They had no idea what they were getting into when they enrolled in a pilot documentary filmmaking class at Villanova University in January.
One clue could have been their professor telling them on the first day that they should aim to meet Academy Awards standards "just in case."
The goal sounded simple: Tell a story with film (in one semester) about positive change in the Philadelphia area.
But 15 English, political science, communications, and engineering majors, many without previous film experience, did more than make a social-justice documentary.
"This class changed my life," said Trish Campbell, the film's line producer, echoing the sentiments of her classmates.
Oh yes, they are going after the Academy Awards, too.
The documentary, Price of Life, which has been screened in Los Angeles and Philadelphia and is scheduled to hit film festivals across the country, stars Robert Ali Childs, 38, a reformed street hustler.
Child's penetrating story is told in three acts: childhood, street life, his turnaround. Childs grew up in South Philadelphia surrounded by the violence and false glamour of an open-air drug market and was selling drugs at 13.
His father was part of that lifestyle. "Everything about my dad wasn't bad," he says in the film. "The things that were bad were really bad."
Years of crime and jail time took their toll. In 2002 Childs turned his life around with the help of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Comprehensive Center for Fathers, which mentors men to be better fathers.
He laments, though, that he hasn't been able to save his son from the streets. Robert Ali Childs IV, who was born in 1989, just before Childs graduated from South Philadelphia High School, is in prison for robbery.
Flashy cars, high-stakes dice games, and beckoning women make street hustling and killing seem the means to an end for disadvantaged young men, Childs said.
"What made that OK was that none of y'all really liked us anyways," Childs said, explaining how they justified violence. "Our perception of society was like, 'Y'all hate our guts. Y'all don't even know us, but you hate us. Just right off the bat, just being black men. Y'all hate us."
For 10 years, the center has provided men with mentors, legal counseling, job training and placement, and a support system through its fraternity, Delta Alpha Delta Sigma.
The organization's head mentor, Muhammad Shakur, is no stranger to Philadelphia thug life.
"The price of life is worth, on the streets, zero," Shakur says in the movie. "And you have to have a certain attitude to be in that environment, but it doesn't just start when someone gives you a gun. It preps you long before that."
That's the kind of thinking that Childs now works to dispel as an outreach worker for the center.
For Villanova student Julie Crane, Childs' story "personified all the things you hear about" and showed her that life is determined by circumstances, she said.
"It takes away a lot of the blame you may not even realize you have in your mind," said Crane, a film writer who grew up in Fort Washington.
The student-produced, 39-minute film premiered May 1 on Villanova's campus after 15 weeks of round-the-clock work. A documentary of that scale could take more than a year, said Dan Hunt, the professor who issued the Oscar challenge.
"I think we redefined all-nighters," said Ryan Mahoney, a student editor and camera operator.
Hunt opened his home as the editing studio. The students spent weekends and spring break eating mac-and-cheese and hot dogs prepared by his fiance, Patti Paller.
Camera and sound operators missed class to go on shoots. Editors worked through the 30 hours of footage. Writers outlined story boards with sticky notes on Hunt's dining room wall.
Even the music was performed and produced by two students, playing keyboards, bass, and guitar.
The documentary filmmaking class was the brainchild of Stephen McWilliams, a Villanova administrator with a theater background who also teaches a few classes each semester. He rallied Hunt and O'Leary to join. He wanted students to "not just make a documentary, but have kids get involved with the social problem itself."
And that's what happened.
"Questions were being answered. Barriers were being broken," said Kofi Asante, who heads the men's group and who was at first apprehensive about a group of mostly white students trying to tell a black man's story. But he was convinced of their sincerity after the first interview. "The cross-cultural experience was phenomenal on both ends, for the students and for the men in the program," he said.
When the class was first offered, professors had to recruit students to enroll.
Since the film's screening, next spring's class has a 100-student waiting list.
O'Leary is now working to establish a social-justice documentary institute at Villanova. There is also an effort with the Philadelphia School District to show the film to students as a prevention tool, a prospect that pleases Childs.