Rider students have chance to live and learn in L.A. through new program

Semester in L.A. Program provides immersive experience in the entertainment industry
Rachel Stengel '14

This semester, senior Kara Kellenbenz is usually running around the Warner Bros. Studios lot making sure the team at Conan O'Brien's late-night TBS show has everything it needs for the day's shoot. Other days she can be seen catching cue cards on set or standing in for O'Brien as the lighting and sound crew prepares to film. Kellenbenz is one of 18 senior filmmaking, TV & radio majors calling Burbank, Calif. — the self-proclaimed "Media Capital of the World" — home for the spring semester.

These students are the first group to participate in the Department of Communication and Journalism's Semester in Los Angeles Program. The idea for the program has been in the works for nearly five years, says Professor of Communication Dr. Barry Janes. A week-long trip last year for communication and journalism majors who had an interest in pursuing careers in L.A. helped solidify the final version of the program.

With Universal, Warner Bros. and Disney Studios within a few-mile radius, the semester-long program fully immerses students in the entertainment industry while they are completing their bachelor's degrees and gaining real-world experience through internships.

"These students have a leg up on every other graduating senior because they're living and working in the professional environment they want to be in after college," says Janes, who is spending the semester with the students. "They see how valuable the connections they're making are and are just so enthusiastic about what they're learning and experiencing in their internships."

The internship experience is the cornerstone of the program and a core category of the University's Engaged Learning Program. Students can earn six to nine credits depending upon the hours spent at their internship site. Janes says most of the students are interning anywhere from three to five days per week for eight to 10 hours per day. NBC Universal, BET, Disney, Jimmy Kimmel and O'Brien are just some of the big-name players students are working for this spring.

The participants also earn credits for taking "COM 390 Communication and Society: The LA Experience," and completing their capstone course, "COM 400 Senior Seminar." Both classes allow the students to synthesize the classroom and practical knowledge they have acquired to prepare themselves for their careers after college. The ability to maintain the traditional program's coursework and standards is what sets Rider's program apart from others, says Janes.

"Having a Rider faculty member out here with the students is a benefit to them, not only just the comfort of having a familiar face, but it allows them to continue their rigorous academic work in combination with their internships," he says.

Senior Colin Coyle is truly making the most of his experience with two internships. He is a development department intern at Voltage Pictures, which has produced Hollywood hits such as The Hurt Locker and Dallas Buyers Club. One of the highlights of his internship is providing script coverage for all incoming submissions. Along with the rest of the development team, he reads potential scripts and provides feedback on whether or not Voltage Pictures should invest in the production. His other internship is with the talent agency KMR Associates. He works with a talent agent who represents comedians and TV actors and helps book gigs for comedians.

"The experience has been invaluable," Coyle says. "Without this program I would not have had the chance to reaffirm my career and personal goals. The ability to try out being a fully functional adult, living and working in Los Angeles, while having the safety net of being a college student, has easily been the greatest opportunity of my life thus far."

Though being in the center of film and TV production has led to some unique run-ins with celebrities – one student chatted with John Mayer, while another played tennis with James Franco – the students are focused on trying to turn their internships and experiences into job opportunities.

"This experience has been extremely valuable," Kellenbenz says. "I knew getting an internship out here would help me get my foot in the door. L.A. is the best place to get started in this industry and I am hoping to get a job out here after graduation this May."