A lot of so-called “open letters” on the internet address the outgoing graduates of programs. And while they should bask in the glow of congratulations and good luck because they worked hard, they earned it, and they have some serious challenges on the horizon, this letter isn’t for them.
It’s for you: the young woman who is leaving high school behind and beginning your first year of college in the next few weeks. You have so much ahead of you.
Your already completed preparations have likely been as diverse as your other experiences. Maybe you’ve had to write personal statements and essays or collect recommendations. You’ve probably had to fill out the FAFSA, hoping you didn’t accidentally transpose a number or calculate an income incorrectly lest you be carted off to jail. Maybe you visited a few different colleges, alone or with a parent or grandma or sibling. If you did, you sat through silly skits by upperclassmen and walked through the library and student center and other buildings with extra shiny floors.
You’ve weighed the pros and cons of even attending college. You’ve had discussions about your future with all kinds of people. Maybe you have a clear path and strategy. Maybe you don’t. In either case, when your acceptance letter arrived, you felt a sting of excitement and fear. It’s happening. Change is scary. Student loans are scarier. But you’re doing it anyway.
Congratulations on making it through the paperwork and the decisions, and congratulations on your decision to attend college. It can seem controversial, especially for a media or film and television program where you can supposedly learn all you need at home and on the internet, but pursuing an education will never serve you negatively. I certainly got my own earful from people when I decided to pursue Media Arts and Science at Indiana University Indianapolis. But why, they said, why don’t you keep that as a hobby and go to nursing school?
There are a lot of opinions about the usefulness of a media degree, and here’s mine: with so many media jobs being created inside corporations that hire through HR, a degree is becoming essential. For jobs in media hubs like Los Angeles and New York, even positions that were previously filled through apprenticing now require a bachelors degree. And if you leave media behind, your degree still counts for a lot.
But aside from checking the boxes on a job application, what you’re really going to get from your program can’t be measured by a piece of paper — even one with fancy script writing. You’re going to have a safe place to grow and explore and experiment with media technology. You’re going to have access to mentors. You’re going to develop friends who are more similar to you than you ever imagined. You’re going to be able to leverage important resources. You’re going to grow as a problem-solver, critical thinker, and life-long learner. You’ll learn theory and practical application and how to run this software or that camera, but most importantly: you’re going to learn how to learn.
When your degree is on a wall (or in a box) and the information you learned about software and hardware becomes obsolete, you will still know how to learn. And that’s the key to an industry like ours (yes, it’s yours now too) that is a beautiful combination of art and technology: there is always something more to know, but there won’t always be someone telling you that you need to know it.
Now here’s the part that makes this letter for you and not so much for your male peers. Your experience in this industry as a woman is going to be different than men. You’re going to hear about the gender gap in post production technology. You’re going to read about harassment and pay gaps and the masculine culture that prevails on set. You’re going to read op-eds from female directors and producers that discuss their challenges and frustrations. In my decade in this industry, I have both written about and experienced these issues first hand.
But I tell you this because I want you to remember that there are many women in television, film and media jobs all over the world, and they are all rooting for you to succeed in the face of these challenges. I want you to know that I’m here for you, alongside thousands of other women holding a space for you. Even if the statistics look grim and the news stories are disheartening, remember: there is a place for you here. You deserve to be here. Even in an industry as flawed as ours, there is room for you to have a successful, engaging career.
And I tell you this so you’re prepared. Gender bias is real even if it’s almost entirely subconcious. There can be a hundred tiny needle jabs in a woman’s career in any industry where she is underrepresented — asking for fair pay, for fair promotions, fair treatment — and over years those needle jabs can add up to one painful departure. A depature she often believes is her own fault because she is not strong enough.
You never need to leave. If you work hard, the resistance you might face in your career is almost never of your own making. If you work hard, you deserve to be here. If you decide the media industry isn’t for you, either during college or some years after, that’s okay too. But if you want to be here, you deserve to stay and to do the work and be yourself while you do it.
Find a trusted network of both women and men you can rely on. Share with them your many victories, and confide in them your failures. It can be difficult to find your place and grow in our industry, but it’s easier when you know there is a societal bias at play in your career. It’s easier when you can say “it’s not me, it’s you.” While you should own up to your mistakes and learn from them, try not to absorb the negative outlook, the social commentary, or any feelings you don’t belong. Do you think the stories we tell in media are best told by a whole bunch of people who all think and act alike? Do you think stories like Moonlight and The Handmaid’s Tale and Master of None would exist in a world without underrepresented people pushing boundaries?
Ask for what you want, but remember you are entitled to nothing. Speak up and make sure your voice is heard. Learn what you want to learn, tell the stories you want to tell. Remember that while no amount of “leaning in” will change a pervasive bias against you, no amount of bias can erase all the women like me who are already here waiting for you. While our grandmothers were explicitly told they had no place in these workplaces, and women like myself are sometimes implicitly unwelcome, your story will be entirely different. It’s exciting to see what lies ahead for you as the world continues to shift in your favor.
You’ll have a lot of challenges during your time in school. The work will be hard. If you are supporting yourself, working full time on top of school is especially difficult. You may get taken advantage of at internships. You might need to choose to spend an extra year in college instead of “graduating on time”, a concept with little meaning in a modern world. You may have to continue to secure more loans to fund your education. You’ll eat garbage and learn to drink coffee. You’ll make errors, you’ll forget bills and assignments, and you’ll struggle in some courses.
But the highlights of your college career are going to vastly outweigh these negatives. You’ll spend all night working on a project and be so thrilled to see what you were able to create. You’ll laugh and cry with your peers as you create silly and important pieces of art. You’ll learn new techniques and skills you never dreamed of having. You will have so many opportunities to show your talents and ask so many questions. You’ll exhibit your work to curious outsiders who believe you may as well be magical. You’ll find your path in this industry. You’ll discover your capabilities as a media professional and the world will open up for you.
Enjoy your years in college. As difficult as they may be at times, whatever your experience, they are truly special. You’re emerging as a media professional and finding your independence. You aren’t defined by anything or anyone. Your career decisions are fluid and always changing. It’s your time to grow. You get what you put into your college experience. And you’ll get what you put into the career that follows.
You can have any job you want in this industry. You can change your mind about what job you want. You will take a number of jobs along the way to help you climb that ladder. If someone tries to push you back as you climb upward from a job as an assistant or a coordinator, push them back twice as hard. You can do anything you want, and you don’t have to do anything anyone says is a “requirement” — ‘cos guess what? The industry is changing faster than some established professionals might acknowledge to you since those existing structures benefit them. Break those structures into bits on the ground.
Women and men who support you in our industry are waiting to be your mentors and guides and employers — and maybe someday, your employees. We’re thrilled you’re here, and we want you to know you can always count on us for anything you might need. You are our equal. But it’s secretly a little selfish of us: when you’re here, in your media program and then in the industry after you graduate, your story and presence is visible to the young women following in your footsteps, coming to face the same challenges you faced. But those challenges will be diminished with time. And as that cycle repeats itself, the representation of women in media will thrive like it never has before.
Congratulations on your new start on the path to a degree, and good luck in your studies. Go to class, don’t drink too much, and don’t listen to anybody that makes you feel less than.