A little confidence can go a long way. For teammates David Sonnier and Sky McMillian of SOWELA Technical Community College in Lake Charles, La., it came in the form of a gold medal in Television (Video) Production at the 2017 SkillsUSA Championships.
“It gave us the confidence that we were lacking to really put ourselves out there,” Sonnier says. “You come and you compete in something at this caliber and you win, and then you know.”
McMillian agrees.“It’s just kind of like validation in the back of your mind,” he adds. “You know that you can be put under pressure and still produce something that can be a national win.”
This victory led to all sorts of things for the two competitors, including the idea to start their own production company, SWLA Media. Most startups like this begin with small jobs for local clients as they work to build a reputation. McMillian and Sonnier — thanks to the reputation their gold medal had already earned them — began with a project for Country Music Television (CMT).
CMT’s “Empowering Education Tour” was designed to bolster the network’s nationwide efforts to help students further their education and develop their skills. When SOWELA was chosen as one of eight tour stops in the state, McMillian and Sonnier were brought in to help produce some supporting media.
Before a concert held on the school’s campus, “we had to conduct student-success interviews about how SOWELA impacted students’ lives and how it helped guide them,” Sonnier says. “We edited the video, did the voice-over, all that fun stuff, and then CMT showed it at the actual event and ran it on their social media.” Not too shabby for an early client.
Darrell Buck, the students’ SkillsUSA advisor and graphic arts instructor, wasn’t surprised by the quick success. “They’ve done extremely well for themselves,” he says. “If there’s one thing these guys have excelled at, it’s doing more than the basic requirements, not being satisfied with ‘just enough.’ The ones who do ‘just enough’ to pass don’t make it.”
Both Sonnier and McMillian have made some detours while trying to find their current path. McMillian has loved video editing since he was 12, but he enrolled in SOWELA to study process technology. “I knew that would be where the money was [in my area],” he says, “but that wasn’t really what I wanted to do. One day, something in my head kind of snapped, and I changed my major.”
Sonnier has a background in musical theater. When he secured a production assistant job on the TV show “Salem” (which ran on the WGN network in 2013-16), he hoped to become an actor. “I then realized I liked the production aspect way more,” he says. He entered SOWELA to pursue his new passion.
‘You never know what will happen’
In 2018, the students returned to the national Television (Video) Production competition. This time, they earned silver, another impressive addition to their ever-growing résumés. SWLA Media, however, is about to become a past-tense entry on both.
McMillian has graduated and continues to work as a video editor, with SOWELA now one of his clients. Sonnier is in his final year at the school and will once again be competing at the national level this summer, but this time alone and in Photography. His work has already been published internationally, and he’s even photographed a few celebrities, including Chris Hernandez of the “America’s Next Top Model” TV show.
While the professional partnership is ending, lessons both students learned from SkillsUSA continue to guide them. They realize it wasn’t just that first gold medal that built a skyscraper of confidence. Their involvement in SkillsUSA had already laid the foundation.
“Absolutely it did,” McMillian confirms. “[Mr. Buck] really pushed me to compete. He said, ‘If this is what you want to do, you should really try to compare yourself to other people so you can learn from the experience.’ ”
Sonnier agrees, adding, “SkillsUSA has changed my life. Once I knew I had what it took to achieve my goals, it was easy to dive in head first.”
Any advice for other students? “Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself,” McMillian offers. “It took me two semesters to drum up the courage to join [SkillsUSA]. Be confident in your abilities. You never know what will happen. For us, it worked out beautifully.”