Early conversations about the “IU 2020” bicentennial documentary series felt a bit like the opening scene of ’90s cult classic mockumentary Waiting for Guffman, when city leaders in the fictitious Blaine, Missouri, are discussing how to commemorate Blaine’s upcoming sesquicentennial (while placing miniature trees and porta potties on a tabletop replica of town square). “We’re pleased as punch,” says Blaine Mayor Glenn Welsch, played by character actor Larry Miller. “We know that whatever we do is going to be the standard against which all other sesquicentennials — that’s the 150 — will be judged.”
At Indiana University’s Office of the Provost, while we didn’t try to stage a Broadway-style musical for our 2020 bicentennial like the residents of Blaine (though we’re not not into that plan for the future), our team took on an even more ambitious, challenging project in 2016. Inspired by another cinematic gem, Boyhood, shot over 12 years with the same actors, the project would follow the same 12 students from IU Bloomington’s historic class of 2020 for the entirety of their undergraduate careers. More than four years and a global pandemic later, the short films are debuting three at a time in virtual, interactive IU Cinema screenings. The first three films were presented November 13 (here’s the intro and Q&A portion) and the upcoming screening, on December 8, features the world premiere of three more of the completed films. (Register for the virtual screening here.)
All three of the students featured in the December screening were active, involved members of the IU and Bloomington communities, and each blazed a path through college that was uniquely their own. All graduated in May 2020. Courtland Crenshaw studied in the School of Public Health, and Jayla French in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences; both were part of IU’s Divine Nine historically Black Greek houses. Broderick Balsley was a first-generation college student in the Musical Theatre Program.
Free screening December 8
The free “IU 2020” screening on Tuesday, December 8, at 7 p.m., begins with an interactive introduction from the director and a Q&A following the three short films. Participating live in this event are:
—Ethan Gill, co-director of “IU 2020,” multimedia specialist in the Office of the Provost & Executive Vice President
—Daiyawn Smith, a 2017 IU alumnus who produced Courtland’s story during his college internship
—And the three featured students:
- Courtland Crenshaw, now pursuing a master’s degree from the School of Public Health-Bloomington, where he earned his degree in exercise science;
- Jayla French, who earned her degree in neuroscience in the College of Arts and Sciences and is now a graduate student in medical sciences at IUPUI; and
- Broderick Balsley, one of just 13 people admitted to the competitive Musical Theatre Program in the Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance in 2016, who plans to move to New York to continue pursuing his musical theater journey (when it is safe to do so).
In envisioning the “IU 2020” series, we hoped that following the students’ experiences through the lenses of our many student multimedia interns would help provide a historical time capsule that conveyed where the students came from, why they chose IU, and what they were studying. Where did they live, work, intern, hang out, volunteer, research, and travel, and what do they dream of doing in the future? (Also: What shows, music, movies, and video games did they love? What and where did they eat? What did they wear, what posters were on their walls, and can we get a look at those 2016-2020 hairstyles?)
We wanted the documentaries to offer an authentic peek into daily student life at IU — the peaks and the valleys, the grand (onstage presentations) and the pedantic (doing laundry) — shining a light on the important evolution that happens in college, and ultimately making the case for why a residential university education endures as such an important social and emotional rite of passage, as well as a pathway to future personal and professional success.
Note: When I say “we,” I actually mean the incredibly creative co-directors of the film series, Ethan Gill and Cadence Baugh Chang (now working at Amazon in Seattle), who ran the project at different times and deserve all of the credit for its success.
Co-Directors Cadence Baugh Chang and Ethan Gill
Cadence was our office’s first-ever multimedia intern in 2015 and later served a two-year, post-grad appointment as our multimedia specialist and the project’s first director. With great curiosity, creativity, and imagination, Cadence helped think through early logistics for “IU 2020,” devised an archiving system and a method for divvying up tasks among interns, and suggested the structure and focus for each phase of filming. Ethan was part of the initial group of interns to work on the project and took over as full-time director of “IU 2020” upon his graduation from IU in 2018, when he joined the office as the new full-time multimedia specialist. Their collective and individual efforts made the whole project possible.
