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That's a Wrap: Grad Student Stories Films Released

May 30, 2019

Graduate student Stephanie Allen during filming of the Graduate Student Stories project

The Graduate School recently unveiled a series of short films, directed by Ramsey Telhami. The year-long shoestring project features 16 graduate students from various disciplines across the campus who tell remarkable stories of scholarship, support and collegiality.

The large group at the official premier was treated to 2-4-minute films featuring Lauren Ramsey (Maternal and Child Health), Sarah Beckwith (Business), Nabila Hijazi (English), Leopoldo Torres, Jr. (Bioengineering), Yooni Choi (Health Policy), Matthew Aruch (Education), Theodore Caruthers (Public Policy), Ana Sanchez-Rivera (Human Geography), Ross McCool (Music), Jonelle Walker (Theatre), Stephanie Allen (Applied Math), Dana Arbaugh Varona (Music Education), Yue Ma (Business), Rishvi Jayathilake (Chemistry), and Jessica Stern (Psychology). The initial concept for the film series came from conversations with graduate programs and two campus working groups focused on international graduate students and graduate diversity recruitment. 

"I think I can speak for all of us when I say we had no idea exactly what we were getting into when we signed on to these films last year. I was so impressed by the final products. Everyone in these films is remarkable. I'm humbled to be among that group. The whole filmmaking team did an outstanding job telling each graduate student's story, and it was incredible to hear of all of the exciting work being done by my peers around campus," says participant Dana Arbaugh Varona.

Rishvi Jayathilake echoes these sentiments. "For me, the making of these films was a very unique experience. The students who were part of this project represent many diverse backgrounds and nationalities. It's a reflection of this university. Regardless of where in the world you come from you never feel alienated here. As an international student I truly appreciate this project for it has been a celebration, and an appreciation of inclusion and diversity at the University of Maryland. I'm glad I was a part of this project, and I am grateful to the Graduate School for giving me this opportunity."

The audience hailed the professional content of the films, the genuineness of the student narratives, and the diversity of the featured students. Supporters, faculty advisors, associate deans, and others applauded the depth and relevance of each student's experience. Graduate Dean Steve Fetter, who opened the event, remarked, "The stories, through Ramsey's creative leadership, will help the Graduate School and graduate programs engage people here and beyond campus. Although all of the stories are different, a constant theme emerged about the importance of supportive faculty, staff, and fellow students. I was gratified to know that the University of Maryland has provided an environment in which our graduate students are able to thrive and succeed." And participant Nabila Hijazi agrees, "These stories show not only the breadth of UMD's graduate programs but also the diversity and the rich, unique experiences of its graduate students."

As any other film project, there was a lot of pre-planning throughout June and July of 2018. Director Telhami Ramsey Telhami filming Matthew Aruch during the Graduate Student Stories film projectscouted film locations that would showcase iconic parts of the College Park campus. Equipment was borrowed from various resources including the BSOS Office of Communications and the Library. In concert with Telhami, the Graduate School's Anna De Cheke Qualls worked with programs and networks to identify graduate students who would represent the diversity of the graduate student body, and could accommodate the tight week-long shooting schedule.

With a little red cart in tow, the team filmed in late August. De Cheke Qualls, acting as 'all around gofer,' pulled the camera and lighting equipment, water, snacks, and other supplies from place to place in fairly rapid succession. At each location, Telhami thoughtfully but quickly set up for the next shoot. Participants were not prepped ahead of time for the questions to come, in the hopes that they would talk more freely about their experiences. Also under Telhami's direction, the corresponding film set up was intentionally intimate and casual. "Ramsey was thoughtful about every aspect of the project. It was amazing to witness his intense creativity. For all of us who worked with him, it was a contagious kind of energy," remembers De Cheke Qualls.

The resulting raw footage for each student was 35-45 minutes, which over the course of more than 6 months was edited (and re-edited) multiple times by the production team to create the resulting 2-4-minute films. In the last stage of the project, b-roll footage was gathered using free stock films and student photos, while Telhami searched for copyright-free music.

"It was very exciting to hear about the diverse experiences and backgrounds of PhD and Master's students at the University of Maryland. For the doctoral students, these translate directly to the projects the students carry out for their PhD dissertation, particularly in innovative approaches they develop in conducting their research," observes Peter Kofinas, who came to support his PhD student, Leopoldo Torres.

"Many graduate students I work with, including Ana [Sanchez-Rivera], have relocated from home communities far away in order to come to Maryland. I'm struck by how adeptly the graduate students featured in this project not only navigate the intellectual challenges of graduate school, but also locate resources and niches that sustain them through what can be very isolating years. I'm honored that Ana [Sanchez-Rivera] mentioned the Latin American Studies Center as a source of support," says Britta Anderson, Director of UMD's Latin American Studies Center.

Efrain E. Rodriguez, who came to support his doctoral student Rishvi Jayathilake, adds, "In their own words, the students gave honest responses Graduate student Theodore Caruthers during the Graduate Student Stories film projectto the question of why they decided to pursue graduate careers at Maryland. It was enlightening to step out of the microcosm of my own department, and see what motivates graduate students throughout the university, and it was equally encouraging to see how much of a positive force their graduate experience has been for their growth, both the personal and academic."

"These stories are bold expressions of terrific socio-cultural, race-ethnicity and religious diversity--a UMD signature. They reiterate the fact that this nurturing campus environment has supported each student to achieve excellence in their chosen fields. In these challenging times in the US and around the globe, our graduate students and the Graduate School they represent bring hopes and positive expectations," says alumna Samia Ahmad ('05 PhD, Sociology).

Telhami, a current undergraduate in Sociology, has been involved in media production for over 6 years. Trained in film at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Telhami worked as an Assistant Director trainee in the Morocco unit of Ang Lee's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. Telhami, who is of Israeli-Arab ancestry, has directed several short films, and is currently developing his first feature film, a slice-of-life thriller about a man caught between Arab and Israeli loyalties during the rise of Israel's far right.

"This project really allowed me to practice refining a concept into something concrete, and then bringing it into reality. I was fortunate to meet a lot of interesting graduate students, each with wildly different goals and backgrounds, and truly inspired by Anna's work ethic and dependability," observes Telhami.

The full series of films can be seen here.
An interview with Ramsey Telhami can be found here.
Graduate Student Stories Film Project photo diary.

(Photo credits: Anna De Cheke Qualls, with Ross McCool)

Contact Information

The Graduate School
University of Maryland

2123 Lee Building
7809 Regents Drive
College Park, MD 20742