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Comic-Con For Educators: ‘It’s OK To Be Odd’ And Other Lessons For College

Higher education administrators talk on a panel in this undated photo.

Credit: Alfred Day

Above: Higher education administrators talk on a panel in this undated photo.

There is an unexpected thread running through several of the panels at Comic-Con this year: mental health. We talk with two panelists focusing on student well-being.

There is an unexpected thread running through several of the panels at Comic-Con this year: mental health. On Sunday, college administrators and psychologists and mental health professionals will talk about using comic book culture to battle stress on college campuses. Some universities are hosting mini Comic-Cons on campus and video game tournaments to help students connect.

KPBS spoke with two of the panelists. Alfred Day works with distressed students as director of case management for the University of California, Berkeley's student affairs office. Brent Crandal is a clinical psychologist and researcher with Rady Children's Hospital.

RELATED: Comic-Con For Educators: Ramona High Eases Into ‘The Odyssey’ With Graphic Novel

Q: Al, you're both going to be on a panel this week talking about the intersection of pop culture and the well-being of college students. Tell me about that.

Day: What we're trying to do is talk about the struggles that college students have, particularly around mental health, and how we have used and can use pop culture — comics, movies, TV shows — to really engage with students around these issues, and really get students to open up and seek help and maybe reduce some of the stigma around getting treatment for mental health.

Special Coverage: Comic-Con International San Diego

Q: Brent, you're a clinical psychologist. What kind of things are our university students running into these days, and is it different than what members of our audience may have run into?

Crandal: I think things change but maybe not as much as we (think). One of the things that students in a traditional college age are dealing with is their identity. Where do they belong? Who are their friends? And where do they feel like they are themselves? Pop culture, nerd culture, geek culture, that really resonates with people when they're trying to identify who they are, where their strengths are, and where their weakness are. What are their barriers — kind of their arch nemesis — what's out there preventing them from being the person that they want to be and growing to the potential that they see in themselves?

Q: Al, you work with students who are in distress. What are some of the strategies you're going to highlight this week?

Day: There's a lot of strategies we use. One of the things we talk about a lot is helping students find community. Oftentimes students are under stress because they're marginalized or isolated, and the things that they love aren't the things that other people love, or their interests, they seem to find no one who shares them. So one of the strategies we use is trying to help these students find community, help these students figure out that they're not isolated, that they're not alone. And even though they may feel weird or out of the ordinary, that there actually is a place for them, and we can help them find it. There's no real stigma anymore to being odd. It's OK to be odd.

Q: So things like game nights. And you mentioned that you have a lot of figurines and things like that in your office.

Day: Clearly I'm a nerd, too. I have, like, statues of Superman and Batman and several doctors from Dr. Who. What I try to do when a student comes in is I don't start right in with what's distressing them. I just start with a conversation, and often these statues and things are conversation starters. We may talk about Dr. Who for 15 minutes before we get to what's distressing them. And what happens in that 15 minutes is they get more comfortable with me, and they feel like I may have some understanding. So this really tends to open up conversation with a lot of my students.

Q: A lot of people might say these are kind of serious issues — we're talking about mental health. Is there a place to talk about mental health at Comic-Con?

Crandal: Absolutely. Nerds are very thoughtful people in general — if I can generalize a big group like that. And the thing about comics and media, we really put ourselves onto those things. Like a superhero, there's some aspect of that superhero that's more about me than the pages I'm reading. And so being able to use comics, it's not just an escape, it's really to know myself better and to grow myself. That's the role comics play for people whether they're aware of it or not. We're really thinking about how we can become more of that ideal person we want to be. Nerds are doing it all the time, whether they admit it. I think a lot of them do admit it, though, because they're thoughtful folks.

GeekEd Panels

GeekEd #1: Nerdentity

11 a.m. Sunday at the San Diego Central Library

Being a nerd is only one part of your identity. How race, culture, spirituality, background and other aspects of you intersect with your fandom identity is vital to understanding who you are and what makes you special. Education pros will give you insight into their own "Nerdentity," explore current identity issues in pop culture and show you how to utilize this intersection to serve students at your college or university. Panelists include Emily Sandoval (USC), Alex Belisario (UC Santa Cruz), Patricia Chau Nguyen (UCLA), Danny Slatkin (UCLA) and Brian Arao (UC Santa Cruz).

GeekEd #2: Shall We Play a Game?

Noon Sunday at the San Diego Central Library

"Play" is all around us, particularly at colleges and universities, and especially here at Comic-Con. But how often do people stop to realize how much "play" affects how they live? A panel of game scholars discuss how building better games, identifying the biases within them and the act of "play" helps people empathize with others and provides them with a guideline for this work on college campuses. Today's classroom environment demands that scholars not just implement but also understand the impacts of digital media. This panel of scholars will explore the intersection of games, learning and inclusivity in the context of curriculum development, activism, policy, history and game design. Panelists include Constance Steinkuehler (UC Irvine; Senior Policy Analyst, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy 2011-2012), Bonnie Ruberg (UC Irvine), Kurt Squire (UC Irvine), Amanda Cullen (UC Irvine) and Aaron Trammell (UC Irvine).

GeekEd #3: Caring for the Nerd Mind

1 p.m. Sunday at the San Diego Central Library

Teachers, education administrators and student affairs professionals are being called to respond to a wide variety of mental health concerns across the education landscape, with students today managing greater educational debt, digital identities and high expectations for academic performance. This panel of educators and mental health experts share how they have applied their passion for fandom and the lessons they've learned from superheroes to develop new best practices for promoting mental health in schools and on campuses. Panelists include Andrea Letamendi, Brent Crandal, Alfred Day (UC Berkeley), Adrian Perdue (UCLA) and Brian MacDonald (UCLA).

GeekEd #4: Comics in Secondary Education

2 p.m. Sunday at the San Diego Central Library

How can you bring your love of comics into your role as an educator, and how can you utilize comics to prepare students for college, not only academically but also socially? Teachers from California schools discuss incorporating comics, including Ms. Marvel, Batman, Maus, Persepolis and Pride of Baghdad, into English, world history, psychology and special education courses. Take students from the comics panel to the dormitory. Panelists include Jason Goldman-Hall (Pioneer High School), Alexander Hung-Diep (Andrew Hill High School), Jenny Kim (Pioneer High School), Courtney Arndt (Independence High School) and Michelle Kittel (Rocketship Academy).

Source: Comic-Con International

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