Category Archives: Cool ‘Cats

Cool ‘Cats: Lauren Manning (Medill ’13)

Lauren ManningAt the end of this summer, I won’t be hopping on a plane back to Evanston as I normally do. But instead, I will be heading to Gulu, Uganda to spend a year working as a communications officer with Invisible Children as a Princeton in Africa fellow.

Why Princeton in Africa (PiAf)?

My reasons for pursuing this fellowship are strikingly similar to what prompted me to attend Northwestern. I came to Northwestern to major in journalism, but the primary selling point was the journalism residency program in South Africa. I’ve always had a broad-based interest in the entire African continent, enhanced by my passion for international development, globalization and my desire to better understand societies in transition. When I learned about PiAf during my sophomore year, it became something I was interested in pursuing. And, from what I’ve seen, PiAf is a large community of passionate people, similar to what I have loved finding while at Medill.

What do you hope to gain from the experience?

In working in communications, I am looking to build on my previous experience with non-profit work as well as at a range of publications. Ultimately, I want to work as a reporter, but if my brief stints abroad have taught me anything, it’s that I am craving the opportunity to spend more time learning about new cultures and communities. In order to effectively understand a topic, such as the balance between the non-profit world and local communities, I believe one must experience it. Telling stories trump statistics and I am looking to work directly where impact is felt. I have taken classes focused on everything from foreign policy to youth experience and global health, but the greatest lessons come from direct engagement. Even with traditional journalism as my ultimate career goal, I aim to use this step to establish connections, stop simply asking questions as a journalist would, and start advancing a cause.

How has Medill prepared you for this experience?

It’s crazy to think how many opportunities I have had over the last few years that have set me up for this position. I  have always looked for travel opportunities and spent three months on my journalism residency in South Africa, recently returning to Cape Town on an Eric Lund Global Reporting and Research grant this past April. I also visited Malawi and Jordan for respective reporting experiences through the Refugee Lives project. Beyond this, however, Medill has also reminded me of the value of passion. I’ve begun to recognize the importance of finding what makes you tick and running with it.

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Cool ‘Cats: Jacob Wertz (SESP ’09)

Jacob WertzAfter several years working with charter schools in Chicago, Northwestern University alumnus Jacob Wertz will soon be creating his own.

Wertz recently won the Building Excellent Schools (BES) Fellowship, which will allow him to design, found, lead and sustain a charter school in an underserved area of Los Angeles. A 2009 graduate of the School of Education and Social Policy, Wertz said he had long dreamt of leading a charter school and jumped at the opportunity offered by the BES fellowship.

“When I learned about the amount of training and resources that BES will put into helping me become the kind of leader I want to be, and to help me run the kind of school that I want to run to ensure success for low-income students, I knew I wanted to be a part of it,” he said.

BES is a trailblazing nonprofit that raises the quality of urban charter schools by supporting entrepreneurial individuals in a year-long, comprehensive training program in urban charter school creation and leadership. The fellowship program has established more than 50 schools in 20 cities and 12 states. Fellows receive more than 100 days of training across the country and in Boston, where BES is headquartered.

Wertz’s fellowship year runs from August 2013 to June 2014. While completing his training, Wertz will also craft a charter school proposal outlining his plans for the school, assemble a board of directors and begin fundraising so he can continue the project once the fellowship year is complete.  After his proposal is accepted, Wertz will find a building for the school, finalize the curriculum, hire staff and enroll students. In the third year, the school becomes operational.

“It’s a huge challenge to run a game-changing school in a high poverty area,” Wertz said. ““I am passionately curious about how we can get better, how I can learn and improve my own skills, and how we can solve this problem.”

Wertz said his Northwestern experience was fundamental in preparing him for the challenges he will face during his fellowship year. As an undergrad, he formed the Northwestern Political Union with his friend Sam Kleiner to give students of opposing political outlooks an open forum for discussing policy issues.

“There wasn’t anything on campus where liberals and conservatives were talking, so it was the first time in my life that I felt I had identified a problem — a challenge in a community that I was a part of — and that I could actually be a leader in creating and making a solution to it,” he said. “Northwestern is the kind of place where my passion for learning things, identifying challenges and wanting to solve them really grew.”

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Cool ‘Cats: Kendall Hackney (Comm ’13)

Kendall HackneyKendall Hackney, a senior in communication studies and a forward on the women’s basketball team, decided senior year that it was time to reconnect with her theatrical roots.

