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From the Hill to Hollywood: My LA Connections Program experience

Joshua Qualls ’19, pictured here near the famous intersection of Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles, California, during the recent Piper Center Connections Program, shares his experience in this trip diary.

From an early age, I loved telling stories. From writing short stories to making YouTube videos, I always imagined my ideas for the big screen. That’s why I’m studying English with a concentration in media studies — to hone my storytelling skills. Needless to say, when I learned about the St. Olaf Los Angeles Connections Program, with its focus on film and the various aspects of the entertainment industry, I applied immediately.

The college’s Connections Program brings students into alumni workplaces in various cities across the U.S. to explore careers and broaden their perspective on what they can do with a liberal arts education. From Denver to Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., each program aims to connect students with St. Olaf’s vast network of alumni and give them a firsthand look at how Oles are succeeding in all sorts of endeavors.

Our group members at the Jim Henson Company: (from left) Liberty Czarnik ’21, Alexa Johanningmeier ’21, Simon Stouffer ’21, Kierra Lopac ’19, Cookie Imperial ’19, Sal Alvarez ’19, Benny Goetting ’20, myself, Piper Center staff member Bryan Shealer, Isaac Egwim ’20, and Piper Center staff member Jenele Grassle.

The LA Connections Program took nine students to southern California during the weeklong break right before the second semester began. What was the experience like? Take a peek into my trip diary:

Friday

I flew out to Los Angeles a day early to meet with Aldra Allison ’77, the newest member of the St. Olaf College Alumni Board.

As a student writer for the St. Olaf Marketing and Communications Office, I had interviewed Aldra a few months earlier for a story about the commemorative art she brought to campus. During that interview, we realized we had a lot in common with our St. Olaf experience. I told her I’d be in LA in February, and she invited me to fly to her home city a day early to meet with her.

After greeting me at the airport and treating me to lunch at Porto’s Bakery & Cafe, Aldra took me on a tour of LA, Hollywood, Pasadena, and the Santa Monica beach. I had never seen the Pacific Ocean before. The glow of the sunset shimmered across the water at Santa Monica, tinting everything orange. Of course, I had to take a picture.

Having lived in LA for over 30 years, Aldra shared the history of each location she took me to. From the demographics of the city to Denzel Washington’s old house, she knew it all. It was an incredible way to start my trip, all thanks to a fellow Ole.

Saturday

The next day, St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career staff members Bryan Shealer and Leslie Moore ’77 arrived with the other students on the Connections Program. They were met at the airport by some incredibly kind, generous parents of St. Olaf students. Their children weren’t even on the trip, and yet these parents still spent the entire day picking up students from the airport and driving us to various sites around LA.

We loved getting the chance to explore LA in addition to meeting professionals in the entertainment industry! Here I am at the Jim Henson studios with (from left) Benny Goetting ’20, Kierra Lopac ’19, and Liberty Czarnik ’21.

I was part of a group that met with Heather Kjolsing ’09, an operations manager at Riot Games, the company that created the popular esports game League of Legends.

Being a gamer myself, I sat next to Heather as we chatted about the new Kingdom Hearts game. Heather has been a lifelong gamer who always wanted to work in the gaming industry. She shared her journey to Riot Games and her amazing experiences with the company.

Heather then took two other students and me to a national League of Legends gaming competition as her personal guests. All the professional North American teams were there:  Team Liquid, 100 Thieves, and Cloud9. I even witnessed the legendary player Doublelift destroy the other teams there. I had never attended an esports competition before — needless to say, I was geeking out.

For dinner that night, the entire Connections Program group met with writer and editor Autumn Hilden ’00, an animator, illustrator, and designer, and creative director Justin Hilden ’01. Autumn had asked many of her friends, including some who weren’t even Oles, to meet with us.

Dinner guests included Mike Roe ’03, the arts and entertainment editor at Southern California Public Radio, and his wife, Kristiana Roe, a copy editor for Warner Bros; David Brandvik ’94, a director at Directors Guild of America; Maddi Frick ’12, who works in business legal and music affairs at Starz; and Paul Anderson ’06, production manager at Nickelodeon Animation.

I was anxious about going to dinner. We were meeting people who work with some of the biggest entertainment industries in the world. I’m a people person, but I’ve never been to an outing where the sole purpose is to make professional connections. I didn’t know what to say.  Hello, can I please have a job?

I sat between Paul Anderson and Mike Roe, and after a few minutes my nervousness vanished. The Ole connection took hold and we spoke as if we were old friends. Mike shared the story of how he met his wife and how their connections helped both of them land their jobs and Paul shared his experience working with Nickelodeon.

Sunday

We began our Sunday morning with a Warner Bros. Studio tour. We saw where they filmed all the Central Perk scenes from the hit sitcom Friends and the alleyway where they filmed the famous upside-down Spiderman kiss. We also got an up-close look at the props used in the Harry Potter movies and the Batmobiles used in all of the Batman films dating back to 1966.

