On the last day of classes, University of Virginia students filed into Anna Katherine Clay’s “Women and Television” course knowing only that they would be video chatting with an alumna.
A few minutes later, Tina Fey’s grinning face filled the screen, prompting a chorus of surprised gasps.
Seeing the looks on their faces, Clay said, was one of her favorite moments of the semester.
“I wanted to surprise them with a chance to talk to Tina,” she said. “It was a wonderful way to close out the semester.”
Clay, an adjunct professor in UVA’s media studies program, introduced the “Women and Television” course this semester. She worked with the University’s Alumni Association and Development Office to connect her students with Fey and famed journalist and UVA alumna Katie Couric, who video chatted with the class last week.
“They were both so down-to-earth and really wanted to help us,” third-year media studies student Caroline Hockenbury said. “It was so cool to hear from them, because they have been in the same place that we are now.”
Hockenbury, like many of her classmates, is interested in pursuing journalism after graduation. Given more than 40 minutes with both Fey and Couric, the aspiring journalists, broadcasters and writers had plenty of questions.
Students questioned Couric about some of the more difficult stories she has covered, such as reporting from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan or interviews with the victims of the 1999 Columbine shooting.
“I asked her if she ever walked away from certain stories feeling like her words were not enough, because the story was so tragic or so difficult,” fourth-year student Alexis Jones said. “She said that sometimes she did, but that it was always better to try than not to share the story at all. The whole point of journalism is to give a voice to individual people and their stories.”
Fey discussed everything from her writing roles with shows like “Saturday Night Live,” “30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and the film “Mean Girls” to the female television stars who inspire her. She also answered students’ questions about what it was like to be a woman on male-dominated writing staffs or how she bounced back when her work was rejected.
Her advice, of course, was delivered with the wit and humor fans have come to expect.
“Tina is hilarious,” fourth-year student Greta Haupt said. “Both she and Katie Couric really let their personalities shine through, and I was really happy to see that the personalities they portray in television are true to who they are in real life. They were so outgoing and so engaged.”
Clay said talking with Couric, one of the country’s most prominent broadcast journalists, and Fey, a prolific entertainer with experience both in front of and behind the camera, gave students a fairly comprehensive view of the television industry.
“The course has focused on women both on television as well as behind the scenes in writing, directing and production roles,” she said. “Tina has had just about every role you can have in television and film and is also a pretty outspoken feminist, which is great, as we talked a lot about the various waves of feminism since the 1950s and how those waves were portrayed onscreen.”
Clay is not without television experience herself. Before entering academia, she spent 10 years as a writer, reporter and producer for ESPN, writing for many of the sports media giant’s print and online properties and producing video content for shows like “SportsCenter” and “Monday Night Countdown.”
Knowing the importance of having role models and mentors, she has consistently focused on connecting her students – both in this course and in another on sports journalism – with professionals in the field. She wants them to remember that everyone in the field, even megawatt stars like Fey and Couric, was once where they are now – just starting out and ready to go to work.
“Both Tina and Katie had to work their way up, and they both talked about the importance of working hard, taking any project you are given and letting your personality shine through,” Haupt said. “It was really encouraging and exciting to hear that.”