Interim Dean Leena Jayaswal knows the American University School of Communication (AU SOC) well. She came to AU as an undergraduate student, double majoring in Visual Media and Anthropology. Upon graduation, she became part of the SOC staff as its first manager of photographic services while teaching as an adjunct. Since then, she has served as term, tenure-track, and tenured faculty member, and is now full professor.
What has kept her at SOC? “I love our School,” says Jayaswal. “We are storytellers, we are truth tellers, we are innovators, we are change-makers.” She points to the fact that SOC was the first School at AU to have an Inclusion Officer, a role Jayaswal took on herself 2019-2022, when she was SOC’s Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs.
Jayaswal is also a practicing professional documentary filmmaker, award-winning photographer, and the director of SOC’s BA in photography, a program she built and launched in conjunction with the AU College of Arts and Sciences. Many AU students and alums praise the community created through the photo lab, and the unique skills and perspective acquired through Principals of Photography (COMM-300), where students use both 35mm and digital cameras to create black-and-white photos.
Her own photography and film work often deals with the intersections of being Indian and American. This work has been nationally recognized in galleries around the country, including solo shows at the Gandhi Memorial Center, and International Visions Gallery. Group shows include Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, The Washington Project for the Arts/ Corcoran Gallery of Art, Arlington Arts Center, Kathleen Ewing Gallery, Lexington Art League and the Studio Gallery.
Her award-winning films have been screened in various film festivals around the country. “Crossing Lines,” a film about an Indian American woman’s struggle to stay connected to India after the loss of her father, and her first visit to India and her extended family there after his passing. It was picked up for national distribution by NETA and has been broadcast on over 100 PBS affiliates across the country. The film has won numerous international and national awards including the prestigious Gracie Allen Award and is currently being distributed by New Day Films.
The representation and identity in Jayaswal’s work sends a message. “After interviewing Leena on the [Media In the Mix] podcast and having had the pleasure of being taught by her when I was a student, I've realized she embodies the definition of inclusive excellence as someone who is not afraid to speak her mind and share her story, but simultaneously always willing to listen,” said SOC video production coordinator Grace Ibrahim (BA ‘15/MA '19).
Jayaswal appreciates the collaborative atmosphere at SOC; she has developed multiple creative projects with colleagues. Her latest film, Mixed, a collaboration with SOC professor Caty Borum, explores what it means to be mixed-race in American, fifty years after the historic, landmark Supreme Court Decision, Loving v. Virginia, which made interracial marriage legal. In the early aughts, she and SOC professor Kylos Brannon partnered on a short documentary An Impression: Dischord Records, about the punk rock label and local DC institution. The two paired up again for Dreaming in Green, a short video about climate justice and brown and black communities. Conceptualized, produced and directed by Jayaswal and edited by Brannon, the film was selected from more than 100 entries to be part of the Smithsonian’s Futures Exhibition which marked the grand reopening of its Arts + Industry Building.
Since 2010, she and the SOC photography department have been partnering annually with SOC alum and former student Iwan Bagus, who now heads the Photography concentration at the University of the District of Columbia’s (UDC) Photography Department, on a joint exhibition. The theme always revolves around the celebration of homeland, identity, and diversity. This relationship has provided AU students the opportunity to co-create an exhibition, coordinate, install work in a gallery, and interact with students and faculty in photography programs around the DMV. The exhibition will continue while Jayaswal is interim dean under Assistant Director of Photography Shaun Schroth.
Jayaswal looks forward to the opportunity to forge new partnerships and experiential opportunities for SOC students in her new role, and hopes students won’t hesitate to seek her out if they have suggestions or concerns. “SOC has continued to be a leader because we don’t flinch in the face of change. Every industry we are preparing students to enter has transformed more than once in the last five years alone, and so have our courses and programs. I can’t wait to see what comes next.”