University of Texas in Los Angeles (UTLA), a renowned program sponsored by Wofford Denius, in conjunction with The Moody College of Communication, endured many challenges due to the Covid–19 pandemic. The opportunity is an application–based curriculum created for students interested in the entertainment industry to experience life in Los Angeles. Individuals apply the prior semester by submitting an application explaining their interest in the entertainment sector and how the program would be beneficial to them for their career. Once admitted, the students are expected to acquire an internship that will nicely compliment their classes they will take during the experience. Made specifically to welcome students to California, the pandemic forced UTLA to rework their logistics so the program could still offer students the opportunity they applied for.
“It’s like we were watching an incoming storm,” Mira Lippold-Johnson–UTLA Program Director, explained when describing the initial transition last March (2020). She said that when the UTLA faculty saw the impending stay-at-home order issued by the city of Los Angeles, the dean made a decision to immediately shut down the facility and move all classes online. Every student was in a different situation and UTLA did its best to work with each individual to provide as seamless of a transition as possible.
As Spring 2020 came to an end, Mira explained that they were preparing to host the biggest cohort in UTLA history (80+ students for summer 2020). Due to the uncertainty of the 100% online format, many students deferred and the program opened up to more applicants, ultimately only hosting around twenty students). While the program was left in a state of unknown, many dedicated and successful Alumni stepped up to the plate–ensuring students still had the ability to relieve a phenomenal experience. Mira and the team implemented a pre-semester program (in which students were able to meet each other) weekly Q and A Zoom calls with high-profile alumni (such as Ilana Fernandez and Barbra Friend), a mock interview program, an unstructured writers circle and online social/networking opportunities. Additionally, UTLA worked with the internship companies to ensure the online internships were still professional and educational.
Annika Horne, a Summer 2020 grad, member of the Summer 2020 cohort and a remote student explained that although the experience was different, it was still extremely positive. “I was living with my parents in North Carolina and was able to do three remote internships, which I’m sure would have been physically impossible if not for the remote situation,” Annika explained. “[Additionally], I’m still in regular contact with two girls from my screenwriting course...I actually met one for a socially distanced outdoor brunch last weekend.” Ultimately, one of Annika’s jobs even lead to her current job post-graduation
Proving to be a successful format, many students came back for the Fall semester, about 50/50 actually making the trip to Los Angeles. “I have to give a lot of credit to [Mira] and the UTLA faculty–they really worked hard to ensure students had a worthwhile experience,” Elizabeth Boone, a UT alumni and member of the Fall 2020 cohort said. “I’m so glad I did UTLA. I wouldn’t have the opportunities that have been afforded to me in recent months if it wasn’t for the program.” Elizabeth was a Public Relations major, graduated in May of 2020 and participated in UTLA from California. She explained that although a majority of the program was conducted via Zoom, the experience was still extremely beneficial and enjoyable. Elizabeth, an aspiring actress, spent the summer interning for Ellen Degeneres and focusing on honing her script writing skills.
Teressa Jackson, a December 2020 graduate and another member of the Fall 2020 cohort also expressed her positive UTLA experience. “The experience was definitely not what I expected because one of my main goals for the program was to help ease [my] transition of moving to Los Angeles,” Teressa said. However, she explained she still managed to accomplish many of her goals for the program. “Mira put together dozens of different kinds of social events and networking parties to provide UTLA Fall 2020 with a sense of community. She even mentioned that the semester saw the largest influx of alumni participation.” Teressa also mentioned her cohort is still extremely active and helping her with her most recent projects providing feedback on scripts and character design, voice acting and music talent scouting. It [was] hard when you kind of have to manufacture the casual interactions you’d have in person,, but I also think it helps with confidence. Since you won’t just bump into someone after class, you actively have to take the initiative to reach out.”
As UTLA marches through the Spring and prepares for the summer, the program has fully adapted and is clearly thriving. Many students are currently attending and/or are preparing for the summer. As praised by her students above, Mira and the UTLA faculty have done something incredible–keeping a destination experience alive regardless of being able to move to LA. She recently even started a Slack to connect all previous and current UTLA students, making chatrooms for different cohorts, industry sectors and job help. Ultimately, her hope is that as restrictions start to be liften they can begin to start welcoming everyone back into the facilities and doing social distanced activities.
As a 2019 Summer UTLA alum myself, I can confirm University of Texas in Los Angeles is a truly impactful experience. I’m so glad to see the program thriving and adapting during this unprecedented time. I would highly recommend students interested in the program to explore https://utla.utexas.edu or reach out to the staff directly! Did you attend UTLA? Are you interested in participating? Let us know @TXADPR.