About Ethan: He is a brilliantly talented, charismatic, and inspiring creator who has been with this project from his sophomore year of college through the present, encompassing his entire professional career thus far. The continued success of maintaining connections with all 12 students throughout their undergraduate lives are directly tied to his kindness and positivity, persistence and flexibility, ability to troubleshoot on the fly, aptitude for organizing large quantities of footage and scheduling/rescheduling/covering shoots and intern schedules, and true human connections with both the students being filmed and the students doing the filming.
When initially choosing the students to feature, Cadence and I sought recommendations from campus partners on incoming students from a diverse range of backgrounds and areas of study, with a focus on underrepresented populations and those with scholarships likely result in a 2020 graduation date. Most of all, we wanted to help produce substantial, honest pieces about students whose experiences might otherwise be lost to history.
Ethan recalls the day in 2016 when we first discussed the project in an intern meeting and the “why” of the upcoming bicentennial celebrations. His takeaway was that we’re all here to help students grow. “So let’s share the student perspective, let’s make something that is an honest look into how it was to be a part of campus culture through this major transitional period,” he says. “And that’s what we did.” Ethan appreciated how the project doubled as a mini film school, helping create a space for real-world education. Depending on the time period of the internship and each intern’s interest and aptitude, they learned about all aspects of filming, including scheduling, interviewing, audio, lighting, graphic design, animation, transcribing, editing, and communicating in general, both with the students they were covering and with one another.
“This was also such a great opportunity for student filmmakers to hone the craft of documentary storytelling,” Ethan says. “You will see their technical skills evolve. Their adaptability and sensitivity to these students’ stories creates authentic and insightful summaries to their four years.”
The IU student experience
Over the course of four years, the project took on many twists and turns — changes to majors and summer plans, semesters off or abroad, early graduations, family illness, unexpected opportunities — but what remained consistent was the spotlight on these students and their experiences. Sometimes they needed a break from the cameras, and we respected that. Sometimes they were so incredibly busy that the only footage we could get was of them walking to class or doing laundry (see: Courtland). Other times, our camera crews were lucky enough to be invited into their homes and meet their families and closest friends (Courtland again, on a more relaxed day).
Emily Miles, now producer of the In This Climate podcast at the IU Media School, says she learned as much from the documentary subjects as she did from her fellow interns and working with Cadence and Ethan. “Overall, the students who were generous enough to let us into their lives were resilient, sharp, compassionate, and inspiring,” she says. “I remember the quick, hilarious banter between Kendall [Gibson] and her sisters and Doña [Eliassaint] and her brothers. I remember the wisdom they imparted about finding and developing meaningful friendships. I remember struggling to hold the camera steady in the back seat as Kendall and her friend zipped around the county for ‘Get Lost with Grace.’ And I remember laughing uncontrollably any time I got the privilege of spending time with Doña and her friend Jess — whether it was at Holi, Joella’s, or their dorm room.”
“I’m probably unreasonably nostalgic about this project,” Emily says. “But what I find to be quite reasonable is my gratitude to the office and the students who let me in, shaping my college experience in so many ways.”
About the Students
Courtland Crenshaw is currently completing the first semester of a two-year recreation administration master’s at the School of Public Health with a concentration in sport management and administration.
He entered IU as a Groups Scholar, Herbert Presidential Scholar, and Hudson & Holland Scholar and later studied abroad in France. He still thinks of G’16, the Groups Class of 2016, as extended family.
Among many other activities during his time at IU, Courtland was a student ambassador for the School of Public Health and an advancement ambassador for IU Foundation; took part in student government in the residence halls and became a Resident Assistant; served as an officer in the National Pan-Hellenic Council; and moved through the leadership ranks in the Alpha Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, becoming Polemarch (President) senior year. In the spirit of the fraternity, he prioritized service along with brotherhood, volunteering for My Sister’s Closet, Shalom Community Center, and Boys & Girls Clubs of Bloomington. Kappa Alpha Psi has a long history in Bloomington. When it was founded here in 1911, it was the first African American fraternity founded at a predominantly white institution during an era of overt and hostile prejudice and racism in the U.S.
“I’ve found my brotherhood through Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity,” Courtland says, adding that he feels the significance of carrying on a tradition that began more than 100 years ago among people who found strength together. “We’re still striving to achieve and fulfill their vision for the fraternity.”
