A Summer Like No Other

Past RealArts@Penn interns share their experiences as the program celebrates its 10th year.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

By Blake Cole

Internships have become synonymous with today’s education system, whether it’s high schoolers looking to bolster their applications for college or undergraduates hoping to strengthen their post-graduation resumes. Kirby Dixon, for instance, can cite super soaker wars under team-building, while Joe Pinsker can discuss meeting pop stars when it comes to networking. When asked about problem solving, Kevin McMullin can talk about that time he survived an earthquake with Robert De Niro. These are but a few of the experiences of past RealArts @ Penn interns, who, after a stringent selection process, dedicate their summers to immersing themselves in their craft. It’s not all fun and games, though; their often rigorous tenures at unique companies provide them the experience they need to launch their careers.  

“There’s an awful epidemic of exploitative unpaid internships ‘offered’ to our talented students in the arts and culture fields,” says Al Filreis, Kelly Family Professor of English, Director of Kelly Writers House, and Director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing. “RealArts is our way of providing an alternative model. We match the right student with the right organization and then, through the generosity of Penn donors, make it a remunerative experience.”

The RealArts team believes that learning the arts will depend on whatever connections a university can help students make to the world beyond the university, helping them to learn where people work in the realm of practice, where business is relevant, and why businesspeople don't always know how to talk to the creative people.

“RealArts has provided access to many students over our 10 years in existence,” says R.J. Bernocco, Associate Director for RealArts @ Penn. “For many students, this is their first entry into professional arts fields. The program provides an invaluable access to students, helping them understand the inner workings of the industry.”

Mingo Reynolds, RealArts@Penn Director, says the program’s vision is to try to help creative kids feel supported and important. “It has grown robust, but it is still a boutique program with a lot of personal attention being paid to making sure that each student and company has an exceptional experience. I have heard from several interns that this was a life-changing experience for them,” she says.

We spoke with a handful of past interns about the difference the RealArts internship made in their lives. Learn more about their journeys here.

The Music Man

Joe Pinsker, C’13, posing alongside Ali Jaffe, C'14, (second from right) and Canadian pop star Carly Rae Jepsen (middle).

Joe Pinsker, C’13, had been dreaming of being a music writer for quite a while before he started at Rolling Stone

“Walking into the office on my first day was a treat,” he says. “The best part early on was matching the faces I saw at the desks near mine to the names I knew from the magazine's masthead. That those people would work alongside me, let alone ask for my help with something, was a thrill.” 

Pinsker first heard about the RealArts internship program in Anthony DeCurtis' nonfiction-writing class. “Even taking Anthony's class and writing music reviews as ‘homework assignments’ felt like an honor,” says Pinsker, who, in high school, founded a music-review website with some of his friends

Most of Pinsker’s time at the magazine, he says, was spent doing behind-the-scenes work: transcribing reporters' interviews, doing research on features, fact-checking, and compiling news packets for editors. 

“I think that most magazine editors are more than happy to outsource this legwork to interns, and these tasks generally get a bad rap,” Pinsker says. “But I found that even the duller-seeming tasks had upsides. The interviews I was transcribing, for instance, were conversations between experienced, skilled journalists and interesting cultural personalities, and eavesdropping on those exchanges definitely taught me things about interviewing that I still use in my current job.”

As part of the job, Pinsker also was able to attend music festivals, and he even convinced an editor to let him cover them for the website.
“My write-ups were well received, and I ended up having a good freelancing relationship with that editor that I kept up after the internship,” he says.

One of the most memorable experiences, Pinsker says, was the long hallway in the Rolling Stone offices that is plastered with every magazine cover since the late 1960s. “I loved strolling down and looking at cultural icons of the past few decades.”

Reflecting on his time at Rolling Stone, Pinsker adds, “Experiencing what it's like to work at a national publication was a huge deal for me personally, and helped me to land a job as an editor at The Atlantic. RealArts is a great program because it puts Penn's fabulous resources behind showing that there are more creative ways to make a living.”

Kirby Dixon, C'13, (middle) and fellow interns visit Laguna Beach.

The Animator

As soon as Kirby Dixon, C’13, arrived at Nickelodeon Animation Studios, she knew that she was exactly where she needed to be for an incredible summer of learning and personal exploration. “It is exactly how you would imagine: fun, colorful, and full of life,” she says. “I mean, where else can you walk into a building adorned with ping pong tables, whiffle ball courts, SpongeBob statues, and slime?” 

Dixon first learned about the RealArts internship program from a friend. She had multiple phone conversations with the studio to gauge her fit. “After applying to and accepting the internship, I had to fly myself out to Los Angeles and find my own housing,” Dixon says. “It was quite a summer of firsts for me. I had never been to California nor worked at an entertainment network prior to my internship. At the end of the summer, I came back a much more independent woman.” 

Soon, Dixon was at work on properties like Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness, where she helped organize early versions of the movie. “One of my most memorable experiences during the internship was being able to present an idea that a friend of mine and I had to the then-president of animation and pre-school programming regarding the importance of interactivity in children's programming,” Dixon says. “It was an incredible experience to be able to have that sort of access and open conversation with individuals who were so well-respected at Nickelodeon and within the industry.”

Dixon says the internship gave her the confidence to navigate the industry post-internship. “By the end of the summer I found myself becoming much more familiar with how the industry works, the terminologies used within production and entertainment, and how to effectively network within the media landscape. After that summer, I felt significantly more equipped to start a career within the industry post-graduation.”

“It was quite a summer of firsts for me. I had never been to California nor worked at an entertainment network prior to my internship. At the end of the summer, I came back a much more independent woman.” 

The Filmmaker

When Kevin McMullin, C’09, first saw an article in The Daily Pennsylvanian announcing the inaugural RealArts program, there was one opportunity that caught his eye: director Jon Avnet's Brooklyn Films.

“I had been making films since I was a kid growing up in New Jersey and had actually considered going to film school,” McMullin says. “I ultimately decided to attend Penn instead but was still anxious to find a way into the industry. The problem was I had absolutely no connections and had never even left the East Coast.”

Avnet, C’71, who has directed, written, and produced more than 70 motion pictures, including Black Swan and Fried Green Tomatoes, wasted no time in putting McMullin to work. Principal photography on the film Righteous Kill, starring actors Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, had just wrapped. 

“My second day at the internship, it was announced that Jon needed to reshoot a couple scenes, so I began assisting the film's line producer in organizing the reshoots,” McMullin says. “I helped book actors' travel accommodations, secure props, and got to see first-hand how a real movie is prepped. Jon even invited me on set as a production assistant during the reshoot days, where I ran around helping to ‘lock down’ the set, stopping traffic and relaying to crew when the camera was rolling. It was an absolute blast!”

McMullin’s interactions with the actors didn’t end there. “I was showing Mr. De Niro to the screening room when the wall started shaking,” he says. “I had yet to see the film, but knew it was a thriller, so assumed the movie just hit a big action sequence with loud sound effects and heavy bass. But the wall kept moving and then someone yelled ‘earthquake!’ So we gathered in the hallway—Robert De Niro and I—and waited out the tremor together. It was surreal.”

Before working with Brooklyn Films, McMullin hadn’t known a single person who made a living in the arts. “I was alone in my professional pursuit of the arts with only a vague sense of how to form a career path,” he says. “My internship at Brooklyn Films was a true emotional epoch in my life, because it was not only a positive experience that re affirmed my desire to work in entertainment, but it also provided the opportunity to engage with professionals in the industry. I left that summer knowing that it was possible.”

McMullin credits the internship and the contacts he made with launching the next stage of his life. After watching a short film McMullin made, Avnet's producer Marsha Oglesby wrote a recommendation letter for McMullin’s application to Columbia University's MFA Film program, from which he graduated in 2013. McMullin now directs television commercials and is prepping his first feature film for production this summer.

Clare Menzel, C'15, on assignment, sports a safety uniform at wildland fire camp outside Glacier National Park.

The Journalist

As she was studying for finals one semester, Clare Menzel, C’15, received the RealArts internship announcement email. The first thing that caught her attention was one of the locations: “Whoa. Montana.” The summer before, Menzel, who grew up in a mountain town, had been an intern at POWDER, a ski magazine, and the return to the familiar setting fit well.

When she first arrived at the Flathead Beacon, it was already deadline time. “I arrived on a Monday and it was just crazy,” she says. “Everyone was running around, sending jobs back and forth in this robust newsroom. It was exactly what I wanted, so I was really, really excited right from the beginning.”

“When I first moved here, I didn't know anybody, but now I have a whole lovely community. I built a new life here that started with the internship.”

Things moved fast for Menzel, who was soon working on her first cover story. “I wrote a profile on a guy who been an animator for Disney for decades,” Menzel says. “His job had included, as he put it, maintaining the spirit of Walt Disney's true work through the company’s commercial products. So I did a profile on his career.”

After her internship was completed, Menzel stayed on as a staff reporter and also worked a contributor to Flathead Living Magazine. “Being a newspaper reporter in a small town was a great experience,” she says. “Going to town hall meetings, listening to what the people there had to say, all these really basic things are the nuts and bolts of reporting. Even though I’m a magazine writer now, my experience with the newspaper is still incredibly helpful. Any time I need to investigate something or go through legal or government documents, I use all of those fine skills I learned at the internship.” 

The most important take away from that summer? Finding a new home. “When I first moved here, I didn't know anybody, but now I have a whole lovely community. I built a new life here that started with the internship,” Menzel says.