Our next stop was a meet-and-greet hosted by Micah Gardner, a TV editor who’s worked on Portlandia, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Documentary Now. Micah isn’t even a St. Olaf grad, but he’s friends with Autumn — and he was nice enough to open his home to all of us and his friends in the entertainment industry from all over LA. We met with Wendy Wang, an actor, musician, and TV composer; Stephen Marinaccio, a line producer who’s worked on America’s Next Top Model, Marco Polo, 13 Hours, and The Darkest Hour; Jessica Grasl, a TV producer and writer for Designated Survivor, White Collar, Hawaii 5-O, and Leverage; Jason Grasl, an actor and writer who has worked on Hot in Cleveland, White Collar, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine; Maryanne Pittman, a creative director, project manager, and graphic designer; Patrick Southern, an editor; Alee Caldwell, a freelance editor; and Nicole Schoepf, who works in International TV Distribution for Warner Bros.

Each shared the experience of finding work in LA and offered us advice. Many of their stories started out the same: they came to LA without knowing anyone, worked a low-paying job in a field they weren’t interested in, and, eventually, made a connection that launched their career in the entertainment industry.

The advice that resonated with me the most came from Autumn: “Make relationships for friendships, not for career advancement. People know when they’re being used. Actually care for them, and they’ll care about you.”

We got to witness more Hollywood history at the famous Hollywood Museum near the Walk of Fame. Pictured here are group members (from left) Alexa Johanningmeier ’21, Simon Stouffer ’21, Isaac Egwim ’20, Cookie Imperial ’19, Sal Alvarez ’19, Kierra Lopac ’19, Benny Goetting ’20, myself, and Liberty Czarnik ’21.

After lunch, we headed to downtown Hollywood, where we met Marcelino Pena ’03, a senior logistics engineer, and Richard Aviles ’13. After touring the Hollywood Museum, Richard took the students on the light-rail and shared his experience as a community engagement specialist for the LA Department of Transportation.

Monday

Monday morning, Dave Basta, the parent of a St. Olaf student, led us on a tour of Fotokem, a post-production company that edits trailers and movies like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Tag, Aquaman, and Vice. We viewed two trailers that hadn’t yet been released.

Our next stop was Fox Studios in Century City to watch a recording of an episode of Modern Family, one of the highlights of the trip. We were met by Andrew Brooks, a production assistant on the show. Andrew was extremely welcoming and gave us a tour of the set. We saw the actors film several scenes.

Thanks to Andrew, we were able to speak with the assistant director of the show, along with co-creator Steven Levitan. He spoke with us for 45 minutes, and took time out of his day to speak with students from a small college in Minnesota. We were genuinely thankful for his time and the experience.

Our next stop was in Hollywood, where Piper Center founding director and current associate provost at Loyola Marymount University Branden Grimmett ’03 hosted a dinner at his apartment. It was great to see Aldra Allison again and meet over a dozen other alumni who are established in LA.

I had the opportunity to meet so many great alumni, like Mike Roe ’03, the arts and entertainment editor at Southern California Public Radio.

Everyone we had met earlier was present, in addition to a number of new people, including: Jason DeRose ’97, the Western Bureau Chief at National Public Radio; Jay Kinn ’85, senior vice president in technology legal at Warner Bros.; Elizabeth Hauser ’94, design manager at Hasbro; Molly Trucano ’10, employee engagement and internal marketing at 21st Century Fox; Lydia Bundy ’13, artistic programs associate at MUSE/IQUE; and Darrell Sackl ’70, a lawyer with Morrison & Foerster LLP.

Cookie Imperial ’19 (right) talks about animation with Justin Hilden ’01.

At St. Olaf, these alumni had majored in disciplines ranging from mathematics to studio art. Some are working in the field of their major, but many are not, and they all spoke to the value of a liberal arts degree. By being well-versed in a variety of subjects, these Oles are able to connect and speak to people on many topics and in a wide range of fields. “It made me stand out,” Mike Roe noted. “Not on paper, but as a person.”

Kierra Lopac ’19 (left) and Isaac Egwim ’20 talk to Jason DeRose ’97 and Elizabeth Hauser ’94.

Tuesday

The next morning we visited the Jim Henson Company. Our tour guide, Taylor, shared how the Jim Henson Company is still very much a family-owned company, with barely 50 employees. It was interesting to see a close-knit group exist in the vast sea that is LA. We spoke with toy makers, social media planners, and video game creators.

The most encouraging part of the trip was meeting so many St. Olaf alumni in LA who are successful and living their dreams. From political science majors to English majors like myself, the alumni had versatile majors, and they all preached about the wonders a liberal arts education provided them. What’s more, they all offered a helping hand to any of us if we ever end up in LA — which many of us just might do.

Joshua Qualls is a senior at St. Olaf College studying English with a concentration in Media Studies. He is a student writer for the St. Olaf College Marketing and Communications Office, an intern with the St. Olaf College Development Office, and member of the rugby team. Joshua is an aspiring writer and storyteller, hoping to write for film and television. After graduating this May, Joshua will marry his girlfriend of four years and begin his career in the entertainment industry.