Illinois Shines in The College Tour
Mihir Vardhan, a freshman electrical engineering major from Haryana, India, has something to tell the world about the University of Illinois: “It’s about studying what you’re passionate about, [working] in the most amazing labs [with] some of the best professors in the world, surrounded by your soon-to-be lifelong friends. That’s what makes it possible to do anything at U of I.”
He shared that message on Amazon Prime’s new streaming reality series, The College Tour. Amazon describes the still-growing line-up of 40-minute episodes as an introduction to “what life is truly like on college campuses across the country and around the world.”
Vardhan is joined by 10 other current U of I students who were selected to represent different aspects of Illini life as represented by their personal experiences. “I’m not the same person who arrived on campus three and a half years ago,” says senior Faith Brown, a dance major from Louisville, Ky. “What makes this university so special is its ability to serve students in a way that honors where you come from as it supports who you’re becoming.”
Alma Mater’s close-up
The series profiled four other schools before heading to the U of I, which is by far the largest, most well-known and arguably, the most prestigious institution it has filmed to date. Choosing Illinois for its next episode makes sense, given that the show’s executive producer Lisa Hennessy, ’91 LAS, learned her craft at Illinois. She is the best known for her work on The World’s Toughest Race, Rock Star: INXS, The Contender and The Biggest Loser, to name a few.
Hennessy and her team—including host Alex Boylan, another reality TV veteran who rose to notoriety when he won The Amazing Race in 2002—approached the University’s Office of Strategic Marketing and Branding in fall 2020 with the idea to shine a spotlight on Illinois. Matt Wszolek, ’00 BUS, senior executive of market and media, saw it as a perfect opportunity to expand on the University’s highly success The Power of I marketing campaign. And then COVID-19 came knocking.
The pandemic posed some interesting challenges; Hennessy, Boylan and the full College Tour production team arrived in February 2021 to a rather unpopulated campus in time to learn all about the University’s pandemic safety protocols. It also presented unprecedented access.
“We had our pick of iconic campus locations that, under normal circumstances, would be too busy to accommodate a production crew, lights, etc.,” Wszolek says. The result? The University has never been more ready for her close-up, and The College Tour shows the campus and its Champaign-Urbana environs to such sweeping cinematic effect that makes the effort worthy of a best cinematography statuette.
Not to be outdone, the 11 students in the episode’s 10 segments (the athletics segment is co-hosted by Chase and Sydney Brown, the football team’s identical twins) shine as they share not only their enthusiasm and passions, but also their real-world hopes, dreams and struggles. The College Tour creates a uniquely compelling viewing experience, combining a campus viewbook come-to-life with an exploration of the issues young adults face in the 21st century.
Senior Chase Clausen, an agriculture and consumer economics major from Sycamore, Ill., confesses that he was uncertain about college because of his distaste for classroom learning. “I give credit to the U of I,” he says. “They took a student who wasn’t a big fan of the classroom and gave me opportunities to learn the best way that I can—through real-world experiences and hands-on lessons.” Clausen’s segment ends with a reveal worthy of receiving a rose on The Bachelorette. His summer internships trough the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences led John Deere to offer to offer him his dream job.
Wszolek and a team that included colleagues Doug Burgett, ’03 FAA, and Julia Smith, with assists from the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and SMB, worked to cast the episode with students who personified 10 defined Illini strengths: “Campus involvement with a purpose;” “A top-tier education tailored to you;” “Innovative research with real-world impact;” “School-life balance that helps you thrive;” “An inclusive and supportive campus;” “A welcoming community with a place for you;” “Big Ten athletics and Illini spirit;” “Programs that drive entrepreneurship;” “Open access to a world-class university;” and “Opportunities that lead to success.”
Wszolek notes that he and the show’s producers didn’t have to rely on creative casting or scripting to meet that aim; he was amazed time and again by how the University’s students naturally embody U of I’s ideals and principles.
The resulting product—which can be accessed through Amazon Prime’s streaming app or enjoyed at the University’s May 23, watch party at go.illinois.edu/thecollegetour—is aimed at college-bound students who are researching their school options in a world of online content and lived-experience “consumer” reviews. However, its appeal to alumni should be equally strong, given that it displays Illinois to gorgeous effect and inspires hope for tomorrow by highlighting Illini with bright futures. Wszolek understands the episode’s power firsthand. Hennessy told him that while reviewing the final cut, she burst into tears of pride and nostalgia.
No doubt she could relate to Mona Fang’s story, a sophomore aerospace engineering major from Naperville, Ill., who arrived on campus with an entrepreneur’s dream of launching her own startup. By the end of her freshman year, she had opened a thriving recycled clothing shop in Urbana. “I’ve learned what it means to be a business owner and team leader, while also making a positive environmental impact,” Fang says. “If you have an idea that you want to pursue, the U of I will help you achieve it.”