UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Most seniors spend graduation day celebrating their academic achievements by walking across the stage during commencement and spending time with family and friends.
But while most were celebrating on campus, one recent graduate from Penn State's Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications was taking in the Kentucky Derby with behind-the-scenes access.
Katie Rowley, who graduated in May with a degree in journalism, worked as a talent and production assistant/stage manager for NBC Sports at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, on her commencement day. Don’t worry, though, she consulted with her parents and family beforehand.
“My education has always been my priority but as long as I knew I was graduating on time and getting that diploma, that was what mattered to me,” Rowley said. “So, it still allowed me to graduate just like everyone else, but I got to be in the middle of all the action at Churchill Downs and that’s where I knew I’d be happiest. I was definitely happy with my decision.”
The opportunity wasn’t anything new for Rowley. In fact, it was her third time working a horse-racing event for NBC, having traveled to last year’s Belmont Stakes as well as the Breeders’ Cup last fall.
And she still has two more races on the schedule. She’ll head to Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland, for the Preakness Stakes, which takes place May 18. Then, three weeks later, she’ll return to Elmont, New York, for her second Belmont Stakes appearance June 8.
“Horse racing is unlike any other sport. It’s absolutely just a different world,” Rowley said. “It’s almost like an event. There’s so much that goes into it, the outfits, the events beforehand and after, the families that are dedicating their entire lives to this horse and this jockey for 30, 40 years or even more than that. That’s kind of how I’ve fallen in love with it.”
Rowley, who arrived in Kentucky the Monday before the May 4 race, was tasked with being Eddie Olczyk’s assistant. She had previously worked with him at the Breeders’ Cup. Olczyk, a former NHL hockey player whose son played for Penn State’s varsity hockey team, is a horse-racing and hockey analyst for NBC. Rowley ensured Olczyk was ready for all of his live on-camera segments. She made sure the camera person was good to go, the audio was all set and that Olczyk was camera-ready.
During the day of the event, Rowley would help Olczyk and the crew find jockeys to be interviewed following races.
“You just kind of get to be in the middle of all the action during the races, which, especially with a race like the Derby, you can’t beat that,” Rowley said. “It was an amazing experience.”
Rowley had the opportunity to be a part of one of the most memorable Kentucky Derbies in history, with Maximum Security getting disqualified and Country House being named the winner. But, for Rowley and crew, there was no time to waste.
“With the race, it was something that has never happened before with the winner getting disqualified and the second-place horse winning. In those turn of events, you can’t really prepare yourself for that. It’s just kind of, ‘OK, quick turnaround because it is live television,’” Rowley said.
After working the next two races, Rowley will start her professional career in a yearlong postgraduate corporate services internship with the Philadelphia Eagles — an opportunity that came about from networking. Rowley reached out to Brian Napoli, vice president of corporate partnerships for the Eagles, just to connect and pick his brain. One thing led to another and she ended up securing a position.
While she has lived in North Carolina for most of her life, her dad is from Philadelphia and her mom is from New Jersey. Rowley has been a diehard Eagles fan for as long as she can remember.
“That’s why when I received this postgrad internship, it was the dream. It was what I’ve always wanted to do my entire life. My parents say this all the time but I knew the Eagles fight song before I knew my ABCs,” Rowley said. “Seeing this all work out has been a dream for me. I’m so excited for it.”