While most of her peers are trekking up Sheridan Road for class, Amanda Bossard is climbing the steps of Capitol Hill. But this is no sightseeing vacation for the Medill sophomore; it’s a class assignment.
“The way classes are structured, it’s like a nine-to-five job,” says Bossard, who is spending Winter Quarter in Washington, D.C. as part of the Medill on the Hill program. The class consists of two journalism classes and a political science class, in addition to field reporting at sites around the city. Each student is assigned a beat, ranging from education to national security, and receives the journalistic Holy Grail: a press pass.
“We’ve worked hard to develop contacts on Capitol Hill with congressional staff and leadership staff, so we can direct students to good sources of information,” says Medill Washington Program Director Ellen Shearer. “That’s what the program is really about: using flip cams and iPads and filing Tweets from the Hill.”
Since the undergraduate program began three years ago, Shearer has guided students in reporting on events including President Obama’s inauguration, the 2010 State of the Union address and most recently, the congressional fallout following the Arizona shooting rampage in January. With a finger on the pulse of the nation’s politics, students like Bossard are on the frontlines of breaking news.
“There’s a two-inch thick binder on my desk with the resources that might pertain to whatever story we might be working on,” says Bossard, who was chosen for the program based on her transcript, resume, journalism clips and a personal essay. “[Medill] gives us the privileges of major news corporations. We saw stake-out spots and where to go to find certain senators. Everyone is accommodating.”
Although an intertwined network lies within reach, students know that persistence is the key to scoring coveted interviews. Luckily, they arrive in Washington prepared. Shearer is “constantly impressed” by the “fearless undergrads” who bring their expertise and fresh perspectives beyond the confines of Evanston’s campus. With Northwestern alums scattered throughout the nation’s capitol and a widely respected reputation, the Medill News Service’s success has taken off.
“My main goal is to try to experience what life would be as a full-time journalist and what it’s like to be alongside the people who do this for a living,” says Bossard, who hopes to become a legal analyst. “When I realized Medill was offering this I was like, ‘what else could I ask for?’”
The Medill program is not the only Northwestern class that sends students beyond Evanston’s city limits. For 2010 Communications grad Maggie Donnelly, a grueling selection process for the school’s Senior Showcase sent her to New York to audition for performance industry movers and shakers. The goal: make the connections needed to land a job post-graduation. The experience: unparalleled.
“It offers us the chance to get representation either with an agent or a manager,” says Donnelly. “The reason why I auditioned was because I wanted to hopefully get in and see if I could get any attention here.”
Donnelly garnered more attention than she anticipated. Before receiving a Northwestern diploma, she had already signed with an acting agency. The Southern California native found her post-grad plans of staying on the Chicago theater scene tossed offstage as she bought a one-way ticket to New York to chase her acting dream.
“I so firmly believe that when opportunity knocks, you’ve got to answer the door,” says Donnelly. “If I had stayed [in Chicago] I would have wondered what it was like in New York. There’s no rule that says I can’t go back. I’m so thrilled that I get to be here and get to try it out.”
Donnelly’s level of success is not unique, says David Downs, a supervising professor of a Radio/TV/Film internship class that has sites in Los Angeles and New York.
“Students typically get internships in agencies, studios, production companies, et cetera,” says Downs, who heads the class’s L.A. branch. “Many graduates got their first job in L.A. as a direct result of their internship work here. The internship experience provides a practical, job-oriented reality that academic classes can’t – and I think, shouldn’t – provide.”
In addition to acting lessons with faculty mentors, students get an inside look at the industry. Professor Downs arranges visits to the sets of shows such as Modern Family and Weeds, and events including the Santa Barbara Film Festival. In New York, Professor Carey Graeber, an adjunct lecturer and a coordinator for the New York site of the School of Communication’s internship program, connects students with internships at media outlets like Warner Brothers and MTV. Area Northwestern alums, such as Comedy Central President Michele Ganeless, host networking events, screenings and lectures. Despite this wealth of resources, though, gaining full exposure takes effort.
“It’s like going on a big blind date with people who have a bunch of power,” says Donnelly. “They’re here to pick out their favorites. It’s a reality check.”
The 22-year-old waitresses and babysits to fill time between auditions and to make ends meet, but she finds the routine surprisingly satisfying. For the moment Donnelly is “thrilled” to be on the regional theater scene, though someday she hopes to see her name in Broadway lights.
“The Showcase is one of the ways up the mountain that’s not always successful, and that doesn’t mean you’re not great,” says Donnelly. “[But] at any moment an audition could go right and you could pack a suitcase and go.”