She had her eye on the Waa-Mu show since she got to the University. But she was a bit overwhelmed by the idea of auditioning for the student-written production that annually showcases the musical and theatrical talents in which Northwestern excels.

So Hackney had a serious case of nerves when she sprinted out of basketball practice in the middle of January to audition for this year’s show, “Flying Home: down the rabbit hole, over the rainbow, and straight on till morning.”

“I knew all these people performing are theatre majors and voice majors,” she said. “And they’re all absolutely amazingly talented.”

She thought she did “horribly” in her audition, where she sang “Don’t Forget Me” from the TV show “Smash.” She was wrong.

Hackney landed the roles of the March Hare from “Alice in Wonderland” and an Emerald City citizen, and she “floated in and out of every section” of the show as a member of the ensemble during the show’s run in May.

The talented basketball player was thrilled to join another Northwestern team that nurtured her other great passion.

“Musical theater was my first love before basketball entered my life as a full-time sport,” she said.

Read about Hackney’s transition from the basketball court of Welsh-Ryan Arena to the theatrical stage of Cahn Auditorium.

What sparked your interest in trying out for the Waa-Mu Show?

I knew about the Waa-Mu show since I got here, but I didn’t know details. I just knew that it was a great show and always worth seeing.  My senior year I decided to try and do a show after basketball because I knew I wouldn’t have anything going on during spring quarter. But I had no idea where to turn or what to do, so I emailed [Waa-Mu co-chair] Jack Mitchell out of the blue during the winter and said, “I’m really sorry to bother you, but I would love to audition for the Waa-Mu Show. Can you direct me in any way, shape or form to what I should do to pursue that process?” And after I auditioned, I got cast the next week. I was ecstatic.

How did your audition go?

It was kind of nerve-wracking. It was in the middle of January, right in the middle of our Big Ten season, so I actually had to get out of practice a little bit early. I thought I did horribly, but thankfully I got called back, and then I got to sing again. I felt much better that time, and then I got cast the next week. I haven’t been that nervous in a long time!

What was it like to participate in your first theater production at Northwestern?

Honestly, it was pretty amazing. I was nervous going into a community of people who have all known each other, had class together and done shows together, and I’m the athlete who knows hardly anybody. One of my biggest fears was not fitting in or just feeling awkward, but that was shattered by week two when I got to know them. They were all so receptive to me and so welcoming. It was so great to get to know these people because they’re so talented and amazing. I began great friendships that I hope to maintain after school. I’m grateful to have at least one show and one experience to share with them as we leave our Northwestern imprint on Waa-Mu history.

How would you compare the stage experience to the basketball game experience?

I actually thought about that a lot, because it was just such a different change of pace for me. I think the show is actually easier than playing basketball, because everything is predictable. There are definitely unpredictable elements of a show that can happen unexpectedly, but basketball involved a different team every game, and it constantly changed. That first show was very consistent compared to what I’m used to.

But it’s still very much a team-oriented mentality for me. You’re definitely doing your individual part, but you’re all working together to create this one amazing, special show that’s been in the works since last year. It’s really special putting on an original show that’s never been performed and that has been written by these students. I’m grateful because after leaving an amazing group of girls on the basketball team, not having anything this quarter would have been horrible for me. I’m so glad I could jump into this community, which is also like a team, just a totally different dynamic. It’s made the end of my Northwestern experience really special and enjoyable.

What was your favorite part of the experience?

Once the performances started, it was just so great to see how people responded to the show. We would have rehearsal every single day, except Sunday, and we’d be working four-plus hours a day on the show. It’s just like a sport, because you’re investing so much time, and when you get to that final product of the show, it’s great because you’re on stage with an amazing, talented group of people putting on a new show for an audience. From past experience, theater can be very political, and it can be cutthroat sometimes, but I have never seen a more genuinely caring group of people supporting each other’s success. That was really, really special to be a part of and to see firsthand.

Students are so multifaceted, and there are just so many different things that they can do and so much talent in all areas across the board at Northwestern. Being part of not only the amazing basketball program but also of an amazing theater program for just a small amount of time is really special, and I’m really grateful.

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Cool ‘Cats: Dan Donohue (Comm ’14)

Communication junior Dan Donohue recently fulfilled a lifelong dream by competing in Jeopardy’s College Championship. Check out his behind-the-scenes reflection on the experience.
Dan Donohue
I got the phone call on Feb. 18 while I was in an RTVF-330 lecture.

