December 14, 2023

Featured Falcons: Kaley Martin and DeAndra Hodge

Whether it’s in the classroom or on stage at College Night, students at the University of Montevallo have a chance to collaborate creatively in many ways — but that doesn’t stop after graduation. Two UM alumni, Kaley Martin and DeAndra Hodge, have teamed up to produce the creative assets for an interactive story-style game to support the mental health of college athletes that will live on the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) website.

DeAndra Hodge Kaley MartinSince earning her bachelor’s degree in mass communication focused in broadcast production from UM in 2016 and her master’s degree in strategic communication and innovation from Texas Tech University in 2019, Martin has made a splash in the content creation field. She won a Southeast Emmy Award for her work on the “Where Legends Are Made” series during her time as the senior creative producer and editor in the Division of Strategic Communications at The University of Alabama. Her career path brought her back to the bricks in fall of 2023 to serve as an instructor in the Mass Communication Program.

“I had worked at UM before, and my husband and I both loved the community and the atmosphere,” Martin said. “I had interviewed at a couple different schools and gotten a few different offers. Once the position opened at Montevallo, I had to come home. It’s so rare to get to come back to the place that shaped you.”

Martin is currently working toward a Ph.D. in Communication & Information Sciences from UA, where she was recruited by a research team that, in partnership with Michigan State University, received a $35,000 Innovations in Research and Practice Grant from the NCAA. The two schools are collaborating on a year-long research project called “Interactive Narratives for Mental Health: Sharing Stories of Success” to examine the mental health challenges that student-athletes face in their daily lives.

“Dr. Scott Parrott and Dr. Shaheen Kanthawala are both my doctoral advisors, so we’d already been doing research together for three years,” Martin said. “When the NCAA grant call went out, I had just finished an animation project at UA and Dr. Parrott said if they got the grant, he’d like it to have some sort of creative, animated element and that he would love for me to do that.”

After meeting with focus groups of student-athletes from both schools to discuss their mental health needs and concerns, the research team used that data to craft storyboards for a choose-your-adventure style game that will help student-athletes make informed decisions when managing their mental well-being. It is projected to launch on the NCAA website in March 2024.

Martin reached out to Min Sun Lee, associate professor of art and director of UM’s Graphic Design Program, in hopes of finding a young alum with character design experience to bring on board to help her with the creative assets for the project. Lee connected her to Hodge, who graduated from UM in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in fine art.

“I stay in contact with Min because she’s always been such a great mentor to me,” Hodge said. “We were chatting one day, and she told me if I was open for another project, I should consider this. Anything where I get to draw a bunch of characters and pretty much have total artistic freedom is great, so I said I would love to.”

Hodge got her career start in the graphic design field, which took her to Washington, D.C., just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. She did illustration on the side as a stress relief from her job. Christy Ewers, a children’s book illustration agent from The CAT Agency, reached out to her after seeing her art on social media.

“I definitely thought it was a scam,” Hodge laughed. “The idea of being paid to draw anything, you’re told it’s a pipe dream a lot of the time. But I dipped my toe in anyway, and as soon as she announced me, I got a bunch of offers. So far, I’ve worked on at least 10 books.”

In May 2022, Hodge left her graphic design job to take on freelance illustration and character design full time. She is most known for illustrating both the “Kid Confident” and “That Girl Lay Lay” book series, and has worked with clients like Scholastic, Nickelodeon and Café Bustelo. Her upcoming book illustration projects include “Beyond the Game: Athletes Change the World,” a nonfiction series about athletes who have made a difference in the world beyond sports, and “Yvonne Clark and her Engineering Spark,” a picture book about Yvonne Y. Clark, a pioneer for African-American and women engineers.

Hodge and Martin used the storyboards from the research team to choose what kind of stories to center the game around, such as student-athletes dealing with injuries, balancing their schedules and navigating their social lives. In the choose-your-adventure game format, players will be presented with different scenarios and choices that will affect the outcome of the storyline differently.

Hodge is illustrating the characters and static backgrounds for the interactive game, while Martin will be using her motion graphic and animation experience to make the characters move. Hodge said she took inspiration from interactive dating simulation video games that she enjoyed playing to de-stress during college.

“Typically, the backgrounds and character models are the same, but they change their expression based on certain answers that you give,” Hodge said. “So, I could make a bunch of set backgrounds and character models with different expression sheets. That way, regardless of what story we come up with, Kaley will have enough assets to be able to mix and match the story and the outcomes to match whatever expression the character is making or whatever the character is doing.”

Martin hopes that the game will help break stigmas and barriers that prevent student-athletes from getting help and that they will learn about resources available to them on campus.

“Many of them work under this mentality that mental stress is just part of the game,” Martin said. “But it’s just encouraging them to understand that it’s not part of the game and that you can talk to your counselor. You can seek help from your coaches, your advisors, your professors and your campus community. We want them to give themselves a little grace.”