Fostering Mentorship and Professional Connections
When documentary filmmaker and Media and Journalism alumnus Tom Jennings, ‘85, started his college education at Kent State, he had no idea what to do for his future career. Coming from what he describes as a “lousy childhood,” there was one skill he knew he had a knack for: writing.
“The one thing I could do in high school was write,” Jennings said, “and it just came easy to me.”
During his freshman year at Kent State, a friend suggested Jennings write for the Kent Stater. He took a trip over to Taylor Hall (where the newsroom was housed at the time) and walked into a room filled with old Selectric typewriters and phones ringing on desks — a scene Jennings remembered as “something right out of ‘All the President’s Men.’”
His first assignment was a six-inch brief about a WKSU fundraiser, and Jennings anticipated the article would be buried somewhere in the back. But to his surprise, the article was right on the front page with his byline. “And I was immediately hooked on that,” he said.
That little six-inch front-page article became Jennings’ catalyst for a long career in writing and film production. He was first student from Kent State to receive the Hearst Award (often known as the Pulitzer Prize of collegiate journalism), which acted as a launching pad for his post-graduation career in Los Angeles. He covered several history-defining stories: the 1994 Rodney King trial and riots, the Menendez brothers murder trial, the 1994 Northridge earthquake and the O.J. Simpson trial. Fast-forward to the present day, Jennings now operates his own documentary film company, 1895 Films, with his wife Ellen Farmer.
Jennings never forgot about his starting moments at Kent State, and began thinking about how he wanted to give back.
“I had reached a point where I was doing pretty well,” he said. "... And having been a young person coming out of college, I thought to myself, the best thing I can do for Kent State is find those most deserving who would like a shot in this type of industry.”
With that in mind, beginning in 2020, he piloted an internship program with the College of Communication and Information (CCI) to bring current digital media production (and other Media and Journalism) students into the film industry out in California.
“None of this could have happened without the education and encouraging I received from my professors and my colleagues at the Stater,” Jennings said. “During that time period, they literally saved my life.”
Jennings met with CCI Dean Amy Reynolds when she was visiting California a few years ago, and they discussed a potential internship program with 1895 Films. They brainstormed and came up with a program where Kent students would live at Pepperdine University in Malibu throughout the summer and commute to Jennings’ offices in Calabasas. Jennings selected a number of prospective students for the summer 2020 program, but the Covid-19 pandemic threw a wrench into everything.
“This beautiful internship between Calabasas and Malibu was scrapped,” Jennings said. “But I told (Reynolds), 'I don't want to let these kids down.' Everybody's working from home, why don't we just do the internship from home; they know we can give them plenty to do. I felt really responsible that they had gotten so excited and then it was taken away. We went forward with the virtual internship ... and it worked.”
Dean Reynolds said internship programs like 1895 Films are valuable opportunities for students to get real-world experience and connections, especially in an environment where industry leaders like Jennings can offer flexibility for different majors.
“I think what's really cool about Tom is that he's got needs across areas,” Reynolds said, “so he can work with students across the College. If a journalism student said, ‘Hey, I want to go into documentary style work,’ he has a place for that ... (so) you don't have to necessarily be an expert in production.”
One of those students who went through the virtual internship and found her place at 1895 Films is Gracia Lu, ‘20. After graduating with a degree in Digital Media Production, she interned with the company remotely and now works as a production assistant and researcher. Lu said Jennings and his team organized weekly Zoom meetings with film industry professionals to make the remote internship program the fullest experience possible.
Lu landed a full-time position with 1895 Films in January 2021, and moved to Los Angeles to work in person with Jennings in May 2021. When Lu first got to California, Jennings took Lu and fellow Kent State alumna Ashley Slivinske, '21 surfing at Zuma Beach in Malibu.
“What kind of boss does that, right?” said Lu. “He took us out surfing, then he took all these pictures and had them framed, and I’m looking at the picture right now on my wall. (He’s) just genuinely the hardest working kind of guy you could possibly ask to work with.”
Lu said her experience so far working for 1895 Films has been one of the best choices she has made post-graduation. Through Jennings, she has gotten opportunities to meet a number of Hollywood creators and film professionals. Lu also said she has expanded her skills in the film industry by working in an environment with a smaller employee group.
“At a company like this, where it's kind of smaller scale, you're able to explore so much more quickly, whereas if you were in a larger company, you might only be doing a specific thing as a (production assistant) for months on-end, before you would advance. But here you can kind of dabble in a little bit of everything, and they'll really tailor your work to what you're interested in.”
1895 Films plans to host its internship program next summer in person at the office in Calabasas.