Sorry. I’ll start over. What is I got the phone call on Feb. 18 while I was in an RTVF-330 lecture?

“Maybe it’s Jeopardy!” my friend Hannah suggested when I didn’t recognize the area code.

A few people in the class knew I had tried out for the Jeopardy College Championship because I had asked our professor Max Dawson if I could write my final paper on the Jeopardy audition process. (Incidentally, he told me I couldn’t because the focus of the class was reality TV, and if I wanted to write about a game show, I’d have to write about a game show from the era of reality TV — like the far lesser Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.)

My one unheard voicemail was indeed from Robert James, a contestant coordinator from Jeopardy. Professor Dawson told me I better have something funny to write down in case I don’t know the answer to Final Jeopardy. No hard feelings, but I think maybe that ended up cursing me.

The Audition

I was as surprised as anyone to get that call. I wouldn’t go so far as to use the word “disaster” to describe my audition the previous October, but I wound up stranded without a hotel room in Cleveland (the audition city) because under-twenty-ones can’t check into hotels in the Rock and Roll Capital of the World.

For the audition itself, I was grouped with 20 other hopefuls who had all, like me, passed Jeopardy’s online test in March. When you’re in a situation like this, I think you can’t help but mentally size up your competition. And the general feeling in the room seemed to be that if any one of us was going to get a spot in the College Championship it would be the uniformed cadet from the Air Force Academy.

So how did I — and two other people from my same audition — get on the show? If there are any College Jeopardy hopefuls reading this, remember that the audition is an audition. It’s not an interview for that prestigious internship or research assistant position.

They’re going to ask you about the anecdotes you would have for Alex Trebek, so work on your skills as a raconteur. Have some funny, self-deprecating lines ready. And smile a lot. As I told a hopeful applicant on Twitter a few days ago, “Everyone that tries out for Jeopardy is a librarian who’s been to all seven continents and does AIDS research. Be different.”

I’ve been asked a lot about why I wanted to go on Jeopardy. I suppose it goes back to one specific incident in seventh grade. Instead of teaching us lessons one day, the teachers got the whole grade together in the gymnasium and just started reading us trivia questions for fun. And for every question, all 80 or so of us seventh graders gleefully shouted the answer. But then Mrs. Schmitt asked us “the name of a chilled tomato soup traditionally served in Spain.” The whole gym was silent, and I raised my hand and mumbled, “Gazpacho?” (I had heard it mentioned on an episode of The Simpsons a few years previously.)

The rest of the day was a chorus of “How did you ever know that?” and “Are you a genius?” and the like. That was my first indication that, even though I’m a fairly average student, maybe I remember facts differently from everyone else.

When I got back in touch with Robert, we had to go over some paperwork over the phone. “Do you know or have you communicated with anyone who has ever appeared as a contestant on Jeopardy?” he asked. Uh-oh. Yes. I know probably two dozen people who have been on Jeopardy because of my involvement with Quizbowl.

Quizbowl is a question-and-answer game played between teams from high schools and colleges across the country. I give Robert the laundry list of ex-contestants I know through Quizbowl, including the most recent Tournament of Champions winner, Northwestern alumnus Colby Burnett. Robert said he’d have to call me back after he talks to some producers.

I’m in Jeopardy limbo for a week before Robert calls me back and says I can be on the show. And now my preparation begins in earnest. Quizbowl prepared me very well for the information and facts I need to know to be successful on Jeopardy. But Jeopardy’s a very strategic game, and I need to have a strategy.

The Preparation

For the next two months, I study Jeopardy greats like 74-time champion Ken Jennings and Roger Craig, the highest single-day earner in Jeopardy history. When Jennings played, he would let his thumb buzz in before his brain knew the answer and take a guess. I liked that strategy and decided to apply it to my game.

Craig’s strategy, though, was fascinating. He argues that Jeopardy can ask about so many things that studying a bunch of facts and hoping they come up is inefficient because the odds that any single fact you study will come up are slim. Instead, he says, you should get a sense of how well you know what you already know. That way you can make smart wagers on Daily Doubles, which is where the game is often won and lost.

That’s how I prepare for the next six weeks until I fly out to Los Angeles on April 5 for the taping, and I think it’s going pretty well. I was already planning what kind of car I could buy with the $100,000 grand prize to replace my 22-year-old Toyota.

