On the set of The Big Bang Theory are students (from left): Briana Garrett, Pedro Bitar, Mali Franco, Denisse De La Cruz, Steven Medina, Coumba Winfield, Yuki Hu, Auberin Strickland, Nate Del Valle, and Jilly Dos Santos.

MIDDLEBURY – Alumni in the entertainment industry opened doors for a group of Middlebury undergraduates who traveled to Los Angeles during the February break to explore career opportunities and observe how movies and television shows are created.

The Media and Entertainment StudenTrek was a six-day trip for 10 undergraduates coordinated by Middlebury’s Center for Careers and Internships (CCI) and fully funded by the Ron and Jessica Liebowitz Fund for Innovation. It was also a pilot project for future, off-campus career explorations with the Middlebury Professional Network.

The idea for the “L.A. Trek” grew out of a conversation between President Laurie Patton and Shawn Ryan ’88, the screenwriter and executive producer of The Shield, The Unit, Lie to Me, and the 2017 NBC series Timeless. Working with faculty from the Department of Film and Media Culture and staff from the Advancement Office, Ryan and CCI developed an “immersive cohort living-and-learning experience” that engaged both the alumni and parent communities in the Los Angeles area.

Every day from 7:30 in the morning until well past dark, the students were exposed to professional experiences – ranging from a camera run-through for The Big Bang Theory to meetings with executives from United Talent Agency to tours of HBO, NFL Media, and Sony Productions – to enhance their ability to apply their liberal-arts education and inform their career exploration. With job-shadowing assignments during the day and reflection dinners with alumni every night, the students networked with actors, filmmakers, producers, media strategists, attorneys, screenwriters, and other Hollywood movers and shakers.

On the set of The Big Bang Theory the students met executive producer Chuck Lorre, who also created the hit series Two and a Half Men, and at the offices of Ryan’s MiddKid Productions they observed as film editors cut an upcoming episode of Timeless.

Jeff Sawyer, CCI’s director of employer and professional network development, said Shawn Ryan was extremely giving of his time. “The students had a welcome dinner at his home and he introduced them to executives at Sony Pictures. He took them through his production company and arranged for them to go on the set of The Big Bang Theory.”

“[Ryan] was the catalyst and the Middlebury alumni were the secret sauce that made this career-exploration trip such a success,” continued Sawyer. “The alumni’s willingness to give back had a lasting effect on the students. The alumni we encountered couldn’t do enough for us. Middlebury’s alumni seem to love to pay it forward.”

Accompanying the students on the L.A. Trek were Sawyer and Alicia Gomez, CCI’s assistant director of career advising, along with faculty members David Miranda Hardy and Christian Keathley of the Department of Film and Media Culture.

One of the students, Briana Garrett ’19, said the job shadowing was the best part of the experience. “I came on the trip essentially with a clean slate because I did not know a lot of the technical terms about the entertainment industry. I felt like I was an insider and now I have picked up on the lingo.”

“The reflection dinners gave us great networking opportunities,” Garrett added. “They were helpful because we got to have relaxed discussions with alumni who are already in the business. I now know the steps I need to take [to get a job in the entertainment business.] I also have a few people to contact if I make the move to L.A.”

A senior, Coumba Winfield ’17, enjoyed her “full, one-on-one day” with a project manager at NFL Media in Culver City and remarked: “It was invaluable to meet so many people and see what it would be like to work in these industries.”

The Big Bang Theory pre-taping was the highpoint for Pedro Bitar ’17.5. “The whole process was very fast-paced. When the jokes didn’t seem to work, the writers would talk to the actors and change the script on the spot to increase the comedic value. There was one instance when they simply changed the blocking and exaggerated some of the reactions, and then the joke earned a lot more laughs that it originally received.”

Bitar also had high praise for Shawn Ryan’s involvement in the experience. “He was very much responsible for this entire Trek opportunity. We owe him big time!”

As their week in Los Angeles drew to a close, the students joined participating alumni, parents, faculty, and staff for a reception of 60 people at NFL Media hosted by Jordan Levin P’18. But the Middlebury students’ career exploration in the entertainment industry doesn’t end there.

On March 10, CCI will welcome five alumni from the entertainment and media organizations for a full day of conversations and workshops for students called UpNext: Careers in Media and Entertainment. In the morning the alumni will offer feedback on resumes and advice about getting started in the field, and in the afternoon they will conduct four workshops.

Patch Culbertson ’08.5 of Republic Records will host a seminar on the music industry; Gretchen Eisele ’90, an independent executive producer, will conduct a session on television program production; Richard Coolidge ’87, a senior producer for PBS NewsHour, and Emmanuelle Saliba ’11.5, a senior editor with NBC News, will facilitate a workshop about the changing news business; and Jackie Hurwitz ’07, a producer at Part2 Pictures, will conduct a hands-on demo called Perfecting the Pitch for Film Development.

The day will conclude with a plenary session and networking event with the five alumni. For more information about the March 10 event or other career-exploration projects, contact the Center for Careers and Internships.

At the home of Shawn ‘88 and Cathy Ryan (back row, center) are the students, faculty, and staff on the L.A. Trek.