Courtland has a long family history with IU; his great uncle, Keith Parker, was student body president at IU from 1970 to 1971 and co-founded the African Studies Program. His mother, Vicki Bonds, was a part of Groups ’92 and a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.
“I would say to all incoming freshmen, don’t be scared to try new things,” Courtland says. “It’s okay if you don’t know what you want to do, or what your passion is. This is the time to figure it all out.”
“Where are we studying tonight?” was a common refrain between Jayla French and her friends during their four years at IU. And while she entered as a pre-med student and still plans to attend medical school, Jayla was inspired to switch her focus to neuroscience and mental health through her experience with a Madness and Melancholy class in the Hutton Honors College.
Jayla followed in her mother’s footsteps and joined Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, one of the original Divine Nine Greek Houses, and a place where she found sisterhood and belonging.
She entered IU with a Hudson & Holland Scholarship, Herbert Presidential Scholarship, and Kenneth R. R. Gros Louis Scholarship, and through IU scholarships she traveled to Brazil, Botswana, and Paris in subsequent summers. She served as a Women’s Rising Ambassador for the Career Development Center; was a member of the Minority Association of Pre-Med Students; worked as a Resident Assistant at Forest Residence Hall; and took part in such campus events such as the annual Jill Behrman 5K run.
Jayla grew personally and professionally through the leadership opportunities she found throughout college, and balanced out that sedentary study energy through intramural soccer, weight lifting, jogging, and dancing with her sorority sisters. Her current program at IUPUI is the bridge between undergraduate school and medical school, and any earlier ideas she may have had about moving away have dissipated. “I have realized how important it is for me to stay around my family in Indiana,” she says. “They are my support system, and it would be very hard for me to move somewhere far from them, which is why I plan on staying in-state.”
“It’s been everything I wanted it to be and nothing I expected it to be,” said Broderick Balsley in the final semester of his IU experience.
Broderick entered IU as a 21st Century Scholar, the first in his family to attend college, and as just one of 13 students admitted that year to the competitive Musical Theatre Program in the Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance. He was a member of University Players and took part in IU Theatre productions City of Angels, Dames at Sea, Jesus Christ Superstar, Wonderful Town, and Urinetown. In 2017, he starred as Frank in Bloomington Playwrights Project’s performance of Front Page Flo. With his roommate and best friend Casey, a fellow class of 2020 musical theater major, Broderick spent a summer in the Utah Festival Opera, through which he took part in West Side Story, Newsies, and Mary Poppins.
Senior year, we see him finally getting cast in his first lead role in an IU Theatre production — Bobby Child in Crazy For You — and then watch as everything unravels in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Campus closes abruptly before spring break and the break is extended by two weeks. Soon, IU joins a chorus of universities all over the world in announcing that campus will not reopen until fall; the show is canceled. The only complete version of this particular production was filmed during the final rehearsal by our camera crew, led by Ethan Gill.
In one particularly moving scene that gives me chills every time, Terry LaBolt, musical director of the Musical Theatre Program, sings to the cast: “Where has the time gone to … haven’t done half the things we want to — oh well, we’ll catch up some other time,” over scenes of Broderick hugging his cast mates and friends goodbye. “Every problem is an opportunity,” Broderick says, as he walks out of the theater building for what ends up being the last time in 2020, gesturing to the cast and his instructors. “As Terry LaBolt likes to say.”
How to tune in
To participate in the free “IU 2020” screening on Tuesday, December 8, at 7 p.m., register for the Zoom webinar to receive a link through which you will join the event. The Zoom link is where you’ll join an interactive introduction with the director and a Q&A following the three short films. Following the intro, an instruction slide will provide a web link address where you will watch the films on a separate browser in your own time and a countdown clock to the post-film Q&A.
These are all 12 students featured in “IU 2020” (click on their names to read their profile): Yash Aragarwala, Broderick Balsley, Neha Bhasin, Spencer Biery, Courtland Crenshaw, Doña Eliassaint, Jayla French, Kendall Gibson, Emily Leung, Grace Liu, Kendall Riley, Aidan Whelan.