This Is Jeopardy!

College Jeopardy — unlike the normal, adult Jeopardy — is an all-expense-paid deal. They flew me out to Los Angeles for a weekend, put me up in a hotel and gave me spending money.

I knew nothing about my competition. Our identities had to remain a secret from each other, lest we conspire to cheat or share the prize or something like that, I suppose. All weekend long, I picked out young faces in the hotel and attempted to determine whether they were there for the fitness conference or if they were a Jeopardy nerd like me.

My friend Julian, who’s an actor in LA, showed me around the city to take my mind off things. It was the first time I’d ever been in Hollywood, a place where my radio/television/film degree could very well end up taking me one day. I never did see any of my co-competitors until Monday morning, when the bus arrived to transport us to Sony Studios. Maggie Speak, another Contestant Coordinator, accompanied us on the longest bus ride of our lives. Maggie has one of the most remarkable personalities I’ve ever seen — she took a bus full of 15 nerds and got us to loosen up on the biggest morning of their lives.

Once we arrived at Sony, it was a whirlwind of makeup and microphones and publicity photos and practice rounds. And somewhere in the middle, I got to talk to my co-competitors over a game of Jenga. I truly believe they all have bright futures as doctors and scientists and lawyers and leaders of men, but the experience was probably a little more special for someone like me, since I’m majoring in radio, television & film. I was on a working TV set! There was a case of Emmy awards just down the hallway. I got to shake hands with the executive producer. I ate lunch in the Sony commissary among writers and producers and talent.

On Monday, we taped the five quarterfinal rounds. Jeopardy tapes five episodes — a week’s worth — in a day. Alex Trebek changes suits between episodes to create the illusion that it’s a new day. Jeopardy produces 46 original weeks of programming each year, so Trebek only works 46 days a year. It must be nice.

Because there are wild cards in the College Championship — that is, contestants who don’t win their quarterfinal but still advance to the semi-final round because they have a high score — we couldn’t watch any of the episodes that taped before ours, lest we know how much money we need to get a wild card.

We were sequestered like a jury in the same green room that Ken Jennings practically called home back in 2004 during his 74-game win streak. We even had to turn off our phones all day long, which is asking a lot of college students.

Corina Nusu, another contestant coordinator, kept us company in the green room with a wide selection of DVDs to watch. The others chose “Groundhog Day,” which is possibly the worst movie to watch when you’re completely cut off from the outside world with no sense of time. I’m grateful that I was called to tape the second episode of the day.

The episode happens in real-time, which means they don’t stop taping for commercials. So when you’re at home seeing a 30-second ad for Gold Bond Medicating Foot Powder, contest coordinators Glenn Kagan and Maggie are rushing up to the stage to give us pep talks and bottles of water.

Alex Trebek steps out into the studio audience — which, in addition to our families, contains dozens of complete strangers who happened to be touring Sony Studios that day — and lets them ask him questions during breaks. Alex has a reputation for being somewhat austere on camera, but he’s anything but. “I need a drink,” he joked at one point after misreading a few clues.

The most surreal part was the first time I saw Alex Trebek. Because he has all the questions and answers, we’re completely separated from him until the moment he approaches our lecterns to conduct his interviews with us. I’ve watched him every day for the last several years of my life, so it’s not like being face to face with a very famous person. It’s like being face to face with the most famous person.

My interview went well, which surprised me. My friend Sam, also a religious watcher of Jeopardy, gave me two pieces of advice before I left for LA: “Make sure you have a good interview. Trebek wants you to think he’s there to make you look good, but he’s not. Also, if you get a Daily Double in the single Jeopardy round, bet everything you have no matter what.”

The Quarterfinal Round

The match went by quickly. I bet it all on a Daily Double in the Jeopardy round, and it paid off (thanks, Sam!). I executed my strategy reasonably well the rest of the match, but Jim Coury from Georgetown, with whom I had gone to a Quizbowl summer camp a few summers back, was right on my heels. I led him $15,400 to $14,800 going into Final Jeopardy. The category for Final Jeopardy was CHARACTERS IN SHAKESPEARE, which should be a pretty good category for me. I’ve taken an Introduction to Shakespeare class and an English Renaissance Drama class.

