people. I’ve thought about how empowerment helps me do the things I do.”

Stratton said she’s been fortunate to have a family who has supported her own pursuit of happiness. As a senior at Washburn Rural High School in 2015, she collaborated with three classmates who entered a short documentary, “Kodak in the Congo,” in that year’s Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes competition. The film was about Seeley Harris who photographed the suffering of the Congolese people who were tortured while harvesting rubber for the Belgian King Leopold II in the early 1900s.

Stratton said it was then her love and passion for documentary filmmaking began to grow. While she enrolled at Washburn as a pre-med student to later become a neurosurgeon, something she had grown up believing she would someday become, Stratton said she changed her major 11 days later with her family’s support.

“They wanted me to do what was going to make me happy,” she said. “They were very welcoming to the idea. That made it easy for me.”

Tina Williams, Washburn University’s study abroad coordinator, said the university has been a “Semester at Sea” affiliate for about the past 10 years and an estimated 15 students have participated in the program. She said the rigorous program is just like a semester on campus, with classes taught by professors and other faculty with required coursework.

“It’s like a small community that travels around the world,” she said. “When you come back, people aren’t just dots on a map anymore. It helps build global relationships around the world. It really is an all-inclusive program.”

The program is much more expensive than a traditional semester on campus, and requires scholarships and other financial aid.

Stratton and Switzer said they will be putting their documentaries together during the spring 2018 semester with the goal of showing their films to Washburn and community groups. For more information about Stratton’s trip, go to www.hashtaghappyfilm.com. For more information about Washburn’s study abroad programs, go to washburn.studioabroad.com.


Contact reporter Angela Deines at (785) 295-1143 or follow her on Twitter @AngelaDeines.