Learning Los Angeles

Six students arrive with dreams of careers in this sun-splashed capital of creativity. Can four days with LA insiders help them see their path forward?

By Martina Ibañez-Baldor

The Los Angeles immersion of six Marquette digital media students includes a deep dive inside the studios of E! News where Rebekah Ingraham, a 2003 alumna (seated), oversees program production as a senior line producer. From left, the students are Connor Cacciotolo, Haley Veres, Alessandria Rhines, Hannah Kirby, Michael Hendricks and Isaac Vineburg. Assistant professor Dr. Amanda Keeler (right) accompanied them every step of the way.

It’s an unusually chilly January morning, by Los Angeles standards. The few people walking around Loyola Marymount University’s campus, green with its signature hill, this early on a Sunday are bundled up in jackets and winter hats. Yet on one edge of the green, a black SUV parks and six students walk out wearing short sleeves and sun dresses. They’re not from around here.

The students are upperclassmen studying digital media and broadcast journalism in the Diederich College of Communication. Selected based on essays they’ve written and other application materials to take part in the college’s first “LA Experience,” they’ll spend four days and evenings meeting Marquette alumni from film and television in the settings where they work and network. With their hopes set on working in LA postgraduation, the sextet is eager to learn from insiders in the field before making the cross-country move.

Dr. Kimo Ah Yun, dean of the Diederich College of Comm, was inspired to commission the trip after meeting Joel Andryc, Sp ’79, managing director of Saban Capital Group, an investor in entertainment ventures ranging from Univision to the Power Rangers franchise. That was in May 2016, in one of a series of meetings Ah Yun took before formally starting as dean a month later. Ah Yun was impressed by the vision, drive and generosity Andryc had shown in founding Marquette Entertainment and Communication Alumni, a 3-year-old group that helps alumni in those industries serve as mentors to recent Marquette graduates pursuing careers in Los Angeles.

Suddenly at their meeting, Andryc and Ah Yun were discussing what it’d take to involve current students in a compressed form of this LA networking and mentoring. “My visit revealed that the LA basin has exceptionally gifted, successful and giving Marquette alums,” recalls Ah Yun. “How could we fail if we invited some of our best students to meet with some of our best alums?”

Launching the LA Experience — or at least beginning to plan it — became one of Ah Yun’s first actions as dean. And as the fall temperatures dropped in Milwaukee, and Andryc helped fill up the experience’s planned itinerary with opportunities such as dinner meetings with accomplished producers and agents, and guided tours of television sets, Ah Yun came to view it as a pilot for something bigger. He started working on how to launch similar Diederich Experiences in other cities, each connecting motivated students with alumni in a field such as advertising, corporate communication or theatre.

As the LA-bound students huddled around a conference table in his office for final instructions just before winter break, the dean didn’t hide his high expectations. “If you return from this trip with less than 12 alumni contacts — people you can pick up the phone and call about a job opportunity,” he told them, hitting them with both a serious gaze and encouraging smile, “I’m going to be disappointed.”

“I’m looking forward to building relationships so that when I do decide to move to Los Angeles, I kind of already have my Marquette family waiting for me.”

— Hannah Kirby, Comm ‘17

Hannah Kirby’s eyes light up the second she walks into the E! News studio in Universal City, Hollywood. It’s midafternoon on Monday, the students’ second day of scheduled encounters around LA, escorted every step of the way by Dr. Amanda Keeler, assistant professor of digital media and performing arts. The students follow Rebekah Ingraham, Comm ’03, a senior line producer, into the control room where she’s directing the taping of a segment for a show that will air the next day.

Ingraham speaks into a mic to host Jason Kennedy. “I’m afraid the copy for this one might be light compared to the first one, so if you want to, take your time,” she says. With her fellow students and Keeler fanned out behind her, Kirby sits next to Ingraham at the controls, watching eagerly, asking questions whenever there’s an opportunity. This is her dream job, except she wants to be on the other side, in front of the camera.