If this were real Jeopardy, the most rational thing to do would be to bet $14,201. That way I would win by a dollar if Jim bet it all. But then again, there are those four wild card spots. I don’t really need to win this game. I had prepared myself for this situation by studying previous College Championships, and I knew my score could very easily get me a wild card. So, I bet small. Only $1,400.

The question was “This character said to represent Shakespeare’s philosophy has a name that means ‘fortunate’ in Latin.” I was stumped. I scribbled down Benvolio, but I knew it wasn’t right. Both Jim and Kristen — who was in third place — came up with the correct answer of Prospero. Of course. Prospero. The main character of “The Tempest,” the play I had just written a 10-page essay on for class.

When the episode ended, I found out that my final score of $14,000 put me in the third wild card spot with three episodes still left to tape. Oh well, I thought. I tried. As it turned out though, the next three episodes were very low-scoring or dominated by one player, so I advanced as the third wild card. That night, I went out with my family — my father, mother and uncle — to celebrate, but I had to be up early the next morning to do it all over again.

The Semifinal Round

I found out I’d be appearing in the first semifinal round. Weirdly, I was used to the routine after only one day. But I couldn’t get into a rhythm with the buzzer. The buzzers only get activated after Alex reads the entire clue and a producer flips a switch, so timing — not necessarily speed — is everything. And I couldn’t find a Daily Double to save my life.

Going into Final Jeopardy, I trailed Trevor from MIT $11,000 to $19,600. Unlike my first game, this was a pretty cut-and-dry situation. Trevor had to get this wrong, and I had to bet big and get it right. Otherwise, I would go home. I risked all but $2 and got the question wrong.

I can’t say I’m too disappointed. I got $10,000 of prize money for being a semifinalist and the experience of a lifetime. I made sure I asked Robert before I left the set, “Would my being an ex-contestant prevent me from working for you guys one day?” I’m glad to report that his answer was no.

The Aftermath

The most difficult part was keeping the outcome of the tournament a secret from my friends in the month between the April 8 taping and the May 7 airdate. I had to sign a lot of scary paperwork from Sony promising I wouldn’t say a word about whether I won or lost, but that didn’t stop my classmates and coworkers from trying to get it out of me. Of course, my coyness had the unfortunate effect of leading them to believe I had won it all.

A few days after my episodes aired, I got a notification from my phone. It was a Tweet from Roger Craig, the man I modeled my game after. He wanted to let me know he guessed Benvolio, too. Vindication. Sorry. What is vindication?

Dan Donohue and Alex Trebek

Do you know any Cool ‘Cats? We’re looking for Northwestern University students, alumni, faculty and staff who are having cool experiences or have unique stories to tell. Let us know at

Cool ‘Cats: Jay Sims (McCormick ’97)

As a sophomore at Northwestern University in 1995, Jay Sims signed up to serve as assistant disc jockey for Dance Marathon (NUDM), one of the nation’s largest student-run philanthropic events. But he didn’t know he would keep doing it for so long.

When the 39th annual NUDM kicks off Friday, March 8, Sims will assume his familiar place on a stage behind the dance floor for the 17th consecutive year. He will spend 30 hours spinning roughly 270 songs for the more than 1,000 student dancers and volunteers raising funds to benefit NUDM’s primary beneficiary, the Danny Did Foundation. The not-for-profit organization provides epilepsy awareness information and subsidizes seizure detection devices for families in need.

NUDM’s secondary beneficiary is the Evanston Community Foundation, an organization that builds, connects and distributes resources and knowledge for the public good through local organizations.

A 1997 graduate of the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, Sims initially embarked on a career in chemical engineering after graduating, but continued to DJ at Dance Marathon and other Northwestern and Chicago area events. Eventually his passion for music could not be contained, and he started his own full-time wedding entertainment business.

Sims said Dance Marathon is always the highlight of his year, and his deep roots with the organization have allowed him to help students develop NUDM traditions, such as the 30-Hour Dance (which dancers learn a few steps at a time over the course of the weekend) as well as the traditional inclusion of various songs at key moments throughout the weekend, such as The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” at sunrise on Saturday morning.

“I know eventually my run is going to end here, and I can’t believe it’s actually lasted this long, but I like to think that I’m still youthful in appearance,” Sims said. “There’s never been any sort of contract or agreement, but they always approach me to come back. I just try to do what I know I can do to keep the students dancing.”

Full coverage of NUDM 2013