Features

From Powerpuff to Pulitzer: Alumni find creative professional success post-grad

Many have questioned the value of a liberal arts degree in a STEM and digital-focused world. Yet, with Occidental’s deliberately small student body, Tigers can easily make connections to peers and professors across disciplines. Situated in Los Angeles, Occidental students experience life in a major media and entertainment hub. The Occidental experience has led alumni to write for the Powerpuff Girls, chronicle Osama Bin Laden’s youth, shed light on U.S. poverty and create fantastic landscapes for Disney. For seniors anxious about the looming post-grad void, take a tip from these alumni, who confirm that the skills gained in four years under Occidental’s red roofs translate into professional success.

8pseo
Zia O'Hara

Long before Andrea Elliott ‘96 stepped foot on Occidental’s sun-bathed campus, she knew she wanted to be a journalist. Yet the young woman who tracked down the staff of the school newspaper before she even registered for classes could never have imagined that her aspirations…

Long before Andrea Elliott ‘96 stepped foot on Occidental’s sun-bathed campus, she knew she wanted to be a journalist. Yet the young woman who tracked down the staff of the school newspaper before she even registered for classes could never have imagined that her aspirations would one day translate to a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing and a career at the New York Times.

Elliott majored in Comparative Literature with a minor in history. Though she loved her coursework in film, poetry and Victorian literature, her time as a staff writer at the campus newspaper most influenced her Occidental experience.

“The newspaper — it was then called The Occidental — had its own subculture,” Elliott said in an email to the Weekly. “We had this old, collapsed couch and these dinosaur computers and would stay up all night, laying out that week’s edition. And then we’d get in a car at 7 a.m. and drive with the final proof to a printing lab in Glendale. The paper became my life. That was my identity in college.”

At times when the campus became particularly political, Elliott found herself naturally withdrawing to the periphery and observing. She attended Occidental during the announcement of the Rodney King verdict and the subsequent protest activity in Los Angeles. At the time, news outlets grappled with how to tell a highly politicized story correctly. Elliott drew a parallel between the responsibility of media then and now, especially given the coverage of the recent presidential elections.

“There is something very formative about bearing witness, as a college student, to history,” Elliott said. “We are now in a moment of deep national reckoning, unlike anything I experienced in college. We have seen the spread of hate crimes, the proliferation of fake news. The stakes are incredibly high. The role of journalism remains more crucial than any time in recent memory: to keep the public credibly informed. We cannot have a functioning democracy without an informed public.”

After graduating from Occidental, Elliott moved to San Francisco to work on a documentary about an obscure sport called aggressive inline skating. Though the experience strengthened her talents as a visual storyteller, she soon returned to her initial love of print reporting. Her mentor on the documentary reaffirmed her talents of writing and getting people to talk, prompting Elliott to enroll in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and later take a job at the Miami Herald.

Elliott arrived at the Herald the same week a hurricane hit, followed in quick succession by the Elian Gonzalez immigration story and the 2000 presidential election vote recount. She worked tirelessly through every weekend of the news cycles, and the paper rewarded her for her efforts by promoting her to work on immigration coverage in Miami. In 2003, Elliott moved to the New York Times, where she continued to cover stories about marginalized populations in the U.S.

“I am a woman of Latin-American descent and the daughter of an immigrant,” Elliott said. “I have spent years writing about people on the margins of American life, from Muslims to children in poverty.”

In 2006, Elliott’s three-part series “An Imam in America” won her a Pulitzer Prize. Her story followed the daily life of Sheik Reda Shata, the imam of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn. She spent weeks persuading the imam through a translator to grant her access to the mosque and to his life as a religious leader in the community.

“The imam spoke in a lyrical, poetic manner that required a sophisticated translator. It would have been easier to write about an imam who was fluent in English but I really wanted to capture the experience of a newly arrived immigrant thrust into the role of religious leader, grappling with all the post-9/11 stressors,” Elliott said. “The series ran a decade ago, during a time of acute hardship for Muslim Americans. I never imagined how worse things would get.”

Elliott is currently on leave from The Times writing a book about child poverty in 21st century America. The book is an expansion of her five-part series called “Invisible Child,” initially published in The Times in 2013.

Courtesy of Joe Rohde

When Joe Rohde ’77 attended Occidental in the mid-1970s, he never expected that he and his friends’ theatrical pranks — from turning their room into a Victorian gentleman’s club to transforming part of Johnson Hall into a nightclub replete with lights, music and drinks — would one day translate to a lifelong career in reimagining…

When Joe Rohde ’77 attended Occidental in the mid-1970s, he never expected that he and his friends’ theatrical pranks — from turning their room into a Victorian gentleman’s club to transforming part of Johnson Hall into a nightclub replete with lights, music and drinks — would one day translate to a lifelong career in reimagining spaces. Yet that is exactly what Rohde, a veteran executive at Walt Disney Imagineering and the mind behind hugely successful projects such as the Animal Kingdom theme park and the Aulani Resort in Hawaii, has managed to do.

