A Love Letter to IWU
Story by Chris Francis
After a summer of storytelling about what makes Illinois Wesleyan a unique gem of higher education, IWU will soon be streaming on Amazon!
Illinois Wesleyan’s Director of Marketing Andy Kreiss ’86 and Dean of Admissions Kasey Evans ’12 don’t know how they ended up on the email list of television producer Beth Cohen, but, when their inboxes received promotional materials for the Amazon Prime series The College Tour in the spring of 2022, the same idea percolated in both of their brains.
The show had been going for about a year and a half by then, and its team had already profiled 46 colleges and universities in a series of beautifully shot, professionally produced, enthusiastically presented episodes that expressed a unique affection for the schools they featured. Taking the time to at least inquire was an obvious decision that Andy and Kasey came to on the same day.
“Beth must have wondered if we even talk to each other, but it was one of those things we knew we had to look into. It just looked too good to pass up,” Andy said. Two months later, the Illinois Wesleyan campus would turn into a film set as The College Tour went to work sharing the university with the world.
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The College Tour series began as a pandemic-era innovation. Series host Alex Boylan, a TV producer whose career was launched as a contestant on The Amazing Race, was initially inspired by watching his niece go through the college search process shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic. After the pandemic hit, suddenly all college and university campuses were closed to the world, and the only way for students to learn about where they might want to go for their bachelor’s degree was through online resources.
The question then became, which colleges had invested in online features that could effectively replace the on-campus tour in a time when that was no longer an option? The answers were inconsistent, and Alex realized the value there would be in a dedicated streaming series that brought the same professional attention and care to simulating the college tour experience at each campus.
By the end of 2020, The College Tour series began with a profile of Fort Lewis College, a small liberal arts college in Durango, Colorado, that could be viewed for free on Amazon Prime Video.
The College Tour had proven itself. They could make high quality virtual tours with unique and inspiring interviews, useful facts and statistics and beautiful campus tableaus. And when the IWU admissions and marketing teams spoke with Beth about featuring the Illinois Wesleyan campus, it was a no-brainer.
“The trick was we had to do it now,” Andy said.
The College Tour was already filming for its next season to air in fall 2022, and interest had only grown since 2020. If Illinois Wesleyan was going to be a school featured that season, they would need to sign the contract that spring and film everything in one week in the summer. That made the IWU team pause.
“We told them that this isn’t really a university where we have a lot of students on campus over the summer,” Kasey said.
“But they reassured us that that wouldn’t be a problem at all,” Andy said. “In fact, they preferred filming at schools over the summer since it makes it easier to get access to all the interesting places on campus. Really, they had an answer for everything.”
And every question would have to be answered in the seven weeks that The College Tour team and the IWU staff had between the day the decision was made and the day filming began.
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The most important question would be, which of all the amazing Illinois Wesleyan students would be featured in the show?
The College Tour format centers each episode around the personal stories of a handful of current students whose experiences exemplify life on campus and the value each school provides for them. The toughest part is deciding which stories to use.
Illinois Wesleyan is a place where the administration, faculty and staff know their students. So the admissions and marketing people knew that there was no shortage of students to ask if they would be willing to share their stories of discovering passions and overcoming obstacles and flourishing on campus. But it wouldn’t be so straightforward.
“The tricky thing is that you can only use so many, and you have to use stories that show different parts of what makes Wesleyan great.” Kasey said. On top of that, all of the featured students would have to be available for the one week of filming during the summer when, again, almost all of them were gone for the break.
So they opened the opportunity to the whole student body. Emails went out inviting anyone who was interested in sharing their story (and available to do so) to submit a two-minute video audition sharing why they chose Illinois Wesleyan, what they had gained from their time as a student and what they would want to tell someone thinking about making Illinois Wesleyan their alma mater.
“I have experience with that two-way conversation with people telling them what makes the school what it is and what makes it so special,” said featured student and theatre major Ethan Smith ’23 in his audition video. “I went all over the country, and I got into schools all over the country, but none of them had the combination of personalities and driven, motivated artists, as well as just good people, that Wesleyan did.”
“All of the submissions were great. It was so inspiring seeing how creative and impressive our students are,” Andy said. He wishes they could have all been in the episode, but they had to choose a group of 10 students whose stories could each showcase a unique aspect of life on campus.
