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Young alumni provide snapshot of career beginnings and “fluid” industry

In the changing world of television, movies and stage, a panel of School of Communication alumni told Northwestern students that there’s no one right way to find a successful foothold in an entertainment career after graduation.

At the April 3 “Life After NU” panel, hosted by the School of Communication’s Office of External Programs, Internships & Career Services (EPICS), the panel featured:

Alex Howard (C09), communication studies, who works as an analytics supervisor at the MC Media Initiative, helping to interpret the effectiveness of marketing and advertising at MillerCoors.

Evelyn Jacoby (C13), theatre, who is the managing director at Windy City Playhouse, where she oversees the administration of marketing, development and community outreach for Chicago’s newest Actors’ Equity Association theater.

Jackie Laine (C08), radio/television/film, who lives in LA and works as freelance TV producer, having produced shows for FOX, ABC, NBC and other networks.

Alex Schwarm (C09), also an RTVF major, who is now the manager of Scripted Development and Current at Sundance TV in New York. He’s also held positions at Law & Order: SVU and the Tribeca Film Festival.

Samantha Soto Schwarm (C09), communication studies, works as the manager of Special Markets Marketing at Showtime. She develops and executes marketing campaigns for the network. (She and Alex are married; they met at Northwestern.)

The panel took questions from Northwestern students eager for advice on steps after graduation—and before. The panelists all had varied experiences after graduation, and talked about there not being one “right” path to success.

“I didn’t have a plan, and I didn’t have great internships when I graduated,” said Laine, who has produced reality shows such as The Biggest Loser and is also the president of the west coast chapter of the Northwestern University Entertainment Alliance. “My first job was working as a legal assistant… that ended up feeling like I was living an episode of Mad Men. But, then I started volunteering for the NUEA, and met some awesome people. Those contacts led me to an internship and that led to [freelance producing].”

All the panelists agreed that Northwestern alumni may be the best source of connections for young graduates, and that taking advantage of the “purple mafia” can be the key to getting one’s foot in the door.

One of the best ways to connect with alumni, several said, is to find an alumnus in the part of the entertainment industry you’re most interested in and simply ask for an informational interview, and make them the focus, not you.

“It can also be a simple as reaching out and asking them for a cup of coffee or a beer,” said Howard, who recently launched the white can campaign for MillerCoors. “It’s not about get-me-a-job. It’s about getting to know the other person. Ask themquestions.”

Once you do get your foot in the door, either with an internship or a new job, the panelists all agreed that it’s all about taking advantage of opportunities that present themselves and be ready when they do.

“You don’t want to be the guy who met a producer at a party and then suddenly has to scramble to finish your pilot in one week,” Laine said.
Many of the panelists also discussed how they took other jobs out of school—bartending, babysitting and even shoe-selling—before they found their footholds in the careers they wanted.

“I worked as a part-time nanny working my butt off watching three kids all day long,” Jacoby said. “But, that job made me who I am. I think it doesn’t have to be awful if you look at it like a choice. You’re being a responsible adult, and even these experiences can help make you who you are… Remember, this is about your time to learn how to be human, too.”

Alex Schwarm said some of these odd jobs can actually provide just the right stepping stone you need to land a job that can lead to somewhere you want to be. Schwarm, who bartended and managed a movie theater, said that this experience actually helped him get an industry job. “The job I got at Law & Order was a cold call, but I would’ve never gotten that job if I couldn’t prove that I could clean up and get coffee.” Schwarm said there he could make more contacts and prove that he was more than just an assistant.

Even some panelists who found career-related jobs right out of school said that’s not always the perfect solution, either.

“You graduate and you often think the first job you get is going the best ever, but the fact is, you’re always evaluating whether it’s what you want,” Samantha Schwarm said.

“My first job was working at an agency in New York, ten hours a day for $500 a week. I was miserable. It’s not what I wanted, and so I left after six weeks. Some people had great experiences at agencies, but it just didn’t work for me.”

The rest of the panel also agreed that they’re still looking out for new opportunities, and even career changes. Laine is currently looking to return to school for her MBA, essentially shifting gears from her producing career.

“I don’t think any of us are done,” Jacoby said. “People in our industry move more. The entertainment industry is just more fluid.”

-Cara Lockwood