Kirby, Comm ’17, spent her senior year as general manager of Marquette University Television (MUTV). A journalism major, Kirby forged through the program’s hard-news curriculum, but found her passion in entertainment news after interning for the upbeat Morning Blend on Milwaukee’s WTMJ-TV during her sophomore year. “It seemed like a much better fit; the content was material I was way more interested in,” she recalls.

Hannah Kirby (left) and Haley Veres (to her right) score a front-row seat in the E! News control room.

After the taping, a tour of the set and of the E! News offices, Ingraham shares her journey from Marquette student to E! News producer. “My dream was to work at E! News and when I saw that the (LA-based TV Academy) internship program was going to allow me to work here, I did whatever it took, and by some miracle, I was selected,” she tells the students. “A position at E! happened to open up one week after graduation. So, I packed up, came out and I’ve been here ever since.”

Kirby is inspired. “(I learned) realizing your dreams is possible, even if you have to start out as a receptionist or production assistant or someone’s assistant,” she says. “If you’re willing to do the work and work hard, you will succeed.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind that I will always rememebr the LA experience. This was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing.”

-Connor Cacciottolo, Comm ‘17

Connor Cacciottolo, Comm ’17, is the type of person who can quickly befriend anyone he meets. On day one, Sunday — which started with mass at LMU and left time for exploring tourist spots before dinner downtown with six alumni — the senior digital media major hit it off right away with Dr. Bryant Keith Alexander, dean of LMU’s College of Communication and Fine Arts.

“I made some joke to [Dr. Alexander], and he turned around, put me in a friendly chokehold and gave me a noogie,” Connor Cacciottolo says, recalling his interaction with the dean of the College of Communication at Loyola Marymount University.

Cacciottolo breaks out in mini improv scenes throughout the trip. At one stop, he practices his character in the case he is selected as a participant on The Price is Right, (no one makes it on, unfortunately). It’s not surprising coming from Cacciottolo who’s done improv comedy for more than seven years, and this year started doing stand-up comedy. “My dream job would be to host a late-night talk show similar to (David) Letterman,” he says.

I could get used to this: Cacciottolo tries out the feeling of having an Oscar and Emmy in hand.

But first, on Sunday evening, the students have that dinner downtown with alumni such as Jenna Santoianni, Comm ’06, senior vice president at Sonar Entertainment where she’s overseen development of series such as Taboo on FX. Others include Sam Bringardner, Comm ’11, a talent agent at Creative Artists Agency, and Alex Gelhar Comm ’10, a head writer at NFL.com.

Unexpectedly, Rondell Sheridan, Sp ’80, most famous for playing Mr. Baxter on the Disney show That’s So Raven and a veteran stand-up himself, shows up before dinner is served. Sheridan’s advice — “Do not get comfortable; once you get comfortable, you get lazy” — stays with the aspiring comedian, as does the Hollywood veteran’s accessibility. “He was so personable,” Cacciottolo says. “If we didn’t say we had to leave he would have talked for hours.”

Amid several close runners-up, Cacciottolo’s highlight comes on the last day of the trip during a backstage tour of Sony Studios where the students were able to walk onto a replica set of the show Seinfeld. “That was unbelievable,” says Cacciottolo, a huge fan of the show and who has written a Seinfeld spec script. “I got to do a couple clips of me walking (into the apartment) like Kramer. It was a dream come true.”

“I feel really lucky to have had that experience. I feel a lot more motivated to get things done, just to get going.”

-Alessandria Rhines, Comm ‘17

Alessandria Rhines, Comm ’17, recalls that she was in class a few weeks before Thanksgiving when she found out she had been accepted for a spot in the LA Experience, “… literally my hands were shaking — with excitement in my seat,” she wrote in a Medium post.

After throwing herself into a variety of creative pursuits at Marquette over three and a half years — performing spoken-word poetry, acting in Uprooted Theatre’s production of In the Red and Brown Water, and performing and serving as co-president of Marquette’s only improv troupe — she needed to think about channeling these interests into a career path. In LA, she’ll feel really fortunate to find an alumnus or alumna who’s confronted a similar predicament.

