Release Date: 2/17/2012
University of the Ozarks is host to many student clubs and organizations of every sort, ranging in subject matter from fishing and shooting to politics and environmental awareness. There are clubs for most student interests. One of its most out of the ordinary is known simply as Ozarks Nerds.
"Ozarks Nerds began in 2008 as Ozarks Otakus, a club devoted to watching Japanese animation, known as anime," says Derek "Bill" Eldridge, president of the club. "At the time, anime was a lot more difficult to find than it is now, with Netflix and Hulu and other streaming media sources. There's even a site devoted specifically to steaming anime, called Crunchyroll. But back then it was much more scarce."
Eldridge said a second group, called Ozarks Tabletop Gaming Society, formed in fall 2010, having many of the same members as the Otakus, but focusing on various table games. This group eventually merged with the Otakus to become Ozarks Nerds.
"What happened was that we attended A-Kon® last summer," Eldridge said. "A-Kon was a game changer." A-Kon is a three day anime convention held annually in Dallas, Texas. First held in 1990, it is North America's longest running national anime convention.
The trip to Dallas introduced the animation enthusiasts not only to the world of anime fandom, but also to Mu Epsilon Kappa (MEK), a co-fraternal organization of nerd-interest oriented clubs which, according to its mission statement, "strives to create a safe and accepting environment of inter- and intra-cultural communication in which people are welcome to express themselves and explore their interests without fear of ridicule or persecution."
Eldridge said the convention trip has proven beneficial to the group in multiple ways, and they have received funding to attend again this year. "The good we bring back to the U is tangible," he explained. "For example, a number of the panels at A-Kon are writing panels; a couple of members who attended last year's panels have been called on by other clubs to bring in their expertise. The two writing clubs on campus relied on info we brought back to get started."
One of the most helpful panels they attended, he said, was one done by Mu Epsilon Kappa on how to start and grow student organizations. "Because anime is fairly easy to get access to now, MEK tells people that what anime clubs need to do if they want to survive is to grow beyond the idea of just sitting around watching cartoons. You have to emphasize the community aspect, the experience itself. As a result, the Otakus and the tabletop gaming society merged so that we can offer a more all-inclusive community. That's worked very well so far, and the lessons could be applied to any sort of club or group."
As a result of reorganization, Eldridge said, the club has had not only the largest group of incoming freshmen members this year than ever before, but also the largest group of regular attendees. "Our group usually retains about two new freshmen per year," he said. "This year we've retained half a dozen. Obviously you always have more people attending the first meeting of any group than will continue to attend. Also, we have the biggest attendance for A-Kon planned than we've ever had. Every single member is planning to attend. So the stuff we've learned from the trip last year has basically shaped us into the group we are today."
Eldridge added that as a business major he has learned valuable lessons from the growth of the anime industry in the United States. "When it all started," he said, "there were several big U.S. companies translating and distributing Japanese animation here and to other English-speaking companies. But over time they all lost out to a small competitor, FUNimation, because FUNimation adhered to the principles we are taught here: they developed a core group of solid employees, voice workers who do the English voices on their projects; they were willing to take any kind of work they could get in the beginning; and they listened to their customer base and followed their suggestions. You listen to your customer base as if your life depends on it, because it does. The history of this company teaches us that if you take care of your customers, your customers will take care of you."
And what exactly are nerds? Isn't that a derogatory term? Eldridge laughs. "It is another one of those extremely disparaging words for someone who doesn't fit the cookie cutter mold," he says. "The high school social spectrum can be harsh, and 'nerd' is a high school word that has spread into popular culture. However, in our modern Internet Age, we nerds have taken the word back and made it our own. Nerd Pride!"