For one featured student, Josh Reed ’24, the audition was a well-trodden hobby. Ever since high school Josh had loved theater, film and technology, and he had completed several of his own video projects. Making a unique production for his audition would just be another fun challenge, so Josh began writing a script.
“I got a couple of friends to join me, and we had fun with it. It was kind of campy and sarcastic, and I thought it would be something interesting and unique,” Josh said.
For other students, the idea grew on them more slowly.
“I initially didn’t think about submitting my story or potentially starring in the episode. But after looking back at my freshman year through photos and souvenirs, I wanted to represent the community I had met and developed connections with on campus,” said Bea Manlapaz ’25, who came to IWU from the Philippines. “I wanted to provide a perspective as an international student and as someone very involved with cultural clubs.”
The process of choosing students from all the inspiring auditions was excruciating, but the IWU team was on the clock. Decisions had to be made, so they chose their 10 students who would represent the school in The College Tour series, and the campus got ready to film.
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When the film crew came, it was small, tight and efficient, and they came with a plan to get the most out of campus in the one week they had.
As small as they were, only having about five crew members on any filming day, “it was big in ways I wasn’t expecting,” Josh said. He could appreciate the quality equipment and the sharpened skill the team had after featuring dozens of previous schools.
But the IWU staff made sure that one of the most impressive subjects of the episode was the campus itself.
“Everyone came together to make it happen. Especially the grounds crew and physical plant. They were so dedicated to making the campus as beautiful as possible, and they absolutely did it,” Andy said. “I think campus has looked better than ever this year because of what they did this summer. Really, everyone came together. Everyone on campus willingly said ‘yes’ and helped make it work.”
Andy and Kasey’s concern was never whether the grounds would look beautiful, though. They had worried that it would look like a beautiful summer ghost town. But that’s where the film crew and IWU staff got creative.
Sami Curtis ’24 was one of the students who auditioned for The College Tour’s episode but wasn’t among the 10 to be featured. But, as a student worker with conference services that summer, she found herself, along with her summer roommate and coworker Nora Robinson ’24, in more of the episode than she might have been otherwise.
“It happened to be a week that we could be spared from the office, so Sami asked me if I would be an extra on set,” Nora said, and they were extras for most of the week of filming.
Using subtle costume changes, Sami and Nora, along with other students, staff, administration and even film crew members, snuck into the background and B roll to help the summer campus feel more populated.
“If you were on campus, you had to hide from us to not be in this show,” said Andy, who impersonated a professor counseling a student.
“It got to the point that they needed to tell us to not come because they had used us too much,” Sami said. But being present for as much of the filming process as they were gave them a unique perspective on the production.
“We got to meet a lot of new people and find out about the interesting things they’ve been doing at school. And we got to see how the [featured students’] stories represented other stories on campus that didn’t get to be told” Nora said.
Even the filming of the episode itself achieved the series’ goal as Sami and Nora got an opportunity to explore a campus that they had barely been able to use since they started as first-year students in fall 2020 during the height of the pandemic.
“The whole process really made us fall in love with Illinois Wesleyan all over again. We got to rediscover why we chose to come here and why we still love campus so much,” Kasey said.
“Our episode isn't just for prospective students, though,” Andy said. “We hope that the alums who see this will fall in love with IWU again too, and that they will use this show to tell anyone they know who is thinking about college why this is a fantastic place to learn and grow.”
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On one of the filming days, Andy and Kasey were having lunch with the host and one of the producers on set, Lisa Hennessey. They were discussing the series and its vision.
“Lisa started to tear up when she was talking about it,” Kasey said. “She called the show a ‘love letter to higher education.’”
If The College Tour is a love letter to higher education, it follows that this episode is a love letter to Illinois Wesleyan. As for what’s written in that letter, Andy says, “This is a place where you will be challenged and supported by your professors, where you will make friends among students and faculty and staff, and that will launch you into the world with the confidence of success at your back.”
Josh has his own interpretation: “If you say yes, you can have the richest experience. There’s so much to do here, you just have to pick.”
Alumni can find and share the episode at iwu.edu/collegetour.