The students grew their Los Angeles networks, interacting with alumni throughout the week, including Elizabeth Stein (far left), Michael Schilf (middle photo, right) and an alumna with Alessandria Rhines and faculty guide Dr. Amanda Keeler(right photo).

Fast forward through two months of anticipation and nearly four whirlwind days and Rhines gets her wish. At a MECA alumni mixer at the Palomino Restaurant in Westwood, Rhines is able to strengthen an existing connection she had been trying to nurture across a 2,000-mile separation. Through another Diederich College resource, the Communication Mentoring Program, Rhines had been paired months earlier with an LA-based mentor, Lauren Bradley, Comm ’12, a script coordinator at DreamWorks Animation. Meeting face-to-face in November at Marquette, Rhines had made a good impression. “She immediately jumped out as just super intelligent and driven,” says Bradley.

Now meeting up again at the mixer alongside an impressive mix of recent and more established alumni, the two seem like old friends. “We were able to talk to each other on a more personal basis. Now it feels like a friendship and a mentorship,” Rhines says.

After the mixer Rhines joins Bradley and a couple other alumni for late-night pancakes at an old-school Hollywood diner. Bradley recalls her move to LA, how her father had cried after getting her settled and how she shared a single fork for months with her fiancée, Chris Visser, Comm ’12.

Despite that challenging start and a demanding day job, Bradley isn’t slowing down in her creative life. She recently added voice lessons to the tap-dancing and acting classes. She’s also brushing up some rusty piano playing skills and doing improv shows at the Groundlings, LA’s answer to Second City.

In keeping her passions and hobbies alive postgraduation, her mentor is clearly speaking Rhines’ language. “Hearing Lauren speak about how she basically needs improv in her life to keep herself balanced, that gave me confidence in my other hobbies,” Rhines relates. “That’s how I feel about poetry.”

The Price is Right — and for these students, the rewards of the trip are incalculable

“I had no idea there were so many (Marquette alumni) working out in Los Angeles in the entertainment industy — all these different jobs, all these different levels of experiences.”

-Isaac Vineburg, Comm ‘17

“Why am I so scared to move to LA?” Isaac Vineburg, Comm ’17, asked the group during the young alumni breakfast on the second-to-last day of the trip. After backstage studio tours and a meeting with well-established alumni in the industry, the students have spent the last hour-and-a-half talking to two recent grads who gave them a reality check. The two young women are honest with the group. They aren’t at their dream jobs; they are working as assistants. And they didn’t land these jobs right away; they had both spent time unemployed.

“After graduation, looking for a job is going to be difficult anywhere,” Rhines reassures the group. Although undoubtedly still nervous, they are mostly hopeful. “The biggest thing is just seeing that it’s possible. There are a lot of alums who came out here and did it,” Michael Hendricks, Comm ’17, says. “It’s encouraging.”

“There’s a Packers bar on Hollywood Boulevard,” points out Vineburg, in case the Wisconsin natives ever get homesick.

“I felt very reassured — after hearing the stories (of alumni), their successes, their challenges — that this is something I’m not only capable of doing but something I can find success doing.”

—Haley Veres, Comm ’17

“Every single alum that we met out there said they’re going to help if you ask for it. That put me at ease in a fanstastic way.”

-Michael Hendricks, Comm ‘17

Haley Veres, Comm ’17, sounds confident about pursuing her dream of a career in television. “If it doesn’t work out, the cheese curds will still be there,” she jokes about the comforts of her home state.

They seem in agreement. It will be tough, but LA is where they are headed. So they start making living arrangements. “I’m coming to crash on your couches for the summer,” Veres says. “I can cook.”

Rhines laughs, “I’m going to need you to cook.”

With every stop, every new alumni connection and every conversation as honest as this one, the students are doing more than experiencing LA, they are becoming LA experienced.

This story is from the 2017 issue of Comm, the annual magazine of the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University. Read more stories from Comm to learn all about the college’s students, faculty and commitment to being the difference through communication for the greater good.




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