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Director of production at Nickelodeon and CCU alumna inspires students

January 23, 2020
Michelle Russo speaks with CCU students.Michelle Russo visiting CCU.Michelle Russo presenting to CCU students.

Determination is a thread that weaves itself through each chapter of Michelle Russo's ('08) life. It's not just one goal that motivates Russo, but overlapping objectives that drive her actions and her plans. She modifies her life map as necessary: She might not make it to her dream school at first; she might have to delay realization of a plan for a year or two; she might meet her goal via a different route than she envisioned. Ultimately, however, once Russo has a goal - as a close friend once knowingly quipped - "It's gonna happen."

Russo's principle of determination propelled her first to Coastal Carolina University. From there, it landed her a position in production with Nickelodeon in New York City. Now, it's taking her across the country to establish a new presence for her office in California.

"That determination has always been with me," said Russo. "I just keep pushing until I get what I want."

Russo brought her message of tenacity plus plenty of professional advice to CCU students when she returned to campus for a visit in December 2019. Having been recently promoted to director of production at Nickelodeon, Russo was speaking from experience when she offered guidance and insight to the group of 40 students gathered in the Wall boardroom.

"Just put one foot in front of the other," Russo said. "That's advice a mentor once gave to me, and it helped me in times when I really needed a lift. Take one step, look for an opening, measure your progress. Don't give up on your goals and work hard to get there."

A native of Long Island, N.Y., Russo became interested in CCU after her high school guidance counselor put it on her radar. Though she was accepted right out of high school, her family's economic situation did not allow her to enroll. So, she made a plan: attend another, closer university for two years and transfer to CCU as a junior.

"Unbeknownst to anybody, I kept my grades up, saved money, got back into Coastal, and moved down the next year," Russo told students. "Coming here was one of the best decisions I've ever made."

A communication major and also a cheerleader, Russo gained academic knowledge as well as mentors and friends at CCU who made a permanent impact on her life. Her adviser, Lee Bollinger, former associate professor in the Department of Communication, understood Russo's goals and offered direction toward classes and experiences that would support them.

"Dr. Bollinger knew what my passions were, and she knew the path I wanted to take," said Russo. "The classes were great. I really learned a lot about communication and theater and production, and even though there was no major or minor in production, there were some classes, and everything I learned there translated into my personal career later on."

Russo's impressive career has had its share of fits and starts, including one layoff that hindered her professional progress and one internship that made her feel exploited. From those experiences, Russo learned two key lessons that she delivered to students.

"You're not too good for any job," said Russo.

When she was laid off from a job as production assistant with TV Land in 2008, Russo was forced to sublet her NYC apartment, move back home with her parents, and take a job in an auto body shop.

"It was a paycheck," said Russo. "And in the meantime, I was applying to other jobs in my field. It was work, and it got me, eventually, where I wanted to go."

However, Russo explained, young professionals should be wary when they take a job or an internship that does not offer the experience or skills training promised.

"I had one internship in which the description didn't match the work I was doing," said Russo. "At that point, I knew there was a line that was being crossed, and I was being taken advantage of. It was time to leave."

Russo's work with Nickelodeon spans nine years and several rungs on the professional ladder including production assistant, associate producer, producer, supervising producer, and director of production. She writes and produces short-form pieces including "Sizzle Reels" and trailers for corporate social events; edits video and audio clip reels and short-form content; and vets, interviews, hires, and trains interns and new team members. In that final role, Russo had more advice for CCU undergraduates.

"In an interview, be prepared," Russo said. "Have ready examples of achievements, things you've succeeded in. Also, know what your goals are, the kind of work you want to do, and be ready to talk about a time you've failed. Finally, I want students who have a passion. And that passion doesn't necessarily have to be for production or for creative writing. But have a passion for something - something you're intensely interested in and focused on."

Students at Russo's presentation said they were able to identify with elements of her story, and knowing she was ultimately able to achieve her goals is inspirational.

"It came at such a great time because I'm feeling a little overwhelmed with school," said Alexandria Burgohy, a communication major with a minor in marketing. "It is my senior year, and sometimes I just want to quit, but I didn't come this far to do that. Hearing what she dealt with and how she kept going and fighting for what she wanted - I definitely needed to hear that." Emily Thorpe, senior communication major with a concentration in public relations, said having a mentor on campus who shares her own enthusiasm for CCU was useful.

"I love Coastal, and I love seeing alumni doing great. It's nice to have role models to offer us advice," said Thorpe.

The upcoming chapter of Russo's career represents the realization of yet another long-term goal.

"I always wanted to end up on the West Coast, so I was determined to make that happen," said Russo. "I travel out to California a couple of times a month, and I knew starting a branch of our office out there would be good for me and also good for our department. So, I wrote up a pitch plan and pitched it to my boss. He pitched it to his boss, and it went on up the chain. I made sure that I followed up and went through the right steps to get there, and eventually, it was approved."

When she makes the move in the next couple of months, Russo will undoubtedly develop new goals. And when she does, the world can rest assured that one way or another, she'll make them happen.