“Once I was involved in concept development, all of the intellectual training that is my liberal arts background from Occidental College suddenly became super, super important,” Rohde said. “Absorbing information, processing information, communicating information — that’s part of that whole liberal arts training.”

Rohde never anticipated a career with the Disney company. After receiving his degree in studio art from Occidental, he worked at Chaminade Preparatory High School teaching theater and set design. There, the parent of a student offered him a low-level job in the model shop at Disney, where modelers create scale plans for Imagineering projects. Rohde began a long career with Disney, working his way up the creative ladder to positions in conceptual illustration and finally concept development.

Yet the roots of Rohde’s creative interpretation of spaces can be traced back to his time at Occidental. Rohde and his roommate, Kevin Brown ‘77, also to become an Imagineer at Disney, transformed their dorm room into an exquisitely decorated “tourist destination.”

“We had a corner room in Haines, upstairs, that faces the little quad there and someone before us had paneled it in fake dark molding, so we ran with this and turned it into this super, super highly detailed Victorian gentleman’s club,” Rohde said.

In addition to his decked-out dorm room, he and his friends threw elaborate theme parties and played complicated murder mystery games in the library on Friday nights. Academically, Rohde found inspiration in his theater connections while at Occidental as well as in Art History Professor George Goldner, later a curator at the Getty and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who helped him develop a comprehensive mental catalog of art history. Rohde credits this knowledge, along with the skills learned from building theatre sets, with his ability to communicate stories in unique ways.

“Everything we do [at Disney] is really a form of theater. So all the principles, all the underlying rule structure of how you think about an audience, about how you think about portraying an idea — through action, through objects, through words — that all was super valuable as well,” Rohde said.

As an Imagineer, Rohde’s job requires him to work in intensive collaborative environments with artists, architects, engineers and others. He is currently writing a book about staying creative in a corporate work environment like Disney, which produces massive projects that transcend any individual creator. He believes that working for a large creative company necessarily strips the identity of the lone creative individual in favor of a collective creative ensemble. The type of person who will succeed in this setting will embody the role of an ensemble member rather than that of the star.

“You have to be able to work in a group. You have to be able to express your ideas in a way that can be shared and you have to be able to collaborate on ideas in a way that shares ownership of the result.”

Courtesy of Steve Coll

Despite having no connections in the field, Steve Coll ’80 committed to pursuing a career in journalism as soon as he graduated. 36 years later…

Despite having no connections in the field, Steve Coll ’80 committed to pursuing a career in journalism as soon as he graduated. 36 years later, Coll has written seven non-fiction books, is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and serves as dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Coll’s career has ranged from reporting on the Los Angeles music scene to the education of Osama bin Laden. He credits his interdisciplinary education as a formative beginning.

Coll received his degree with a double major in English and history. With two years’ experience writing for The Occidental under his belt, he struck out into the world of 1980s Los Angeles media.

“At the time I didn’t have any media connections so I went around Los Angeles knocking on doors and dropping my resume off,” Coll said.

He landed a gig within a few months of graduation, writing — and later editing — for Music Connection, an LA magazine that covered the inner workings of the music industry, including record label signings and new bands.

In the years since, Coll has written for the LA Weekly, the New Yorker and the Washington Post, where he worked as managing editor. His work largely focuses on international and domestic politics, as well as national security. Coll said that his four years at Occidental helped inform his professional experiences.

“I felt like I was really well served by choosing to go to a small college that had an emphasis on direct teaching by professors and relatively small seminars; that really worked out for me,” Coll said.

Coll attended Occidental during the height of the apartheid divestment movement. He recalled how the campus would periodically rouse itself from its sleepy stereotype of a sun-drenched college hazy with marijuana smoke and throw itself into political protests and action.

“These were the years that Barack Obama was a student, and the principal cause of student organizing was divestment of the college’s endowment from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa,” Coll said.

In addition to apartheid coverage, as a college journalist, Coll reported on an affirmative action scandal at Occidental concerning the college denying tenure to a female Afro-Caribbean professor.

Coll and his colleagues at The Occidental came under fire from Honor Board’s predecessor, Honor Court, over alleged violations of the honor code while collecting evidence for the story. With the aid of several professors, the allegations were pronounced unsound and Honor Court acquitted those involved.

