We're excited to kick off our 20th Anniversary Season with a special series of posts that bring you stories of Harvard alumni working in the arts, media, and entertainment. These snapshots, spanning careers from entry to senior levels, reflect the diversity in both talent and perspective of our membership.
Enjoy these snapshots from the lives and careers of Nick Baker AB '07, Ryan Halprin AB '12, Ruiqi He AB '19, Gregg Hurwitz AB '95, and Valerie Weiss MMS '97, PhD '01.
I wanted to say thanks again for how life-changing my Harvardwood experience was. Not only was Harvardwood 101 a fabulously-run program with an amazing director, but it shed light on the career path I'd now like to pursue, which I was so confused about before. I feel incredibly blessed and thankful every single day for the Harvardwood 101 week, as well as my internship at MRC Studios. If it weren't for either, I wouldn't have found out what [is now] my career goal, which is to start out in investment banking and use this finance and valuation knowledge to use my MBA as a pivot into producing and financing films in Hollywood. Forever grateful for Harvardwood, which basically changed and shaped the rest of my life.
- Ruiqi He (Analyst, J.P. Morgan)
By Joel Kwartler AB '18
Tiffanie Hsu AB ‘09 is a writer-director whose recent award-winning short, Wonderland, led to her selection as an HBO APA Visionary, and she’s currently developing it into a feature. Her short film Sutures won awards at both the Asian American International Film Festival and in AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women showcase. She also directed the feature documentary Waterschool, which premiered at Sundance in 2018 and is available on Netflix. Hsu has an MFA in screenwriting and directing from UCLA, where she was a recipient of a Soros Fellowship, and is also an alumna of AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women and Sony Pictures Television’s Diverse Directors Program.
Q. In prior interviews, you’ve mentioned that you started college as a premed; how did you end up as a writer/director?
A. So my brother and sister are both doctors—medicine had been the only real path that I knew. But violin and piano were a huge part of my life until I was 18. I knew I wasn't going to be a professional musician, so when I got to college I stopped playing, and that left this huge vacuum in my life. So I took a photography class freshman year and I loved it. At the end-of-semester show, someone had done a comic-book-style project with pictures, and I was like, "Telling stories with pictures—that's amazing!" I didn't know anything about film or theater, so I clung to the premed as a stabilizing thing as I jumped off the deep end with all this other stuff.
José Olivarez AB ‘10 is a poet and author from Chicago, IL, whose debut collection of poems, Citizen Illegal, was named a top book of 2018 by NPR and the New York Public Library, in addition to winning the 2018 Chicago Review of Books Poetry Prize. Last year, Olivarez was awarded the Author and Artist in Justice Award from the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA), and his work has been featured in The New York Times, The Paris Review, and more. The son of Mexican immigrants, Olivarez is currently based in New York. (Photo by Marcos Vasquez)
Q. When did you first start writing poetry?
A. [High school] was the first time that I started writing beyond school assignments. We’d have a poetry unit and I might write a poem, or a short story unit and I’d write a story, but once I was introduced to the poetry slam team in high school, I started pursuing writing on my own time. I developed a lot of close friendships with writers and we traded poems even as we started to go in different directions.
But I did not know that I wanted to be a poet. Frankly, I did not know that it was possible to be a poet as a career. Up until 2005, 2006, I had never met a living poet. So if you had told me that all the poets had gone extinct like all the dinosaurs, I would have believed you.
It wasn’t until after I graduated from college that I realized, “Oh, there are pathways to having a career in literature right now.”
This year's celebration of Commencement and Reunions in Cambridge is extra special because it's also Harvardwood's 20th birthday! We recently caught up with Mia Riverton Alpert AB '99 and Adam Fratto AB '90, two of Harvardwood's three founders, and President Allison Kiessling EdM '05. They shared their thoughts on Harvardwood, then and now—and twenty more years into the future!
2018 Holiday Party, L to R: Adam Fratto, Mia Riverton Alpert, Joey Siara (Board member),
Dona Le (Executive Director), Stacy Cohen (Co-Founder), and Allison Kiessling
Q. You have all remained deeply involved with Harvardwood! What are the most exciting or standout changes you've seen the organization undergo in the last two decades?
Mia: I am most excited about our evolution into an organization that works toward positive changes in our industry and our society—by providing resources to bolster the talents of our wonderfully diverse membership, by using our network and platform to amplify traditionally underrepresented voices, and by engaging in programs designed to support people who are making a difference in communities in need.
Adam: The hiring of paid staff has made a massive difference.
Allison: I came in through the Writers Program, so it is really moving to me to see all the new writers come through and the motivated, amazing volunteers that have taken on each successive iteration of the program. It’s very difficult for an organization to not get entrenched in its own ways, but our volunteers have kept the program nimble—it keeps evolving and getting better every year.
Q. Does Harvardwood today match the vision you had for the organization's future when you founded it 20 years ago?
Adam: No. It is way bigger, better, cooler and smarter than I ever imagined.
Join us in congratulating Juliette Boland, currently a junior at Orange County School of the Arts! Founded last year, the aim of the Harvardwood Prize is to recognize and celebrate the artistic accomplishments and potential of high school students who exemplify our mission. Given Harvard University's robust arts communities and arts education opportunities, the Prize is meant to encourage high school students to apply to Harvard College and is awarded annually to a high school junior (rising senior) who will apply for admission to Harvard in the upcoming fall and who has demonstrated excellence in their dedication to the arts/media/entertainment and its power to enact positive social change.
With a couple semesters of film courses under my belt, I decided to take a leave from school this year to pursue my passion for storytelling. I told everyone I came across that I hoped to work in the film industry. I asked if they knew anyone who they could connect me with, but that amounted to nothing. I cold-called studios, hoping to get someone on the line who’d be willing to help me, to no avail. I learned firsthand that the industry is very relationship-based—some might even call it nepotistic.
My problem was simple. I had no ‘family’ in Hollywood, until I discovered Harvardwood.
Harvardwood was honored to receive the Harvard Alumni Association's annual award for Outstanding Club & Shared Interest Group Contribution, in recognition of exceptional efforts resulting in outstanding and innovative programming.
Officially founded in 1999 by Mia Riverton Alpert AB '99, Stacy Cohen AB '89, and Adam Fratto AB '90, Harvardwood is especially excited to receive this HAA award during the celebration of our 20th anniversary. Today, Harvardwood runs on the volunteer manpower of President Allison Kiessling Ed.M. '05 and our Board of Directors.
The award was presented to Harvardwood at the 2019 Alumni Leadership Conference awards dinner, and Executive Director D. Dona Le AB '05 was in attendance to accept the award on behalf of Harvardwood.
We share this honor with all of the hardworking, dedicated Harvardwood Board of Directors, Chapter Heads, and volunteers who keep our programs thriving. In addition, the vibrant and nurturing Harvardwood community we've built would not be possiblew without the passion and participation of all of our members and supporters.
In the #HWire blog's "Where Are They Now?" series, we check in with Harvardwood program alums to find out what they've been up to and to showcase their accomplishments since participating with Harvardwood!
Ever since graduating less than two years ago, Harvardwood 101 alumna Karen Chee AB '17 has been making waves in the comedy world. Last week, she joined the writers' room for Late Night with Seth Meyers, and last month, she was a writer for the Golden Globes Awards Ceremony. Currently based in Brooklyn, Karen is also a regular contributor to The New Yorker, as well as The New York Times, McSweeney’s, Reductress, and Shondaland. Karen also performs throughout New York as a stand-up comedian, recently opening for The Daily Show's Ronny Chieng at Caroline's on Broadway.
Q. When did you know you wanted to become a comedy writer and stand-up comedian? Did attending Harvard come into play in that decision?
A. I think I quietly knew I wanted to be a comedy writer since eighth grade, when I first learned that TV comedy existed. I watched The Office and The Daily Show, and I remember those shows just blowing my mind. My parents were very strict about screen time, so I’d never watched a sitcom or seen political satire before. I got immediately obsessed. I had a notebook where I’d write down my favorite jokes and the structures of various episodes, and I’d research the names of comedy writers to see what other shows they wrote on to keep finding new stuff to watch. By the time I got to college I was pretty certain I wanted to do comedy. I think I told myself I was considering other careers, like political speechwriting or something in math, but I don't think I really was.
Judith Huang AB '09 is a Singaporean poet, writer, editor, illustrator and translator. Her first novel, Sofia & The Utopia Machine, was shortlisted for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize 2017 and is available now here. Named a Foyle Young Poet of the Year in 2001, 2003, and 2004, her writing has been published in various journals, including Prairie Schooner and Asia Literary Review, as well as anthologies such as In Transit, Journeys, Singpowrimo 2014, Ayam Curtain, and Body Boundaries.
Q. You must have begun writing at a young age, given that you received an award in 2002 from the Singapore Youth Festival for original play! How did you get your start?
A. I’ve been telling stories as soon as I was born, really—as soon as I was verbal, I was telling stories. I used to tell stories about the Berry Bunnies, who live in your nose when in an urban environment and in toadstools when they’re in a rural environment, and I’m in the middle of codifying that into children's books for kids.
Andrew Coles AB '09 is the founder of The Mission Entertainment, a management and production company representing storytellers with unique and distinct voices. He first began his career at CAA in the Motion Picture literary department, before moving to Overbrook Entertainment, where he started off as Franklin Leonard’s assistant (founder of The Black List) before becoming his junior executive. From there, Andrew moved to New York to run development for Scott Rudin, where he worked on Top Five and Ex Machina, among other film, TV, and theatre projects. (Photo credit: Dania Graibe)
Q. You originally wanted to pursue a career in law! What inspired your move to entertainment, and did Harvard play a role in that decision?
A. My original plan was to be a civil rights criminal defense attorney. I read To Kill a Mockingbird in 7th grade English class and it changed the way I look at the world. At a young age I was forced to confront, through the power of storytelling, our country’s history of systematic and institutional inequality—and was made very much aware of the privilege I was born into by virtue of the access and opportunities my parents were able to provide. It set the course for my life—I decided that I had to live a life in service to amplifying the voices and protecting the rights of those who the system was not designed to advantage. I wanted to be an advocate for those who came from traditionally underrepresented and undervalued communities.
Harvard definitely played a role in my career transition, haha!—after a semester of Gov 30, I clearly understood that law school was not in my future. It was too dry, too academic—what I loved about the law was its utility as a tool or a weapon—in the right hands, it could be used for liberation and justice, in the wrong hands, a bludgeon of oppression. I realized through my critical cultural theory studies (a lot of AfAm and VES courses), that storytelling and image making could similarly be used as a tool or a weapon, and that people who looked like me were too often staring down the barrel of weaponized imagery.