This experience did not cause Coll to shy away from pursuing controversial stories once he entered the professional world. After writing for a series of publications in LA, he finally landed a job at the Washington Post as a foreign correspondent.

“I was desperate to become a foreign correspondent,” Coll said, explaining that he didn’t care that the Washington Post does not allow foreign correspondents to choose a preferred region.

By assignment, Coll ended up in South Asia, covering stories for The Post in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He was on the ground for the rise of radical Islam in the region and the Afghan civil war following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from the country in 1989.

“I loved that work. It was a little bit challenging the first few months, but once I adjusted I really loved that part of the world,” Coll said. “It’s a great place to work and not was just because it was my first tour, but I really got deeply involved in the subject matter of south Asia.”

After reporting on some of the more intense events in recent history and teaching journalism, Coll has given significant thought to the challenges that the field faces. While all journalists experience biases and hold certain issues close, Coll insisted that journalism and activism are not the same and the most important task for a journalist is to emphasize fairness rather than a political objective.

“For journalism to be effective, you have to report against your own assumptions continuously and not be concerned about the outcome of that process of being led by evidence and collecting evidence,” Coll said.

Coll has now shifted his focus to teaching and administering the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, but he still writes for the New Yorker and has published multiple books on the Iraq War and national security in recent years. He regards Occidental with fondness.

“It was a very formative experience, one that I look back on with real gratitude in many different ways,” Coll said.

Shawn Cremer

Amy Keating Rogers ‘91 currently works as the story supervisor for Disney’s Intellectual Property division, writing story concepts and pitches for new shows, books and toys for Disney…

Amy Keating Rogers ‘91 currently works as the story supervisor for Disney’s Intellectual Property division, writing story concepts and pitches for new shows, books and toys for Disney. She previously worked as a writer for both “My Little Pony” and “Powerpuff Girls” and contributed to a host of Cartoon Network shows.

Rogers’ pre-college years informed her eventual decision to attend Occidental. Both her parents attended the college and her mother, Maria Coleman, taught in the mathematics department. During summers in high school, she attended plays in the Greek Bowl.

“I just kind of knew [Occidental] was where I wanted to go,”Rogers said.

Once she enrolled at Occidental, she stayed connected to family, having lunch every week with her mother at the Cooler.

Her years at Occidental piqued Rogers’ interest in writing. She studied theater in the hopes of pursuing an acting career, and only began to pursue creative writing after taking a playwriting class with Theater Professor John Bouchard her senior year.

“I was going to drop the playwriting class, but my professor said I couldn’t,” Rogers said. “He said, ‘You’re going to be good at this.’”

Bouchard told Rogers during that class that she had an ear for dialogue and encouraged her to pursue writing. Rogers went on to receive an MFA in Acting from CalArts but continued to take playwriting classes on the side.

Her big break came while working as a production assistant on “Powerpuff Girls” when the show’s head writer quit the job. Rogers had advertised her plays to the office and eagerly jumped at the opportunity to freelance for the show. Within just one year, she managed to climb the ranks to become not only Head Writer of the show but also the only woman in the storyboard room when she began, though other women later joined.

In 2010, Rogers was hired to join the production team for the reboot of the 1980s “My Little Pony” TV series. The show garnered a response during its first season that far surpassed Rogers’ expectations.

“My Little Pony” gained an astounding following among a decidedly unusual demographic. A large contingent of My Little Pony viewers refers to themselves as Bronies — mostly male, mostly adult, fans. For some Bronies, the show improved their wellbeing and even, in some cases, prevented suicide. Within a year, these Bronies started organizing websites and chatrooms and even conventions that garnered anywhere from 1,500 to 5,000 attendees.

“This one man at the convention in Dallas just recently had a son and they named him after my son,” Rogers said. “I was completely overwhelmed. He said that my episodes stopped him from committing suicide. We hear that over and over again, that it brought people out of depression, stopped them from doing something drastic, turned their lives around. I never expected that.”

The brony community is a fan-base intimately connected to social activism, especially activism concerning developmental disabilities and terminal illnesses.

“I think there’s a sincerity to the show. It’s not cynical. I think for a lot of people when you see characters that aren’t human they can relate to it differently,” Rogers said. “I know for people on the autism spectrum that’s what they say. Because you have that bit of distance, then it allows you to learn differently.”

Rogers posited that an Occidental education furthered the values to be open-minded and caring that her parents instilled in her from a young age.

“The people that I met are the best thing I got from Oxy,” Rogers said.

For students hoping to write creatively, Rogers has one critical piece of advice.

“Always be the best-prepared person. Don’t be a flake, and keep your s— together.”

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *